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DFL Senate Candidates Hold First Debate
by Brent Wolfe
January 19, 2000
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The five major announced DFL candidates seeking to unseat Republican Senator Rod Grams met for their first debate in Mankato. The candidates sought to distinguish themselves from one another but the task was complicated by their frequent agreement on the issues. Most of their harshest criticisms were directed at Senator Grams rather than each other.
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TRIAL LAWYER Michael Ciresi, former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, state senators Steve Kelley and Jerry Janezich, and U of M physician Steven Miles tackled taxes, foreign policy, and social issues in a mostly-friendly encounter on the campus of Bethany Lutheran College. The five Democrats were united in their opposition to using projected federal budget surpluses for tax cuts. State Senator Jerry Janezich called the Republican proposal favored by Rod Grams, "nuts."
Janezich: My mom and dad, 82 and 78, every, every year worrying about Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. That's insane. That should be taken care of and it should be done now. We have, nationwide and Minnesota, a housing shortage - big, big. Before you start giving money back and cutting taxes, you take care of the promises we've made to our people and you deliver on 'em.
Attorney Michael Ciresi questioned whether lawmakers can count on the projected budget surplus, recalling forecasts several years ago that predicted budget deficits for the foreseeable future. He says if surpluses do accrue, the national debt should come before tax cuts.
Ciresi: Where is the tax cut going to go? I would suggest the first place it go is to reduce the debt. If you reduce the debt, you have cheaper mortgages; you have cheaper home loans; you have cheaper car loans; you have cheaper student loans; you have cheaper revolving-credit loans. And you know what that is? That's a tax cut for the working person.
The Minnesota DFL hosted the forum along with Minnesota Public Radio and 2nd District Congressman David Minge. He asked the candidates what they would do about the rising costs of prescription drugs. State Senator Steve Kelly suggested companies that develop profitable drugs based on government-funded research be required to return some of the profit to the government. Former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug cited this week's announced merger between drug makers Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham as evidence that large monopolies are hurting working people.
Lillehaug: What is happening in the prescription drug industry is the same that's happening in agriculture, and banking, and energy, and transportation, and last week in telecommunications with the Time Warner-AOL merger announcement. Two of the big drug companies coming together. And once again, what happens when you get a monopoly? Prices go up, service and product quality goes down and working people get the shaft. We need to enforce our anti-trust laws to be sure that in the prescription drug industries, consumers do not get the short end of the stick.
U of M physician Steven Miles has made universal health-care coverage the centerpiece of his campaign and he's traveling the state in a refurbished ambulance to draw attention to the issue. He says expensive drugs are often used to sustain people with long-term conditions.
Miles: The problem is that medicine was designed as a hospital-care system when people where not faced with living with chronic disease. And it is chronic disease and chronic disability that we now must re-center the Medicare system on and we have not made that shift. And so it's not simply a matter of adding prescription costs, but it's also adding community services, adding adaptive aides to enable people to live more successfully with the types of chronic diseases they now have.
In the foreign policy realm, several candidates criticized Rod Grams for opposing the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. They also called for closer coordination with the United Nations to resolve regional conflicts around the globe. Grams has called for reform of the bureaucracy at the U.N. as a condition for U.S. support.

On social issues, all five candidates spoke in favor of diversity and detailed efforts they've made to increase diversity among the organizations they've been involved with. One questioner correctly assumed they all consider themselves "pro-choice" on abortion but asked them to define what exactly is being terminated in an abortion - a life or something else. State Senator Steve Kelley and the other candidates refused to define it.
Kelley: I don't know the answer to that question for myself, personally. But I am quite clear that the government doesn't know that answer either and it ought not be imposing its view of that answer on the mother, on the family, on the relationship between the mother, the physician-patient relationship.
While the candidates sounded similar themes on several of the issues, some of them tried to distinguish themselves on matters of style or personal history. Dr. Steven Miles said the Senate needs more people with scientific backgrounds and he raised the issue of trial lawyer Michael Ciresi's considerable wealth. Ciresi shot back that he was tired of politicians using money and class to divide people. He said his success is proof the American Dream still exists.

Ciresi was the only candidate on the stage who's said he plans to run in the party primary in September even if he doesn't win the endorsement from party activists. The other likely candidate who isn't promising to abide by the endorsement process is former 1st district congressman Tim Penny. He's expected to announce his Senate candidacy next month.