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Most of the major party endorsed candidates for U.S. Senate and governor made their way to the Game Fair, a sportsmen's show in Anoka, over the weekend to talk about issues important to hunters. KFAN radio sponsored two forums, one for the Senate candidates and one for the gubernatorial hopefuls.
Game Fair attracts sportsmen and women from all over Minnesota, and many of them bring their dogs and shotguns. Located outside of Anoka, about a half hour north of St. Paul, Game Fair is a hunter's paradise, filled with equipment displays and demostrations of the latest hunting techniques.
With the sound of skeet-shooting off in the background, candidates for U.S. Senate first took to the debate table. DFL incumbent Paul Wellstone, Republican Norm Coleman, Independence Party candidate Jim Moore, and Ed McGaa from the Green party laid out their positions on outdoors issues.
All four said they would oppose any move to lengthen duck hunting seasons around the country.
"It's critical that we make sure we manage our resources accordingly, and long extended seasons with higher bag limits does not do that for us," said Jim Moore.
It would be almost impossible to talk politics at a place like Game Fair without debating gun control. When that issue came up, the Green party's McGaa distinguished himself from the other candidates, by advocating a ban on handguns and semi-automatic weapons.
"Why do we need assault rifles?" McGaa asked. "If you want to be a macho guy, do like I did - go in the Marine Corps twice."
Sen. Wellstone noted his vote for banning a litany of assault weapons under the Clinton administration in the mid- 1990s, but indicated he didn't think the country needs to go further. Wellstone said he would not support banning handguns.
"My position is simple. I want to make sure every Minnesotan - every sportsman and sportswoman - has the right to hunt. I want to make sure that that is an absolute and viable right never taken away," Wellstone said. "I, however, want to keep these weapons out of the hands of criminals, and that is a Minnesota position to take."
Norm Coleman, wearing a camouflage hunting jacket, said banning guns is wrong, and he accused Wellstone of not doing enough to support the constitutional right to bear arms.
"When the senator's on the line about the 2nd Amendment, he isn't there," Coleman said. "Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, said in a recent article that Paul Wellstone has done everything he can to gut the 2nd Amendment. That's where he's at - he's got to live with that position."
"I'm not the candidate of the NRA," Wellstone responded. "I'm the candidate of sportsmen and sportswomen in the state of Minnesota."
Jim Moore of the Independence Party said he's for protecting every freedom in the country, including the right to bear arms. He said parents, not the government, should be responsible for keeping guns away from children.
The forum was spirited, with Coleman and Wellstone repeatedly taking jabs at each other. Coleman actually complimented Wellstone for improving conservation and wildlife habitat. The senator cordially thanked the Republican.
Wellstone then went after Coleman for statements attributed to Coleman a couple of weeks ago, about the possible increased use of motors in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
"On the question of reopening this whole question of what has really divided our state - having the lakes more open to motorized boats - actually Norm said that he was for that," Wellstone said. "He's changed back and forth and back and forth, and has been really criticized pretty harshly in northern Minnesota for trying to divide the state. I'm very pleased this will be an issue that we will debate throughout the Senate race."
But Coleman said it's not an issue. He says he does not support increased motorized use in the BWCA. Although several news organizations have reported Coleman made comments about reopening discussion on the matter, Coleman blamed what he said was a single erroneous report which he said misstated his position.
"This is a tactic that the senator and his colleagues use. One news source got that wrong. One. Every other source got it right," said Coleman. "I am not reopening that debate at all. We are talking about, from public safety, dealing with blow down. I've got to be very, very, very, very clear about this, senator."
Ed McGaa from the Green party indicated he supports allowing more BWCA motor use for World War II veterans and handicapped people. Moore said while he doesn't favor motor use, he would support pulling out blown down trees if it could be done without harming the wilderness.
"Why do we need assault rifles? If you want to be a macho guy, do like I did - go in the Marine Corps twice."
- Ed McGaa, Green Party candidate for Senate
The Senate debate lasted about an hour, and the candidates were gone - replaced at the forum table by three of the four major party endorsed candidates for governor.
DFLer Roger Moe, Republican Tim Pawlenty and Green party candidate Ken Pentel also focused on outdoors issues. Independence party gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny had agreed to appear at the forum but cancelled late last week.
Moe and Pawlenty said they supported dedicating a tiny percentage of the state sales tax to natural resource and environmental projects. Pentel said he doesn't like the idea.
"Let's make it clear. I think that I am going to be the candidate that's going to preserve, conserve and restore this state's natural resources. I think there will be nobody who comes close to my goals in achieving that," Pentel said. "I've seen that the dedication of the gas tax to roads and highways - I think has gotten us into a trap. I am right now leaning against dedicating the sales tax."
Pentel accused Moe and Pawlenty - who share a collective 40-plus years in the Legislature - of failing to adequately protect the environment. Pawlenty and Pentel said they support changing Minnesota's constitution so laws could be put in place through statewide votes. Moe said that's a bad way to govern.
"(I'm) for protecting every freedom in the country, including the right to bear arms. "
- Jim Moore, Independence Party candidate for Senate
"When you go to states that have initiatives, and billboards saying, 'Vote yes on No. 14,' that is not exactly an intellectual debate on an issue," Moe said.
All three said they support adding more conservation officers and changing hunting rules to ensure authorities have access to hunters and fishermen, despite recent court decisions blocking officers from ice houses and boats.
"I think what we need to do is...enact legislation that moves back from those court cases, and gives conservation officers more flexibility and power," Pawlenty said. "We don't want to be completely ignorant of 4th Amendment rights. But when folks buy a license, we can loosen up those 4th Amendment restrictions by asking them to voluntarily waive some of those rights, so conservation officers have some more flexibility."
On guns, Pawlenty and Moe said they would not support banning handguns and semi-automatic weapons. Pentel said he would ban them. All three said they favor expanding the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which set aside 100,000 acres along the Minnesota River.
Moe and Pawlenty said they want to allow existing gun shooting ranges to reamin open. In some suburbs, residents want gun ranges closed because of safety and noise concerns. Pentel said he would not protect the ranges.
Both the Senate and gubernatorial debates were well attended. Observers often applauded the candidates' comments, especially when they were talking about bolstering wildlife habitat.
"I have never done this before, so it's very interesting to me. It's very educational," said Neville Graham of Lakeville, who sat though both forums. "It's impressive. They seem to know all of the issues quite well. They know what is important to the state of Minnesota."
The major party endorsed candidates for Senate and governor meet again for separate debates at the Minnesota State Fair, at the Minnesota Public Radio booth.More from MPR