DULUTH – The six DFLers running in next year's governor's race wooed 900 union activists gathered here Friday, trying to win their valuable backing with promises to protect bargaining rights, pay and pensions for public employees while expanding health care — and to raise taxes if necessary to do so.

The forum sponsored by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was among the first major set pieces in the DFL battle for governor. AFSCME's endorsement will mean money and organizational prowess for whichever candidate earns it. The group's endorsement of Gov. Mark Dayton in 2009 helped propel him into the top tier of a crowded DFL field on his way to winning the nomination.

"There is a war against public employees in this country. I want to lead the fight back against people who don't respect you and don't value you," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who drew the most laughs at the 2½-hour forum with a series of one-liners.

Also on stage were state Reps. Tina Liebling, Erin Murphy and Paul Thissen, State Auditor Rebecca Otto and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Another potential candidate, Attorney General Lori Swanson, is expected to announce her plans soon and was not present.

AFSCME has not announced a timeline for endorsing, but the union is placing a special emphasis on the governor's race. With Dayton retiring after two terms, union leadership fears for its prospects if a Republican wins the race and the GOP retains control of the Legislature. It would likely mean the kinds of sustained attacks launched against public workers in Wisconsin, Iowa and other states.

Just this week, Republicans on a legislative panel rejected contracts that cover 30,000 people who work for the state of Minnesota.

"We have zero tolerance for politicians like Scott Walker, who wanna take away our rights," said AFSCME Council 5 President Judy Wahlberg, referring to the governor of Wisconsin whose policies have crippled public employee unions there. Republican candidates were not invited.

Murphy, who represents a St. Paul House district, vowed to protect the state budgets that pay state workers: "When I'm governor, the budget will stay balanced. If we have to raise taxes, we will do that," she said.

Liebling, from Rochester, touted her progressive values as she rejected any attempt to move the party toward the center: "I've never been middle of the road — the only thing you find there is white lines and skunks," she said.

Otto is also running as an unabashed progressive.

"I am running against a politics of unfettered greed," she said. Asked how she would deal with a bill stripping collective bargaining rights for workers, she offered a one word answer: "Veto."

Thissen reminded the delegates of his time as speaker of the Minnesota House in 2013-14, when the DFL raised taxes on the wealthy and smokers, paid back money owed to school districts, expanded collective bargaining rights for some classes of workers and legalized same-sex marriage.

Walz, who announced Thursday that state Rep. Peggy Flanagan of St. Louis Park will be his running mate, said he was the candidate best positioned to win in November.

"The way we make sure we protect your right to collectively bargain and ensure our way of life is by winning this race," said Walz, who was elected six times in a GOP-leaning congressional district covering southern Minnesota.

The forum's only open conflict came when Thissen accused Walz of backing a federal Veterans Affairs bill that Thissen said would weaken protections for some federal workers — an issue with relevance to the AFSCME crowd.

Walz, a retired command sergeant major in the Army National Guard, chafed under the criticism, replying, "Really?" He said he successfully beat back efforts to privatize veterans services.

"We made a case that was so strong that if you try to privatize these services, there will be hell to pay," Walz said.

Republicans said they were happy to see the DFL candidates working hard to win over the government workers. "Minnesota Democrats had their far left credentials on full display today," said Matt Pagano, executive director of the state Republican Party. He called the DFL field "divided and lurching farther to the left by the day."

The AFSCME delegates themselves were pleased but most seemed to remain undecided.

"Right now, it's still up in the air. I was impressed with all of them," said Jean Diederich, who works at Hennepin County social services and is on the AFSCME executive board that will make the endorsement call.

Rick Neyssen, a corrections officer in St. Cloud, said he will be looking at which candidates are putting together viable campaigns: "We have to see how they move forward — the infrastructure of their campaigns, who can raise the most money, who has people all over the state and can offer a unified message."

J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042