By Ben Ernhart
There was no shortage of contentious moments during the first debate between Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Republican challenger Dr. Scott Jensen. The two gubernatorial candidates went toe-to-toe for the first time during the Minnesota Governor Candidate Forum at Farmfest 2022 Aug. 3.
While agricultural issues were the forum’s focus, Jensen took advantage of having more supporters at the event to attack Walz on other issues. Each speaker was given 90 seconds to answer questions from the forum’s panel and WCCO moderator Blois Olson. Jensen frequently used his time to pivot away from those questions and used his experiences as a family doctor to criticize Walz for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Walz, who was making his 17th appearance at Farmfest, touted that Minnesota had some of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 deaths in the country. Still, Jensen referred to Walz’s response to COVID-19 as copycat measures similar to the ones taken by the states of California and New York.
“There is nothing about our response to COVID, in regards to our seniors, our frail, our elderly, our assisted living, or our nursing homes that would be a model for the United States,” said Jensen responding to a question about helping nursing homes find workers.
“When you look at what happened with them being locked in, that’s not a whole lot different from the students being locked up. It’s not a whole lot different from businesses being locked down,” Jensen continued. “This whole concept of locking down Minnesota just because you think you can, it’s absolutely an abomination of government overreach.”
Many of the panel’s questions focused on the development of rural communities, agricultural regulations, and the relationship between small and corporate farms.
For example, Minnesota Farm Bureau President Dan Glessing of Waverly asked the candidates what steps they would take to support and encourage development in rural communities.
Both candidates acknowledged that expanding broadband connectivity was crucial to developing rural areas, but the debate got particularly heated when Walz responded to an earlier criticism Jensen made about COVID-19 lockdowns.
Before Glessing’s question, Jensen criticized Walz for lockdown measures that incentivized people to not work and “sit on the couch and watch TV.”
Walz gave a passionate response: “what you’ll never hear from your governor is that Minnesotans are lazy.” He would later say in his response, “If you truly believe in the people, invest in our children, invest in our teachers, and don’t you dare call us lazy.”
Jensen said that Walz’s campaign mantra of ‘One Minnesota’ has become “far less a reality and almost an antonym of what we’ve seen.”
Walz responded by referencing the state’s historically low unemployment rate and historically high labor force participation rate. He also pointed to his track record of working across the aisle and compromising on bipartisan issues.
“Compromise is a virtue and not a vise,” said Walz. “Finding workable solutions to move the state forward is what ‘One Minnesota’ means. It doesn’t mean we all agree. It means we work across differences to live the lives that are best for our family.”
Early on, Olson asked the candidates how they would ease the tension between small and large farms and preserve the family farm.
Walz stated that investing in innovation, new products, and creating new export opportunities will ensure that there are opportunities for farms of all sizes, calling it a false argument that it’s family farms versus larger operations.
“We in Minnesota are proving that there’s room for everyone and that the market is going to drive where we go in those solutions,” said Walz.
Jensen responded, “I reject Governor Walz’s comment that this is a false argument between family farms … Over my dead body, will Minnesota ever sell farmland to foreign corporations.”
In general, Jensen argued that government regulation was impeding economic and population growth in rural communities.
“Let farmers farm, let miners mine, let teachers teach, and let the government get the hell out of the way,” said Jensen.
Minnesota FFA Vice President Natalie Beckendorf asked the candidates what steps they would take to support career and technical education to address the labor shortages.
Jensen said he supports more options for students and encourages more emphasis on trade programs, saying that “too many kids are being forced to go to college.” He also mentioned that something should be done about college tuition costs and even suggested capping tuition at the University of Minnesota at $10,000. However, Jensen also made clear that he does not support student loan forgiveness, claiming that it’s unfair to people who pay off their debt.
“We need to be responsible and remember whatever you incentivize, you’ll get more of,” Jensen said.
Walz advocated for investment in the public school system throughout the debate and called for a funding formula that wasn’t as reliant on property taxes. He also emphasized the need for livable wages, as well as health care and child care accessibility and affordability, as ways to encourage workforce participation.
“We work with the trades to show that there are numerous paths to a middle-class education, but one of the things we need to make sure is that we’re paying a living wage,” said Walz.
On the issue of child care, Jensen called for less government regulation, asserting that families want to solve their own problems without the help of the government.
“Honestly, don’t you think the government has enough access to our kids?” Jensen asked the crowd. “I mean, they got K through 12, and now they want universal preschools. I think the government is a big part of the problem when it comes to indoctrinating our kids.”
Beckendorf later asked the candidates if they supported additional funding to hire mental health specialists in Minnesota schools.
Sharing his own experience regarding his brother Bruce’s suicide, Jensen acknowledged that mental health is a serious issue young Minnesotans are facing, calling on policymakers and medical professionals to do a better job. However, Jensen did not say if he supported funding for schools to hire mental health specialists.
Drawing on his experience as a teacher, Walz highlighted that mental health programs at schools like Minneapolis Edison have shown positive outcomes and reiterated the importance of investing in public education.
“This is when we tell our children they matter,” said Walz. “This is why when you hear you’re going to cut funding to schools, you’re cutting money to mental health services, and you’re undermining our students. That’s why we need to fund the programs that are working.”
At several points during the debate, Walz referenced the state’s $9.25 billion budget surplus and $4 billion tax cut plan that wasn’t passed at the end of the last legislative session. Walz expressed his desire to give some of that surplus money back to Minnesotans as a way to combat inflation in the short term. Walz also criticized Jensen, saying that he encouraged Republican legislators to step away from the tax cut deal.
“That’s what is broken about government,” said Walz. “Senate Republicans signed and went in front of the press and agreed to this. All they need to do is pass it, and I’ll sign it today. That’s how this is supposed to work, and there are solutions here.”
Public safety was also briefly touched on at the end of the debate. Jensen opened his closing statement by saying, “We need more cops on the street …There is a poison of lawlessness, and it’s bleeding out all across Minnesota,” he continued.
Jensen criticized Walz’s response to the protests and riots in the Twin Cities after the murder of George Floyd and claimed that the National Guard would have been on the streets sooner if he had been governor at the time.
Standing for the first time in the debate, Walz responded to Jensen’s criticism saying, “Having served 24 years in the National Guard, that’s a lot more experience than watching ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and second-guessing our men and women putting themselves at risk.”
The debate wasn’t completely contentious. Both candidates acknowledged that they had worked together and compromised on issues in the past while Jensen was in the state Senate.
The last question was also fairly lighthearted as Olson asked the candidates their predictions for the upcoming Minnesota Vikings season. Walz said the Vikings would win the division, split the season series with the Packers, and make it to the NFC championship game but would not go further. Jensen predicted that the Vikings would finish second in the division while also referencing that his running mate, Matt Birk, was unable to win a Super Bowl during his career with the Vikings but ultimately won one with the Baltimore Ravens.
As of now, further debates between Walz and Jensen have not been scheduled yet.