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The five major DFL and Republican candidates for governor shared a stage for the first time in the campaign Wednesday night. The five participated in a student-sponsored debate at the University of Minnesota. Questions about higher education, jobs and affordable housing highlighted the differences between the Democrats and Republicans.
Republicans Tim Pawlenty and Brian Sullivan, and DFLers Judi Dutcher, Becky Lourey and Roger Moe tailored their comments to the student-dominated crowd. When talking about affordable housing, the candidates shared stories of their college living arrangements.
The Republicans and Democrats disagreed over the role of government in creating affordable housing. Entrepreneur Brian Sullivan of Orono says government has made it too expensive to build affordable units through excessive regulations and higher taxes on rental properties.
"The first place I would go is to a developer and say, 'How can we help you figure out how to build a house or an apartment for $40,000 so you can rent it for $400? What's getting in your way?' And then I'll work with the system so we can get those obstacles removed," Sullivan said.
The DFL candidates say government needs to be more involved in affordable housing. State Sen. Becky Lourey of Kerrick says the state can't leave it up to the private sector to tackle the housing crunch.
"We need to invest, like we did in the '50s when there was a housing shortage. We need to grab onto it, and say, 'Let's get this done,' and 'Let's have a universal plan,'" she said.
The philosophical divide was also evident on the issue of higher education funding. The Republicans say the state can't keep up with the funding demands of the state's institutions, and should ask the University of Minnesota and MnSCU to become more efficient.
House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan says the state has increased funding for higher education, yet tuition keeps going up. Pawlenty, a University of Minnesota graduate, says the state should stop expecting the U of M to do everything.
"Maybe it's time to start looking at shrinking the scope of the university a little bit horizontally and growing the quality vertically. And reallocating some of the resources. The same question should be asked for MnSCU. Again, anybody can get up here and say, 'Yeah, we need to fund it.' We do. That's the easy part. The hard part is, are you willing to be a leader and a change agent to make it better," Pawlenty said.
DFLers say the state can't shirk its responsibility to adequately fund higher education, even in tough economic times.
State Auditor Judi Dutcher says Minnesota's colleges and universities are the state's primary economic engine.
"I want to be a governor who will fund higher ed so that you as students are not facing 29-percent tuition increases over a two-year period of time. You cannot expect students to go out - even if they can find a job - and be able to find the type of careers they want without being saddled with student loans that last into decades," Dutcher said.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe of Erskine agreed that college tuition shouldn't cause sticker shock for students. Moe took issue with a comment made by Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura, who hasn't said whether he's running for re-election.
"(Ventura) said, in response to financial aid for students, 'If you're smart to go to college, you're smart enough to figure out how to pay for it.' Well, with tuition going up 30 percent this year and next year, you're going to have to be really smart how to figure out how to pay for it. And I would guess, based upon that budget, if he gets another opportunity to advance another budget like that, you'll have to be brilliant to figure out how to pay for it," Moe said.
Gov. Ventura declined an invitation to participate in the debate. Other gubernatorial candidates who were not included caused disruptions early in the evening.
DFLer Ole Savior, a Minneapolis artist, walked out of the debate, and Green Party supporters protested the exclusion of their gubernatorial candidates.
Ken Pentel, who was the Green Party's gubernatorial candidate in 1998 and is running again this year, says the university was setting a bad precedent by not including the Green Party, which gained major party status in the last election.
"A hindrance of ideas at the very beginning of a campaign is a problem," he said. "This is just unfortunate. It saddens me that young people become so narrow in... what they offer the public."
Debate organizers say including all of the 13 declared gubernatorial candidates would have been unmanageable. They say they'll include the Green Party in the university's next debate.
Some of the students who attended say the disruptions notwithstanding, the debate was a good chance to learn more about the candidates.
Khalid Dajani says he was impressed with Judi Dutcher, Tim Pawlenty and Brian Sullivan. "They didn't beat around the bush; they answered the question more or less, and they didn't try to push their campaigns as much as the others. And I thought they had some depth to what they said and made lots of sense," Dajani said.
Another student, Anne Kaintz, had the opposite reaction. She says she came to the debate with no knowledge of the candidates, and left with a favorable impression of Becky Lourey and Roger Moe.
"Becky Lourey... seemed to be willing to look at several different ideas to solve issues. Roger Moe seems like he really had thought a lot about the issues and I agreed with a lot of his standpoints," she said.
While the candidates may have persuaded some students at the debate, their primary task at the moment is wooing party activists. Only two of them will remain in the race after the upcoming state party conventions, because all five have agreed to abide by the party endorsement.
DFLers hold their convention in early May, while Republicans will endorse in mid-June. Candidates in both parties agree on one thing - their common goal of defeating Gov. Ventura, should he decide to run again.
Majority Leaders Roger Moe and Tim Pawlenty, who have been at odds over balancing the budget in recent weeks, made a similar pitch to the crowd.
"Three years ago, Minnesota voters chose entertainment. I ask you this time to choose experience," Moe said.
Pawlenty added, "In '98, we chose entertainment. Times have changed. We got war, recession, budget deficits, layoffs; it ain't funny anymore, we need a new governor."
Gov. Ventura has hinted that he's more likely than not to be on the November ballot, and has been asking his commissioners what they'd like to accomplish in a second Ventura term.More from MPR