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Hatch keeping low profile as competitors score points at business forum

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Real estate developer Kelly Doran, far right, and state senators Steve Kelley and Becky Lourey say Gov. Pawlenty is taking the state in the wrong direction. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Three DFL gubernatorial candidates stressed their business credentials before a DFL business group on Wednesday. Real estate developer Kelly Doran and state senators Steve Kelley and Becky Lourey say Gov. Pawlenty is taking the state in the wrong direction. The candidate forum was the latest in which Attorney General Mike Hatch chose not to participate. Some Democrats are wondering why Hatch is keeping a low profile on the campaign trail.

St. Louis Park, Minn. — More than 100 people packed the back room of a Greek restaurant in St. Louis Park to hear Doran, Kelley and Lourey discuss the issues. Tailoring their comments to the Minnesota Business Democrats, the candidates noted their business connections. Kelley's dad owned small businesses, and his first job was mowing the lawn at his dad's motel.

Lourey and her husband own a small business that employs 70 people. Doran is a commercial real estate builder who said he's created thousands of jobs during his career. He stressed the importance of appealing to business, saying that a Democrat can't win the governor's race without business support.

The three DFLers agreed that businesses are frustrated with increasing traffic congestion, and each one would have signed a bill with a dime-a-gallon gas tax increase that Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed last session. Doran says Minnesotans understand that better roads cost money.

"If you go around the state and you want to ask, 'well should we raise taxes?' You'll get a universal 'no,' pretty much no. But if go around the state and you say, 'well, we need to raise taxes because we're going to invest in transportation, or we need to raise taxes because we're going to invest in our schools?,' that turns around," he said.

Pawlenty hasn't officially announced he's running for re-election, but the Republican raised more money from individual contributors last year than any of the Democrats in the race. Pawlenty opposes a gas-tax increase, and has proposed borrowing money for road projects.

In addition to transportation, Doran, Kelley and Lourey agreed that the state should spend more money on education, including early childhood education and higher ed. While they offered no specifics on how to pay for education and other state programs, Lourey says many people support a tax increase.

"As I've been campaigning, wealthy Minnesotans have said to me, 'please, please, raise our taxes. We believe in public education. We know that it is the melting pot for our state,'" Lourey said.

Lourey and Kelley say Pawlenty signed a no-tax-increase pledge, yet under his watch, property taxes and fees have increased. Pawlenty also pushed for a 75-cent-a-pack charge on cigarettes that Lourey called a cigarette tax. Kelley says Minnesotans know that taxes have gone up during Pawlenty's term.

"If your taxes did not go up during the last three years, then you should vote for Tim Pawlenty. But if your taxes did go up, including property taxes, then you should vote for me, and I will win by the biggest margin in Minnesota history," Kelley said.

Pawlenty has said that property taxes are a local decision, and he's called for a property-tax freeze. Pawlenty campaign spokesman Michael Krueger says the forum makes it clear that Democrats are focused on spending more taxpayer money. He says the governor believes that Minnesotans are taxed enough.

Doran, Kelley and Lourey have now appeared at several candidate forums together, but they have yet to share the stage with the fourth Democrat in the race, Attorney General Mike Hatch. Hatch's office said the Business Democrats' event conflicted with a conference call on a prospective pharmaceutical lawsuit. But some Democrats are questioning whether it's part of a deliberate strategy to stay above the fray.

Blois Olson from the newsletter Politics in Minnesota says Hatch needs to ramp up his campaign activity.

"He is the perceived front-runner, but the more he doesn't do, the less he is the front-runner," according to Olson. "And I think the Rose Garden strategy is, you sit in the garden and you smell the roses while everybody else enjoys the bad weather outside, and I think that while he is the front-runner, he has to start acting more like a front-runner and not be so publicly shy."

Olson says Hatch has only a bare-bones campaign operation. Hatch did raise half a million dollars last year, surpassing all of the other Democrats except Doran, who lent his campaign $1.8 million. Hatch's campaign says the attorney general focuses first on his full-time job.

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