Local constituencies have an opportunity to see candidates for the state Legislature up close and personal during this year’s iteration of the Lakeland PBS debates.
Political hopefuls took questions from panelists that represented the three primary pillars of legacy news media: print, radio and broadcast television.
In a series of five virtual debates over two days, sitting state lawmakers and their challengers sparred over a bevy of questions in the lead-up to the Nov. 3 election. The debates were moderated by Gabriel Lagarde, politics reporter with the Brainerd Dispatch; Heidi Holtan, news and public affairs director with KAXE/KBXE radio; and Dennis Weimann, anchor and news director with Lakeland PBS.
In stark contrast to recent national debates, panelists and participants both commented on the substantive, non-confrontational nature of the Lakeland forum. Largely devoid of aggressive dialogue or evasive non-answers, the debates were not only cordial, but far-ranging, with participants tackling hot-button issues like the U.S. Supreme Court and election security, to bread and butter topics like affordable housing, invigorating the local tourism industry and rural broadband. If there was one common thread, it was COVID-19, as the pandemic loomed and factored heavily in every debate.
The debates featured Republican incumbents versus their DFL challengers for Senate District 10 and Senate District 9, as well as House District 9A, House District 10A and House District 10B. For Senate District 10, there was state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, as well as DFL challenger Steve Samuelson of Brainerd. In Senate District 9, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, faced off against DFL challenger A. John Peters of Browersville. In House District 9A, incumbent state Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, faced DFL candidate Alex Hering for a second time. In House District 10A, Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, answered questions alongside DFL challenger Dale Menk, Brainerd, for the second election. And in House District 10B, incumbent state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, argued policy with DFL candidate Gaylene Spolarich, Palisade.
Senate District 9
For Senate District 9, Gazelka and Peters took aim at the issue of mental health, where rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and other illnesses are skyrocketing across the country during COVID-19. Gazelka said this is one of the primary reasons he’s rated Gov. Tim Walz’s response to the pandemic at a C-.
“When you force everybody to shelter at home and lock people up, you’re gonna have problems. When kids are not in public school and having that social interaction, you’re going to have problems and that’s why you see these spikes,” Gazelka said during the virtual debate. “We got to fix that and so we took some steps in the last couple of years. I’m committed and open to more steps that work.”
In turn, Peters pointed to his longtime activism with the National Bipolar Disorder Association. He agreed with Gazelka that the state’s efforts to open crisis centers and expand mental health access to rural residents has to be a main point of focus.
“I've been around mental health issues for a long number of years,” Peters said. “We got to work together — with Republican or Democrats. We need more crisis systems. The pandemic has just exacerbated the problems with mental health because we are having a high suicide and depression (rate).”
Senate District 10
For the Senate District 10 debate, Ruud and Samuelson hashed out possible ways to alleviate pressures on the hospitality industry — a key sector of the economy in a region dominated by resorts, trails, lakes, golf courses and the like, as well as one that’s suffered significantly during the pandemic. Government — whether local, state or federal — needs to take an active role steering local economies through this crisis, both candidates said.
“No matter if you’re busier, or it’s really slow — your taxes are still going to be due every quarter,” Samuelson said. “I think it might be nice to be able to give people, maybe some kind of a break somehow. It’s a very serious question because it employs a lot of people.”
“I think one of the strengths of our community is our chambers of commerce, who have really come together and really put forward a plan for our businesses,” Ruud said in turn. “One of the problems with that is they were not included in the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities) Act money that came to the state and through the federal government.”
House District 9A
Poston and Hering had diverging opinions on whether or not the state of Minnesota should legalize recreational marijuana. While the pro-cannabis movement has gained momentum in recent years, Poston warned that initial results out of Colorado — one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana — were not encouraging.
“We just saw a study from the state of Colorado, where they were one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana and they did it because they thought it was going to create great revenue for the state,” Poston said. “For every million dollars worth of tax revenue there's $11 million worth of unintended consequences. … They went to all the legislators that voted on legalizing marijuana in Colorado and asked them if they were to vote again today, what would be their vote and unanimously their vote was no.”
Hering said there are other considerations than short-term costs incurred by the state.
“I have not seen that particular report. I think what you need to actually look at is how is the public accepting the legalization of recreational marijuana and also the increased access for medical marijuana supplies — that is a huge concern for folks that do receive medical marijuana now is the cost.”
House District 10B
During the House District 10B debate, the issue of tribal government and representation for Indigenous communities became something of a sticking point between Lueck and Spolarich — herself, an Indigenous woman with experience in tribal and local government. Spolarich said tribal communities need more of a voice in state government. Lueck said her portrayal of the situation was inaccurate.
“I do believe that the state currently is supporting tribal rights and their sovereignty now that we have a lieutenant governor who clearly understands what has been working and what has not,” said Spolarich, speaking of Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. “We need tribal representation at the Capitol and we don’t have that. That’s another reason why they need a voice that can speak to tribal relations and what it’s like working in those government systems.”
Lueck pointed to a track record pushing for bills to beef up tribal school funding, increase protections for Indigenous women, grants for health care, and other pieces of legislation specifically tailored and intended to serve Native Americans.
“I would take immediate umbrage to the concept that we don't have tribal government represented in St. Paul,” Lueck said. “I work with (Mille Lacs Band Executive) Melanie Benjamin at every opportunity to make sure that we do the right things for everybody in the district. This is one district and I look at it as one Minnesota, not two different groups of people.”
House District 10A
Discussions ramped up a bit in intensity when Menk and Heintzeman addressed the issue of law enforcement and racial justice. Both candidates were sharply opposed in their interpretation of social unrest over the summer and took their disagreements from these issues into notions of Judeo-Christian values and separation of church and state.
“This governor refused to act and to blame law enforcement as a whole is insanity,” Heintzeman said. “Democrats are trying to figure out how to go after police as the problem, while letting looters and rioters burn cities to the ground. ... What we’re really dealing with are matters of the heart. And when people are told how to think and how to behave by a government that’s really getting complicated.”
Menk disagreed with assertions that DFLers are anti-law enforcement, stating that calls for reform and institutional improvements are not the same as undermining the rule of law.
“We have to realize it’s a symptom of a much bigger problem,” Menk said. “It’s a symptom of long-standing systemic inequities in our justice system. This isn’t something new. This is something that people have been talking about for decades. And it’s been easy to ignore, because it’s been in the background.”