DFLers sharpen tongues in final primary debate

The DFL candidates attacked each other's ideas during the run-up to Tuesday's primary, but also took whacks at those of Republican Tom Emmer.


Moderator Gary Eichten, left, listened as Mark Dayton, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza debate.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Using a St. Paul theater as their courtroom and Minnesota voters as the jury, DFL candidates for governor Sunday made their closing arguments.

In a debate sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio, Mark Dayton, Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Matt Entenza shared a stage for the last time before Tuesday's primary.

In what is expected to be a low-turnout election, where perhaps as few as 250,000 DFLers will cast ballots, any of the three could use the extra boost a debate success might give them. None risked unveiling new attacks, but each sharpened their message to appeal to any last-minute deciders.

Kelliher and Entenza also worked to dig into the lead Dayton appears to have according to public opinion polls.

The two went after Dayton's tax proposal, which would raise about $4 billion and increase taxes on those he calls "wealthy." All three candidates would hike taxes to solve the coming $6 billion deficit, but Dayton's proposal would raise them the most.

"I don't think we can go to be the highest tax rate in the country," said Kelliher, speaker of the Minnesota House. Added Entenza, a former House minority leader, "We're not going to be able to succeed" if Minnesota raises taxes as much as Dayton wants.

But Dayton, who has run multiple statewide races and won two, held his own. When Kelliher, the party's endorsed candidate, said Dayton would raise taxes on a middle-class couple with a police officer's and nurse's salary, the former U.S. senator shot back:

"It is simply not true, Margaret," Dayton said. By his numbers, the couple's joint salaries would be about $30,000 less than the level of income he would tax, he said. Kelliher's campaign disputes that.

In fact, they're both right, depending on the nurse's position. His tax proposal would increase income taxes on couples making more than $150,000 a year. According to Salary.com, the average Minnesota police officer's income is between $44,000 and $63,000 a year. Some nursing positions generate enough income, on average, to make the hypothetical couple subject to the higher taxes, while others don't.

In Sunday's debate, as they have throughout the campaign, the candidates kept their differences to policy matters and their digs at each other oblique.

Kelliher, for instance, continued her line that "I don't quit." It's a subtle reference to both of her rivals. Dayton left the U.S. Senate after one term and Entenza left the Minnesota House to run for attorney general, then quit that race in a controversy over opposition research he authorized.

The candidates, who pledged to support whoever wins Tuesday, have largely avoided damaging each other because they share a common enemy: Republican-endorsed candidate Tom Emmer.

Each of the three candidates took whacks at Emmer, and Dayton underscored their commonality when he had a chance to ask a question of Kelliher.

He teed up a round of Emmer-bashing by asking Kelliher if she knew why Emmer opposed the Legacy Amendment, which funds water, outdoor resources and the arts, and why Emmer didn't mention it at a rural issues debate last week. It was an easy answer for Kelliher.

Harder is the fight ahead for whichever candidate comes out of the Tuesday primary.

As a questioner from the audience noted: "Minnesota hasn't put a Democrat in the governor's office for the last 24 years."

The question: "What has the DFL done wrong ... and what's going to be different this time?"

Each used their answer to play to their strengths: Dayton's past statewide victories, Kelliher's legislative experience and party endorsement, and Entenza's willingness to buck DFL tradition.

"I've won statewide elections by running as a Democrat, unabashedly," said Dayton, who didn't vie for the DFL endorsement. "I'll be the one person who will make taxes progressive again."

Kelliher said she knows how to bring people together from all over the state.

"You need a governor who is going to deliver for you and I will do that and we will win," she said.

Entenza, who ran for the DFL endorsement but made it clear he'd run in a primary anyway, underscored the question.

"The record of futility is great and the cost to our state has been huge," Entenza said. He said Democrats "need to be focused and we need to be clear" on issues to ensure victory.

All three promised they could lead the party to success -- but first one has to win on Tuesday.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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