The four endorsed major party candidates for U.S. Senate met on Tuesday in southwestern Minnesota for their first debate of the campaign season. DFL incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone, Republican challenger Norm Coleman, Independence Party candidate Jim Moore and Ed McGaa from the Green Party talked primarily about farm economy issues at Farm Fest near Redwood Falls.
Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Norm Coleman have so far dominated the Senate race largely though campaign commercials.
For the first time Wellstone and Coleman have had to share center stage before the public with two political newcomers who've been endorsed by their parties for U.S. Senate.
Gathered under a big tent set up amid farm fields, all four candidates fielded nearly a dozen agriculture and rural issue questions posed by a trio of farm reporters.
To the question of, "What one thing would you do if you could change something about farm policy?" McGaa, Moore and Wellstone talked about increasing competition in agribusiness so that farmers can get the best prices.
"These conglomerates have muscled their way to the dinner table and they've driven a lot of family farmers off the land. And everywhere our independent producers look to, who they buy from or who they sell to, they're faced with three or four firms that dominate over 50 percent of the market. I think we need some real anti-trust action," Wellstone said.
Coleman said he would gut the USDA's milk marketing system, which bases dairy payments on where farmers live. And right out of the chute, Coleman blamed Wellstone for problems facing Minnesota farmers.
"Over the last 12 years while Sen. Wellstone has been in the United States Senate, we've lost 10,000 family farms in Minnesota. We've lost 7,000 of our dairy producers; we've lost almost half of those folks producing dairy and I would note during their 12 years, a seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee sat empty with a Minnesotan, and it wasn't until the senator decides to break his two-term pledge and run for re-election that he decided to fill that seat," Coleman said.
All four Senate candidates agreed the federal government should upgrade Mississippi River locks and dams. Each also supported putting more money toward long-term flood mitigation projects on the Minnesota and Red Rivers.
The Green Party's Ed McGaa, a native American who describes himself as an "author/combat veteran," called for redirecting foreign aid spending to domestic engineering projects like flood control.
"We could take care of that Red River if we have to with great, big pipes and divert it, if we have to, and there's been some studies on this and I think that we should turn our Corps of Engineers loose on a study of the Red River, that great beet-producing valley we got over there and save it," he said.
On the contentious issue of big farm feedlots and the manure they generate, Moore, from the Independence Party, said oversight should be handled by states. McGaa and Wellstone agreed the federal government should regulate the operations.
Coleman used the question to talk more broadly about government regulation as it relates to the environment. "Regulation needs to be based on sound science," Coleman said. "That's part of the problem and in addition to sound science, you need to do some cost-benefit analysis, it can't be this absolutist approach. We're losing a lot of livestock producers because they spend more time dealing with the regulators than they do in the field. There's got to be a greater sense of balance. There's got to be application of sound science and, goodness gracious, we need strong animal agriculture in Minnesota and I support that."
Wellstone took credit for a feedlot regulation he helped write. "If you're going to build one of these big operations in Minnesota or anywhere in the country, you can't build a hog confinement operation, unless you first can show us how you're going to dispose of the waste. You've got to have a nutrient plan. That's sound science, Norm. That's sound science. That's sound science," said Wellstone.
Asked whether the federal government should help struggling schools in rural Minnesota, Wellstone said yes. The senator criticized the Bush administration for blocking a move in Congress to pay a higher percentage of the cost of federally mandated special education funding.
Coleman said he also supports the federal government living up to its special ed funding promises. But he noted the lack of funding had not been addressed during the Clinton years in the White House.
Moore used the education question to speak out more broadly against unfunded government mandates.
"The government had a mandate for special education and they have not met that mandate and I think I'm sick and tired of the government putting out mandates and not putting the funding behind it and in this particular case, when they said they would put the funding behind it. That's, I think, the primary cause of the budget crisis in our local schools today," Moore said.
McGaa talked about the dangers of federal government reaching too far into education, recalling his years in government-run schools Indians were forced to attend.
On the issue of opening more markets for farmers the candidates all agreed there's great potential for alternative energy from biomass and ethanol. Coleman, McGaa and Moore said they support giving the White House more latitude in negotiating trade agreements. And Coleman said Wellstone has been a barrier to increased trade which he says has hurt Minnesota farmers.
"If you take the senator's position (that) we'll produce for Minnesota consumption only and if you do that, rural Minnesota dies," Coleman said.
Wellstone said he's opposed trade deals because they have threatened to hurt -- not help -- U.S. producers. "First of all there isn't a United States that I know of that isn't for opening up our markets. That's never been the issue. The issue is whether or not we have fair trade," he said.
On improving rural transportation infrastructure, Moore said it's certainly the role of government; federal government on interstate roads and local and state governments elsewhere. Coleman said he thinks President Bush's transportation budget does not spend enough money. Wellstone questioned whether there would be any money to fund even Coleman's spending priorities in light of Republican-backed tax cuts.
"My opponent says more for transportation funding, he was just talking about education then we talk about prescription drugs, then we talk about health care, then we talk about affordable housing - you can't do it all and if you are going to continue to go down the path of more tax cuts with 40 and 50 percent of the benefits going to the top one percent, then you're not going to have any of the money for transportation," Wellstone said.
Throughout the debate Wellstone talked about responding to questions positively, intimating Coleman was inappropriately attacking him. In his closing remarks, Wellstone defended his work in the Senate, telling the audience filled with farmers and farm-related business people, much of his focus in Washington has been on rural Minnesota.
"Will there be a commitment to education? Will there be there be a commitment to health care? Will there be a commitment to a good lifestyle on those issues? I'm the United States senator for greater Minnesota and I'm really proud of my work in greater Minnesota. Thank you very much Farm Fest! Thank you everybody. I much appreciate it," he said.
Coleman defended his approach during the debate. "It's time for a change. It really is. Sen. Wellstone talks about being negative; we're talking about the record. He's been the United States senator for 12 years. It's about the record. And in 12 years in Minnesota we've lost 10,000 family farms. Sen. Wellstone has pointed the finger at the same enemies and the same problems for 12 years and what have you got? It's the record. We've lost 7,000 dairy farmers in 10 years. It's the record," said Coleman.
In his closing remarks Jim Moore from the Independence Party talked about why he's running. "I felt that that the average voice of the average American has been lost in our system today. It's no secret that I believe monied special interests are a threat to our constitutional form of government. I believe that our one voice one vote system that the founding fathers set up for us has become a $1 on vote reality," he said.
The Green Party's McGaa, drew numerous chuckles during the hour and a half debate. In his closing thought, McGaa talked about the balance of nature and how he's push legislation that would change the Constitution, stipulating from every state there would be one male and one female senator.More from MPR