The first face-to-face between Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and his GOP challenger Scott Jensen was completely lacking in sports metaphors, a surprise given that the two are prone to posing with footballs the way other politicians pose with babies.
But a toss-off question at the end of the exchange in a pole barn at Farmfest – a prediction of how well the Vikings would do this season – led Jensen to, inadvertently perhaps, summarize the event.
“I think Gov. Walz would say the same thing: When we’re up here it’s fun to be on offense, not on defense,” Jensen said. For the previous nearly 90 minutes, the Chaska family doctor pounded Walz for what he said were the failures of the last four years.
“His program of ‘One Minnesota’ has become far less a reality and almost an antonym of what we’ve seen,” Jensen said in his first answer. (Listen to a recording of the forum here.)
“Compromise is a virtue, not a vice,” Walz responded.
Farmfest has become the traditional first forum of state governor races, with candidates dressing down and touting their agricultural bona fides, often by citing the most-recent relative who worked the land. Walz joked to a state FFA officer that he would have worn his FFA jacket, but it no longer fits. Jensen grew up just down the highway in Sleepy Eye.
Walz’s first campaign appearance here as a gubernatorial candidate in 2018 was with four other candidates with no incumbent on the stage. That changed Wednesday, and it wasn’t exactly Walz’s crowd. His campaign did bring a few dozen workers and supporters wearing gold campaign T-shirts. And the Minnesota Farmers Union, with a booth just across the path from the forum, tends toward DFL positions. But many of the attendees who overfilled the building leaned toward Jensen, at least based on the applause. A small group of vaccine doubters jeered every Walz mention of the pandemic.
Walz, a former congressman from a Greater Minnesota district, was making his 17th appearance at the agricultural trade show and didn’t shy away from responding to criticisms from Jensen, the GOP-endorsed candidate, who took advantage of a mostly supportive audience.
When Walz touted low unemployment, Jensen talked about inflation. When Walz said there was a place for both large corporate farms and family farms, Jensen said the purchase of agricultural land by foreign corporations would happen “over my dead body,” though state law already bars such purchases. When Walz said the state’s COVID outcomes were better than for many other states, Jensen lamented the high death counts in long-term care facilities.
“When you look at them being locked in, that’s not a whole lot different than students being locked out and not a whole lot different from businesses being locked down,” Jensen said. “This whole concept of locking down Minnesota is absolutely an abomination of government overreach.”
Jensen received strong applause when he criticized the clean car rule, a Walz regulation aimed at reducing tailpipe emissions and requiring car makers to offer more electric vehicles for sale. After Walz touted his efforts to increase ethanol production, Jensen said he was confused because Walz had once also touted nuclear power.
“If biofuels are the future, then why did Gov. Walz try to be a California copycat?” Jensen said.
Walz went after Jensen as well, accusing him of seeing only negative statistics and neglecting the positive numbers.
“If you’re rooting against Minnesota being at the top, having the strongest state finances and the lowest unemployment … if you’re rooting to see failure, that’s what you’re going to get,” Walz said. “But it’s not the job we’re applying for.”
At one point, Jensen said the early pandemic response that kept many workers at home and increased jobless pay to compensate them was an incentive “to sit on the couch and watch TV.”
Walz responded with some anger. “What you’ll never hear from your governor is that Minnesotans are lazy, sitting on their couches while we watched 13,000 of our neighbors die,” Walz said.
“Instead of bringing false information, be part of the solution. If you truly believe in our people, invest in our children, invest in our teachers, and don’t you dare call us lazy.”
Walz blamed Jensen’s no-new-spending rhetoric for the failure of the budget and tax compromise at the Legislature and noted that tax cuts and spending on public schools and public safety were victims of the impasse.
Farm policy was a major topic of the forum, and the candidates competed to show their support for development in rural towns, building out broadband networks, promoting foreign markets for Minnesota products and responding to pathogens such as bird flu outbreaks. Jensen accused Walz of presiding over environmental regulations that burden farmers, while Walz said Jensen appeared to oppose all government regulation.
“It’s relatively simple. Let farmers farm, let miners mine, let teachers teach, and let government get the hell out of the way,” Jensen said.
Walz said lessons learned from the 2015 bird flu infestation that resulted in the destruction of 9 million turkeys allowed the state to respond better to this year’s outbreak that ended with just 3 million bird deaths.
“You need government when something this big happens,” Walz said.
The forum never mentioned abortion and barely touched on public safety, with Jensen citing “a poison of lawlessness that is bleeding out across Minnesota” in his closing statement. Yet a lot of time was spent on the pandemic: Walz’s response, Jensen’s criticism of that response and Jensen’s role as a questioner of the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jensen said he questioned the government’s push for certain medical responses and its opposition to doctors trying other responses. Jensen promoted the use of ivermectin, an antiparasitic drug that has since been found to have not reduced the severity of infections. He has criticized state medical practice board members for investigating complaints about his promotion of unproven responses.
“We had cases in Hennepin County and none in other counties, and yet it was one-size-fits-all in locking everything down,” Jensen said, leading many to “feel they were subjects under an emperor.
“We weren’t following the science. We were making it up as we went along,” Jensen said.
Responded Walz: “It’s wishful thinking that you can hope that COVID wasn’t real and you can take ivermectin and whatever. But that’s not where the facts are. As governor, you have to do that.”
Jensen accused Walz of freezing during the 2020 riots and how he would have sent the National Guard into Minneapolis and St. Paul sooner. Without responding directly, Walz defended the performance of the guard and state police during the riots.
“I served 24 years in the National Guard,” Walz said while standing for the first time in the forum. “That’s a lot more experience than watching ‘Top Gun Maverick’ and second guessing while our men and women are facing gunshots. They performed historically and they performed heroically.”
Future debates and forums, not yet scheduled, will likely be held in the Twin Cities area with a different audience and different issues on display.
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost. Follow him on Twitter or email him at pcallaghan(at)minnpost(dot)com.
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