– Local leaders from across greater Minnesota listened closely Thursday as gubernatorial candidates presented plans to tackle their cities’ most pressing needs, including dwindling state aid and a shortage of workers and child-care providers.

Three of the five major candidates in the governor’s race participated, addressing the idea of a rural-urban divide — and what unites the state — at a forum in Mankato.

DFL-endorsed candidate and state Rep. Erin Murphy, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz are in a heated battle to be the DFL’s pick in the Aug. 14 primary election. On the Republican side, Hennepin County Commissioner and GOP endorsee Jeff Johnson is competing with former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Swanson and Pawlenty did not attend.

“What can they do for the greater area in Minnesota? That’s what I’d like to see,” Janice Sheets, an Eden Valley City Council member, said before the event. “They’re just deadlocked all the time. They need to work together.”

Elected officials and staff from many Minnesota cities gathered in Mankato this week for a conference that included the forum. City officials are interested in how candidates would govern, said Bradley Peterson, executive director of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, one of three organizations that hosted the debate.

“You have what is clearly a pretty negative atmosphere between the current governor and Legislature,” Peterson said, referring to disagreements between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the GOP-dominated House and Senate. This year Dayton vetoed much of the work of the legislative session after lawmakers sent him a massive bill that included dozens of items he objected to.

People want a candidate who can bring people together to solve problems, Peterson said. Those problems range from aging water treatment systems to the lack of child care, he said.

Earlier in the day, Walz announced a plan he called “One Minnesota” to boost funding for transportation, affordable housing and Local Government Aid, as well as invest $300 million in high-speed internet access by expanding broadband service. The plan includes providing block grants funded mostly by the state to cities and neighborhoods to boost economic development. Walz had no cost estimate for his plan, but he said it probably would take raising taxes and that he would support a gas tax increase.

Event moderator Marvin Rhodes, general manager of KEYC News 12, told the attendees that in Mankato and elsewhere people feel forgotten by the state government, noting that funding for metro-area transit is a particularly divisive.

Both Walz and Murphy said transit and transportation projects across the state are important and additional funding is needed. Johnson said he would not support a gas tax increase, but would devote more bonding dollars to local roads.

Walz, a Mankato resident and former Mankato West High School teacher and coach, drew a large showing of supporters.

Before the forum, Mankato resident Kyle Good said the area is Walz territory but that he likes Murphy’s progressive policies. But she hasn’t done a great job getting her message out to the community where he lives, he said.

If elected, Murphy said she would create eight regional offices dotted across the state. “It’s time to pull us back together again,” she said.

Johnson repeatedly drew a contrast between himself and the two DFLers at the forum on spending, which he wants to rein in. He also said he has been hearing frustrations from outstate, particularly on overregulation.

“Government needs to back off a little bit,” he said, when it comes to regulating in-home child care providers. Environmental regulators are also taking actions that are “over the top,” he said.

The three candidates said Minnesota needs to expand access to broadband internet. Johnson said it is critical to ensure Minnesota businesses can compete. Murphy released a plan Wednesday to collect sales tax from some online retailers outside Minnesota to invest in extending broadband access to all residents by 2026.

Swanson and Walz are neck-and-neck, according to a poll released Thursday by NBC and Marist. It found 28 percent of likely Democrat voters favored Swanson, 27 percent Walz and 13 percent Murphy. On the GOP side, Pawlenty had a strong lead over Johnson. But the poll found more people would support Walz or Swanson if they were in head-to-head matchups with Pawlenty.

Swanson’s campaign said she could not attend the debate because her mother had a health emergency. The Pawlenty campaign said that a previously scheduled commitment prevented him from participating, but he will take part in upcoming events on MPR, KSTP-TV and at Farmfest in Morgan, Minn.


Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.