Minnesota's four major-party candidates for U.S. Senate debated agriculture policy, as well as federal spending for nursing homes and the military, Monday at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato. Constitution Party candidate David Swan brought a radically different perspective to such now-familiar topics as Social Security, calling such government programs unconstitutional and saying they should be eliminated. Meanwhile, DFL candidate Mark Dayton predicted a bitter conclusion to the Senate race, and Republican incumbent Rod Grams defended his use of negative ads.
THE RURAL ECONOMY was the focus of the Mankato debate, and while the four U.S. Senate candidates differed on the efficacy of the Freedom to Farm bill, all agreed that farmers don't want a return to the government programs of past years.
Dayton said if elected, he'd keep the flexibility for farmers in the Freedom to Farm legislation but said the bill's supporters - including Grams - have created the worst of both worlds, in which the market won't support farmers and the federal government is still spending billions of dollars in aid. Grams blamed low prices on the recession in Asia, but argued that farmers believe his bill took the right direction.
Independence Party candidate James Gibson agreed with Grams but said he'd go one step further, getting the government completely out of agriculture policymaking and away from subsidies supported by Dayton.
"I have a whole lot more faith in the market, Mark, than you do and to attribute the current problems strictly to the farm bill just isn't realistic; we've had worldwide bumper crops and whether we're on the old farm bill or the new farm bill you would have seen severe problems in the agriculture community," said Gibson.
Gibson argued that current subsidies are more politically determined than anything else. Constitution Party candidate David Swan appeared to score points with many of the college students in the audience by mocking political business as usual, and advocating the elimination of nearly every federal program, from the Department of Education to U.S. peacekeeping abroad to Social Security, saying the Constitution provides for a very limited federal government and Americans should have their tax money returned to them.
Swan made an exception for military spending, and joined the other candidates in advocating higher spending on the military, especially for salaries and improved living conditions. He also advocated funds for the Veterans Affairs health system.
"I am in favor of a strong national defense, I'm in favor of fully funding our military and returning it to a state of readiness where we are able to defend ourselves on two fronts at the same time," said Swan.
Grams and Dayton also advocated more funding for nursing home workers. Grams said he's worked in the Senate to correct the funding cuts in the 1997 balanced budget act that hurt nursing homes. During the candidates' closing statements, Dayton turned to the subject of campaign advertising and asked Grams to pledge to running purely issue-oriented ads in the closing weeks of the campaign. He criticized the Grams' campaigns' mailings and said Grams' campaign aides have been harassing his staffers.
"The Republican Party of Minnesota last week sent out a mailing to 100,000 Minnesotans, a brochure that says on the front of it 'Meet Minnesota's number one drug lord,' with a picture of me, Mark Dayton. Twice last Friday, Senator, one of your senior campaign aides taunted my 23-year-old driver saying, 'druglord, drug lord, drug lord in the morning and evening. This young woman just graduated three months ago from Mankato State University and I think it's an awful way for her to be introduced to Minnesota politics."
Grams says Dayton's ads have been equally negative in the campaign and his ads are simply a response. And he says Dayton's balking at being called a "drug lord" is hypocritical since the ads use the same term Dayton used to describe American pharmaceutical companies. Grams says Dayton's stock holdings, which he has since sold but which included some of the pharmaceutical companies he was criticizing, made him complicit in their profits.
"Being a huge investor in dozens of pharmaceuticals - or at least a dozen firms - then is Mark Dayton a drug lord? We're using his terminology. And if he didn't like the word, then why did he use it against some individuals and think that somehow he is not affected? If you profit from it, you're part of it, then put the label on yourself as he did."