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Minneapolis, Minn. — Crime has been the most talked about issue throughout the campaign. It was also the dominant issue during the debate at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. R.T. Rybak touted his plan to hire 71 more police officers between now and next spring.
But when asked if the city was safer than it was when Rybak was first elected four years ago, he responded, "I don't think so. Crime is up in Minneapolis and many other cities around the country."
Rybak's opponent, Peter McLaughlin, jumped on that comment. McLaughlin has been running a "get tough on crime" campaign for several months. He says Rybak only started to address the city's rising violent crime rates when it became a political vulnerability.
McLaughlin says Rybak should have been addressing the crime problem a year ago, not this summer. McLaughlin says the mayor passed up some funding that would have freed up other dollars for more cops.
"The mayor's now on record saying we're not as safe as we were four years ago. You can talk about all you want to talk about. I like to talk about results," McLaughlin says. "This mayor failed to take advantage of state money that was available for pension relief, which could have had police officers on the street this summer. He decided he didn't want to do that because it wasn't the perfect pension bill. That was a mistake."
McLaughlin wants to add 250 police officers to the force over the next five years. He says he would pay for it by using future state aid payments and pension relief from the state. But there's a problem -- the state Legislature and the governor need to take action in order for that money to come available.
Rybak said he didn't support the pension relief bill at the state Legislature because it would have put the city in deeper financial trouble down the road.
Rybak also said McLaughlin and the Minneapolis police union have been unfairly attacking him on public safety. The Minneapolis Police Federation endorsed McLaughlin earlier this month, and has also run radio ads urging voters to elect "Anyone but Rybak."
Rybak says the police union is upset because he wouldn't hire their preferred candidate for police chief, and refused to give the city police officers a 4 percent raise this year.
"It's about raw, political payback. You need a mayor who's going to stand up to interests, even the interests we care about," Rybak says. "These ads you see, this negative campaigning you've been doing for 10 months, is nothing about public safety and everything about political payback."
McLaughlin says he's proud to have the union endorsement.
"The police federation endorsed the mayor the last time. Now all of a sudden, because they're not for him, they're bad people. It's a bunch of bad people. They're out there everyday trying to protect us," McLaughlin says.
On the issue of city spending, both candidates say they will not raise property taxes more than 8 percent a year.
Rybak says he's the only candidate who can stick to that proposal. He says he's paid down the city's debt and kept the city's finances in check during a tough financial stretch.
Rybak says he had the courage to say no to special interests and other groups that wanted city money. He says city finances would be in trouble if McLaughlin is elected.
"The commissioner has proposed tens of millions of dollars in new spending, promising new things to this union or that union, or this union or that interest group," Rybak says. "He's telling you this day there are 150 more cops, 250 the next day. He's lurching behind one to the other. There's no way he can deliver on that."
Both candidates say they a support a statewide smoking ban but differ on how to get there.
McLaughlin was the key vote when the Hennepin County Board approved a countywide ban on smoking in all bars and restaurants.
McLaughlin has expressed some skepticism of the ban in recent months, saying he's concerned the ban is hurting bar owners in the pocketbook. He says a statewide ban would solve the problem.
Rybak says it will be impossible to pass a statewide ban if the Hennepin County board scales back the law.
The two candidates will meet in two more debates between now and Election Day on Nov. 8.