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Fourth District DFLers Debate
By William Wilcoxen
June 2, 2000
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Incumbents are seeking re-election in seven of Minnesota's eight congressional districts this year. The exception is in the Fourth District, where Bruce Vento's retirement creates an open seat. The district, which includes Saint Paul and its closest suburbs, has been in Democratic hands since 1948. The four candidates running in September's DFL primary gathered on June 1 for a debate sponsored by the Saint Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
For complete Campaign 2000 information, including audio of debates and candidate profiles, visit MPR's Campaign 2000section.

THE DEBATE INCLUDED State Representative Betty McCollum of North Saint Paul, who won party endorsement from delegates to the Fourth District DFL convention; Senator Steve Novak of New Brighton, who was the leading fundraiser among Democratic candidates in the last reporting period; attorney Chris Coleman, who sits on Saint Paul's City Council; and business consultant Cathie Hartnett of Mendota Heights, a one-time Saint Paul school board member. The breakfast banquet was populated primarily by the small-business owners who make up the Chamber's membership. The questions were prepared in advance and reflected the group's concerns.

Chris Coleman responded to a question about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ergonomic standards by agreeing that over-regulation can threaten the viability of some small businesses. "I would love to sit there and explore ways that we can make the workplace safer, but I'm not sure that imposing these type of regulatory deals on small businesses - they're not going to work," Coleman said. "People will shut down and then what have we served. We have to make sure we have the best technology, we need to make sure we have the best environment, we should have clean air. But I think sometimes we just carry this regulatory business way too far."

The questions were about business concerns but in answering them, candidates talked about other issues, notably education and health care. One question involved the shortage of skilled labor and whether the U.S. should issue more temporary visas to allow non-citizens with coveted skills to take jobs with U.S. firms.

Betty McCollum agreed the shortage is a problem, but also turned it into an education issue by suggesting the long-term solution lies in retraining American workers. "Metro State has the capability of retraining any one of us in this room for being better for the technology age," she said. "I have to tell you that my children will probably have five different careers. I'll probably have a couple more different careers before I leave. Retraining's the key here and we need to have it in a way that it feels approachable and folks in their 40s and their 30s, and their 50s and in their 60s can go back to school. We're bright enough to learn a new trade if given an opportunity."

Another question referred to "costly new health-care reform mandates." In their responses, all four Democrats spoke about the importance of insuring employees and their family members against major problems.

Cathie Hartnett was the most pointed. "I'm a business who tries to figure out what I can afford to pay my employees and how much my health insurance for them costs. And I provide full benefits for all my employees. But I will tell you, it bothers me that a business strategy is to have people work 37 hours a week rather than 40 so you don't have to provide health-care benefits. We in the private sector need to have a talk with ourselves about 'What do we fundamentally believe?' And if we believe that everyone in this country should have access to affordable health care, what are we all prepared to do, both private and public sector?"

In the congressional votes most important to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bruce Vento sided with the chamber only 24 percent of the time. Asked what their scores might be, the candidates promised only that they would listen and be open-minded. But Steve Novak took the opportunity to also tout his record in the state Legislature and his success in forging agreements between businesses and labor or environmental groups. "If there's a trademark to my legislation, which includes things like the Petrofund and worker's compensation and many other major programs like that, it's that they usually passed unanimously," he said. "Which means that the work was done on the front end. I include people. I bring people in of opposing viewpoints, agree on goals, and then negotiate to those goals in a way that people feel that they have had input. My door will truly be open and that's not just a speech, that's a 25-year record with people on both ends of the economy."

The Democrat who emerges from the September primary will proceed to the general election in November, where other candidates will include Republican state Senator Linda Runbeck of Circle Pines and Independence Party candidate, Pam Ellison.