Candidates For Governor Need To Grasp Rural Needs

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Last Friday nine candidates running to be our next governor sat down to be questioned on rural issues at an event sponsored by the Center for Rural Policy & Development and the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

Though the November election is still months away, this is a crucial sorting out time in the election process.  Republican and Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) candidates have been traveling the state seeking support as the Feb. 6 caucuses draw near.

Those caucuses feature a non-binding straw poll where citizens vote their support for their favorite candidate. Those who make a strong showing get a boost propelling them ahead of the pack and toward endorsement at the state conventions in the first week of June.

The sit-down with the candidates was our chance to assess whether the candidates had a firm or superficial grasp of the challenges we face in rural Minnesota. It was an opportunity for them to propose policies and goals they would adopt as governor.

They all knew that we face a housing shortage, that a workforce shortage is hurting our businesses, that high-speed internet is a must to compete and learn in today’s world, that we need adequate daycare facilities, and that healthcare costs are a challenge for many families. Some understood that due to declining enrollment we have lost teachers, and with them programs in the arts, band, choir, languages and other academic areas that hurt our ability to provide our children with an equal education.

What we found, however, is that for the most part, the candidates provided only vague generalities about how they would address the challenges we face.

Republican candidates should be highly focused on winning the hearts and political allegiance of rural residents. Rural Minnesota has turned into the political power base of the Republican Party. It has helped it gain and hold majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate.

But they must not play rural Minnesota with a bunch of slogans. Give us concrete ideas that show your knowledge of our needs isn’t shallow rhetoric.

GOP candidate and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson was born and raised in Detroit Lakes. You would think that gives him a tie to the needs of rural Minnesota, but that was a long time ago. Since then he has worked as an attorney in Chicago and Minneapolis. He represented St. Paul in the state House before becoming a Hennepin County commissioner.

Johnson argues for government playing a limited role in helping out communities. “You will never hear me be an advocate for government creating or owning housing,” he said. “We should give incentives to the private sector, tax incentives for the private sector to invest or build in certain areas of the state.”

What he doesn’t understand is that without government assistance with economic development, housing, job creation, and broadband infrastructure rural Minnesota is going to be hurting even worse.

“Right now, we have the public sector crowding out the private sector,” former Republican state chair Keith Downey, who served in the state House representing Edina and Minnetonka, said. If Minnesota saw less regulation and taxes, it would see less outmigration of its businesses and citizens, and wouldn’t need to rely on immigrants moving in. This kind of thinking will ensure rural Minnesota continues to lose population and struggle to fill job openings.

GOP candidate Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens said she has helped create a prosperous community by focusing on economic development, job creation and through a more effective local government. Those same skills can work in rural Minnesota, she claims. Well, a growing, thriving metropolitan suburb has very different dynamics at work. We’re on the Titanic, not a luxury yacht.

What the Republican candidates don’t understand about rural Minnesota is that we need substantial state priming of our economic pump before they can cut off state aid and incentives. Incentives for the private sector are required, too, but alone aren’t enough.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto, a DFLer, came at the problem of rural housing from the opposite direction than the Republicans saying more state resources need to be devoted to the housing challenges. Otto is a member of the state Housing Finance Agency board. Her fellow Democrats agreed.

State Rep. Paul Thissen is one candidate who showed he understands what the future of rural Minnesota requires. Thissen, a DFL candidate from Minneapolis, says that supporting immigration and working to integrate immigrants into our communities is key to building our workforce and communities. He understands that we need “people creation” policies that will encourage the resettlement of our rural counties.

Community institutions may need government help, he added. “Sometimes it costs more to support institutions in less dense places,” he said.

Thissen also said that more young people should go for two-year degrees. “We just need the kids to work with their hands more,” he said, and they would be more willing to make trades their careers. It was a point supported by both DFL and Republican candidates.

State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, suggested raising the minimum wage and then subsidizing small employers to help them cover the cost. When employers pay low wages their employees seek public assistance to cover the difference – so taxpayers foot the bill. While her assessment is correct, it is a policy unlikely to get through the Legislature.

“We can structure trade deals that are fair to us, fair to consumers, equitable for workers and good for the environment,” Democrat U.S. Rep. Tim Walz said. As a member of Congress, he has voted for and against trade deals based on what their impact would be on his rural, southern Minnesota district. Walz is the only truly rural candidate running.

Former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman hit the talking points about broadband, “rebranding” communities with themes that fit their assets, such as the outdoor life, and talked about how craft beers have been developing in rural areas.

We need our next governor to have a greater connection with rural Minnesota. From what we saw of the nine who spoke Friday morning, a majority needs further educating.

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