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Fourth District Candidates Debate at State Fair
By William Wilcoxen
August 31, 2000
Part of MPR's coverage of Campaign 2000
Click for audio RealAudio 3.0

The tradition of political discourse at the Minnesota State Fair continued as DFL and Independence Party candidates for the Fourth District Congressional seat debated at the Minnesota Public Radio booth. The race to succeed the retiring Bruce Vento has turned into the state's hottest House race.

Fourth District Debate

Listen to the entire Fourth District Congressional Debates.
Independence Party
DFL Party

See slideshow of participants in the debates.

MINNESOTA'S FOURTH DISTRICT has been in DFL hands since 1948 and four Democrats are vying to inherit the seat from Vento. They include Steve Novak, a state senator from New Brighton. With 28 years in the Legislature, Novak has been at the Capitol even longer than Vento has been in Washington. He touts his legislative record on labor and environmental issues but says his number-one priority is making health care more accessible and affordable.

"We have a unique period of time in American history, where we have a significant federal budget surplus," Novak said. "I'm proposing that one-fourth of that budget surplus be spent in the health care area to expand health insurance to cover all children and to expand Medicare to cover all prescription drug benefits."

Novak says his day job heading the foundation at Region's Hospital in Saint Paul has helped him see just where the federal government can do more for the health care industry.

Another suburban Ramsey County legislator who calls health care the number-one issue in the congressional race is Betty McCollum. McCollum is a representative from North Saint Paul, who carries the DFL party endorsement. She says she wants to put hard questions to pharmaceutical companies about the rising cost of prescription drugs. McCollum also wants to carry on the environmental stewardship, for which Vento's been known, in part by basing federal pollution standards on the metabolism of a child.

"The standards are set for you. They're not set for a toddler. So when a toddler is breathing our air and the pollution is set at your level, there's something wrong with that. And that's why we're seeing an increase in childhood cancer and childhood asthma. I want to go to Congress and have standards that are safe for everyone in a family," said McCollum.

Saint Paul, which once dominated the Fourth District, now comprises about 40 percent of the district's voters.

City Council member Chris Coleman is the only Saint Paul resident among the four DFLers in the primary. Coleman says housing, education, and Social Security share top billing on his list of priorities. But he says federal policy on those issues and others from agriculture to health care is affected by political contributions and the need for campaign finance reform.

"You look at the amount of money the pharmaceutical companies are putting into campaigns, into the Republican committees, the Democratic committees. There's no way that system is going to change as long as that kind of money is flowing through Congressional campaigns. You have to start with campaign finance reform because then you start freeing up people to make decisions that they know they have to make," said Coleman.

Government reform is the paramount theme in the campaign of Mendota Heights business consultant Cathie Hartnett. Hartnett is the only one of the four DFL candidates who does not currently hold elective office. A one-time Saint Paul school board member, she spent 17 years in Washington working for Democratic groups on Capitol Hill, before returning to Minnesota to advise start-up businesses. Hartnett wants to be part of a movement to shake up Congress.

"We have worn the electorate out. What we need are new members of Congress to go from the private sector and use their skills to try to wake everybody up and make politics more interesting again. The Democratic party has failed the voters of Minnesota. We turn out 2,600 at precinct caucuses and that's how we make decisions about what candidates to support. I want us to take a risk," Hartnett said.

Hartnett's calls for new perspectives in Congress bear some similarity to the priorities of the Independence Party candidates, Tom Foley and Pam Ellison. In their debate, Foley talked about the influence an independent Representative could wield in a House that is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

"As an Independent, I intend to caucus as an Independent but I think if the House of Representatives is controlled by less than five votes, it gives you an opportunity to work with all of those people from both sides and all the political spectrums and say you're demanding them to come together so they have some bipartisan representation and that's the type of government I think we need to move towards," said Foley.

Ellison also spoke of a centrist bloc of disengaged voters put off by the political left and right. But she, like Jesse Ventura, argues that professional politicians are part of the business as usual mentality in government. Ellison criticized Foley, a former Ramsey County attorney who lobbied for the state of Minnesota in Washington.

"It's not the partisan bickering as much as it is classism that we're seeing at its finest - or its worst, however you'd like to characterize it. So until we have some real reform in campaign finance reform we're not going to be able to move ahead because special interests will always play too big a role in making big decisions for this nation. And it's got to stop," Ellison said.

The winners of the September 12th DFL and Independence Party primaries will move on to the November general election, where they are expected to face Republican State Senator Linda Runbeck.