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Republican governor candidates dish it out at forum

Six Republican candidates for governor spoke Friday at a forum sponsored by the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. The candidates are Matt Dean (left), Keith Downey, Mary Giuliani Stephens, Jeff Johnson, David Osmek and Phillip Parrish. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER—Six Republican Party candidates for governor spoke in front of a standing-room-only audience Friday, and many of them echoed President Donald Trump in their remarks to fellow Republicans.

Matt Dean, Keith Downey, Jeff Johnson, Phillip Parrish, David Osmek and Mary Giuliani Stephens all got the chance to introduce themselves early in the GOP primary season to an audience in a county where more than 62 percent of voters supported Trump.

The Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce put on the event at Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter, so the questions posed by Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Bill Blazar focused on economic issues.

The candidates first gave 90-second introductions to the audience.

Dean, a legislator, prompted them to think about the golden quadriga sculpture titled "The Progress of the State" on the state Capitol building symbolizing agriculture and industry, the sources of prosperity. He then seemingly took a dig at Gov. Mark Dayton's environment policy, which Republicans have criticized as overzealous.

"We need a governor that ... doesn't have to choose between clean water and prosperity," he said.

Downey, former state GOP chair, led with his "Make America Great Again"-esque slogan, "Make Minnesota Work for Everyone."

"People have this sense around this state that government is coming at them, not from them anymore," Downey said.

Stephens said she was diverting from her prepared remarks to say she had experience as Woodbury mayor working with businesses.

"The chamber has grown, our businesses have grown," she said.

Johnson said although he served on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, he was running to take power away from government.

"We're going to change the attitude, the culture in government ... to actually serving the people and the entrepreneurs who pay our salaries," he said. "If there's a government employee who can't buy into that, who can't get on board with that, they're not going to survive the Johnson administration."

Osmek, another legislator, admitted compromise was not necessarily a bad word, but cautioned against too much compromise.

"There are times where there is not going to be compromise, because we as a party have compromised too much, too often, too soon," he said.

Parrish, an intelligence officer with the U.S. Navy Reserve, cast himself as an outsider who would tackle bureaucracy.

"I'm going to find out where the waste, fraud and abuse is," he said.

'Government pays people not to work'

Blazar asked what the state should do to address the labor shortage in Minnesota.

Parrish pointed out state demographers mysteriously could not find well-educated people among the Minnesotan population despite millions being spent on education.

"You're telling me the demographer can't find workers?" Parrish said.

The labor shortage was due to the stigma against community colleges and tech schools, Osmek said.

According to Johnson, the gap was because of a "training deficit" but he agreed with Osmek about the perils of stigmatizing education routes other than the four-year college.

"We should be so proud of these kids who make that choice," he said of kids who explored alternative routes.

Stephens said it was necessary to provide more options, including tech training in high school.

She gave a shout out to a Brainerd Lakes Chamber program called Bridges Career Academies & Workplace Connection.

As Downey saw it, the public sector was crowding out the private, with people leaving due to excessive regulation.

"That is a deficit that is caused by the economic policies of the Democrats and the Dayton administration," he said.

Dean said he recently finished a tour of all 87 counties, and the most common issues voters told him about were workforce and health care. They are competing not just with other businesses, but with the government welfare programs, Dean said.

"We have a government that ... pays people not to work," he said.

He also said Minnesota workers were competing with undocumented immigrants, which deflated wages.

"It's unfair competition for people who live here, and people who were born here, and people who follow the rules," Dean said.

Health care conundrum

Another prompt from Blazar asked what could be done to make health insurance more affordable to business and those in the individual market.

A solution was to repeal MNsure, Downey said. His plan would give people vouchers instead of direct government health insurance, he said.

Stephens pointed out Obamacare could not be repealed at the state level, as it was a federal law.

"The individual has to be the primary decisionmaker in their health care," she said.

Johnson suggested an interstate compact with other Midwest states like Wisconsin and Iowa to sell insurance over state lines.

The state should encourage millennials to use health care savings accounts, Osmek said: they're transferable between employers.

'Left-wing propaganda' in schools

The forum later moved to audience questions, two of which centered on education: how should government fund education and change failing schools?

Parrish felt the government should stop funding higher education "to the tune of billions of dollars that are wasted on infrastructure and people that never touch a student's life."

Dean said Minnesotans should be on guard against unfunded mandates from the federal government related to education. In addition, they should be wary of changes to the curriculum by "social engineering."

"Our kids are bombarded with non-curriculum stuff that comes home in backpacks and has more to do with politics and social engineering than it (has) to do with civics, math or science," Dean said.

Downey said school choice through vouchers was important. He also advocated Minnesota cut itself off from the federal funding stream and have a governor unafraid to battle the Education Minnesota teachers union.

"They're actually an agent of ... this left-wing propaganda into our schools," Downey said. "It's really sad."

Johnson said the state's philosophy should be one centered not on the welfare of the schools, but of the students themselves.

Osmek said school boards should be empowered to control more in their districts, unlike the situation existing in which the Minnesota Legislature handed down mandates. He gave as an example the 2014 anti-bullying law, which implemented tougher standards to prevent and address bullying in schools and replaced a 37-word existing law. Osmek said the rules against bullying had been sufficient prior to the "bone-headed" Dayton and the Legislature making new ones.

Osmek also decried what he called "importing" students from outside Minnesota to attend its colleges and universities.

"We are focusing far too much on importing kids from other states and other nations as opposed to making sure that we have the opportunity for our kids that are here in Minnesota," he said. "There should be some diversity, but we should be focusing on our kids first."

A similar candidate forum was in the works with the Minnesota DFL, chamber officials said.

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