A relatively gentlemanly race for Congress in the southern suburbs heated up in the second debate.
The genial calm of Second District Congressman John Kline's first debate with his DFL challenger earlier this month vanished Thursday in their fourth and last encounter, nearly replaced by hand-to-hand combat between two military veterans.
In the debate, and in dueling e-mails and interviews for hours afterward, the men and their aides went at it with remarkable intensity for a race that few consider as close as those in the western and northern suburbs.
"Your accusation is patently false," Kline told Steve Sarvi upon being accused of voting "present" on a bill to help veterans that he often mentions championing. "I can't imagine where you're getting this stuff. Who does your research? It's simply not true."
Sarvi aides fired off a news release shortly thereafter, giving the exact page numbers in the Congressional Record. But Kline aides still branded it phony, saying scads of people voted that way and not for the reason Sarvi claims.
The Second District takes in the southern suburbs and much of the rural area between the Twin Cities, Rochester and Mankato. The Republican Kline, a retired Marine Corps colonel, has represented the district since 2002. Sarvi is an Iraq War veteran, though the war has turned out to play only a small role in this race.
Sarvi increasingly has been stressing Kline's decision to stop seeking so-called "earmarks" for major transportation projects in a heavily commuter district in which local officials often look to their own members of Congress for financial support. Kline condemns the earmark system as corrupt.
Sarvi called a news conference on the subject a few days ago featuring fellow Democrat Jim Oberstar, the Minnesota congressman from northeastern Minnesota who chairs the transportation committee in the House. And he named transportation at the tipoff of Thursday's debate as one of two issues he wanted to be sure to cover.
Kline responded by saying he wanted to be certain to talk about Sarvi's position on a bill many Republicans are stressing this fall, one that they say would take away a worker's right to a secret ballot in union organizing elections.
He stayed on the offensive, asserting that it was "dishonest" of Sarvi to go after Kline on his vote in favor of the Wall Street bailout bill when Sarvi has said that he would have voted for it himself.
Here's how the most contentious issues played out:
• The claim that Kline voted "present" on a bill he championed:
Sarvi drew high indignation when claiming that Kline, who often points to his success in helping take Minnesota's "yellow ribbon" post-war assistance program for veterans to a national level, actually couldn't bring himself to vote to fund that program, voting "present" instead. It's part of a broader Sarvi theme: that Kline is an extreme fiscal conservative, even when money is plainly needed.
But Kline spokesman Troy Young said afterward that it's actually part of another theme, that of Sarvi's frequent use of facts in misleading ways. In this case, he said, essentially all Republicans voted "present" because the broader bill at stake was a war funding measure that included a timeline for withdrawal. It wasn't aimed at yellow-ribbon funding. In due course, he said, Kline supported the program's funding, and it has been.
• The claim of Sarvi's dishonesty on the bailout bill:
Kline said that public radio is reporting that "my opponent is attacking me for voting for the $700 billion rescue package," when in fact Sarvi himself has said that he would have voted for it. That, he said, is a "tad dishonest."
Sarvi spokeswoman Bridget Cusick said that Sarvi has never sought to conceal his position on that bill, which has caused serious consternation among some Kline supporters in his district. The main point of the attack, she said, is that Kline over the years has accepted $783,000 in campaign contributions from people in the financial industry, and then took a vote they favored -- along with, she said, other votes over the years.
Said Young: "Our point is, it's dishonest to attack Kline for supporting a bill that Mr. Sarvi supports. We accept the number but that's a small fraction of his contributions, less than the proportion of Mr. Sarvi's that come from big labor bosses, which explains his support for 'card check,'" the issue over open votes in labor organizing. "If we were bought off, what about Mr. Sarvi?"
Cusick agreed that labor has provided a major piece of Sarvi's support, but said it's not about labor bosses. "Labor unions represent working people, the middle class, people who want their voices heard."
David Peterson • 952-882-9023