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DFL and Independence Party candidates for governor today sat down for the first time in an open forum with GOP-endorsed candidate Tom Emmer in an hour-and-a-half forum at Farmfest. Statewide candidacies like Jesse Ventura's have seen their star rise with successful appearances at the annual event in southwestern Minnesota.

DFLers lambaste Emmer at Farmfest

Charley Shaw)

Gubernatorial candidates, from left, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Tom Horner and Tom Emmer at Farmfest. (Staff photo: Charley Shaw)

DFL and Independence Party candidates for governor today sat down for the first time in an open forum with GOP-endorsed candidate Tom Emmer in an hour-and-a-half forum at Farmfest.

As the three DFLers sought to position themselves for next Tuesday’s hotly contested gubernatorial primary, they took their shots at Emmer rather than each other. Emmer doesn’t face a significant challenge to winning the GOP nomination.

FarmFest is a key stop for any Minnesota politician seeking statewide office. Old FarmFest hands recall Jesse Ventura‘s long-shot campaign gathering steam after a rousing performance in 1998 against opponents Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman.

It’s also a test for candidates to prove they can relate and respond to farmers and their public policy concerns.

Almost all of the candidates tried to relate to the assembled farmers on a personal level by narrating their individual farm roots. DFLer Mark Dayton, whose family is best known for its department store chain, said his grandfather raised guernsey cows. DFL-endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher noted she grew up on a 70-cow dairy farm in the Minnesota River Valley near Mankato. DFL candidate Matt Entenza said generations of his family, starting with his great-great grandfather (who came to Minnesota as a Civil War veteran) farmed in western Minnesota.

Not to be outdone, Emmer, an attorney, told of one of his recent farming experiences.

“I don’t know the last time any of these guys bailed hay. I did it last fall,” Emmer said.

Kelliher and Entenza both referred to ways in which their families’ hardships in farming have had an impact on their approach to politics and public service. Entenza’s family lost the farm during the Great Depression and moved to the Worthington area, where he went to high school. Kelliher said she remembers her family struggling to hold onto their farm, an experience that she has mentioned in her campaign’s television advertisements.

“That’s where I got knocked down and I learned to stand up and fight,” Kelliher said.

The candidates talked tough about defending against threats to current standards for agricultural production. And most, with the exception of IP-endorsed candidate Tom Horner’s hint that Minnesota should “transition” away from the state’s program of paying subsidies to ethanol producers, said they would defend incentives for farmers.

For example, candidates were asked by Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap how they would respond to any animal rights groups’ efforts to introduce ballot initiatives that would place stricter rules governing the treatment of animals. Kelliher, who said state laws are already tough enough, praised the state’s ballot initiative process, which makes it difficult for outside groups to get constitutional amendment proposals placed on the general election ballot.

“I would not support as governor any further restriction of animal production livestock in the state of Minnesota,” Kelliher said.

Dayton said he will continue to be a supporter of ethanol subsidies.

“There’s never been an ethanol bill that’s spilled in the gulf of Mexico,” said Dayton.

Horner said the focus for promoting renewable fuel industries should concentrate on research. The producer payments are all the more expensive for the state in light of the state budget deficit that’s estimated at more than $5 billion.

“I do think honestly we need to transition away from the subsidy for ethanol,” Horner said.

Emmer said he would make sure all agricultural regulatory activities carried out by the state are handled within the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“You’ve got to have the regulatory agencies work with the farmers, not against them,” Emmer said.

Given the rare appearance of Emmer at a candidate forum involving his opponents, DFLers took turns shooting down his proposals. For instance, Emmer said he would allow Minnesotans to purchase health insurance that’s sold across state lines. The result, Entenza said, would open the door to health plans that are inferior to insurers that are licensed in Minnesota.

“You know, Tom, selling Arkansas health insurance policies in Minnesota isn’t going to cut it,” Entenza said.

On another aspect of Emmer’s health care preferences, allowing individuals to deduct their health insurance costs on their income taxes, Dayton said Emmer’s proposal would cost the state more than $1 billion a year.

“That’s the largest tax increase anybody has proposed here today. That’s the largest tax increase I’ve heard anybody propose in this entire campaign year,” Dayton said.

In response, Emmer noted that Dayton is campaigning on solving the budget deficit by increasing income taxes on Minnesota familes making $150,000 a year or more.

“My friend Mr. Dayton over here, I’m surprised, I think that you’ve never seen a tax increase you didn’t like. I’m talking about giving people back their money. I am talking about lowering taxes,” Emmer said.

Kelliher knocked Emmer in front of the farm crowd for voting in 2008 against a mandate for 15 20 percent biodiesel to be blended in gas sold in Minnesota by 2015.

While Farmfest is a magnet for farmers, other state Capitol habitués such as lobbyists and legislative staff were well represented at the debate. Horner, when asked how he thought he performed during the debate, noted the crowd wasn’t entirely populated by farmers.

“You saw a lot of red shirts (Kelliher supporters). You saw a lot of green Entenza shirts and on and on and on,” Horner said.

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