By: News Director Larissa Donovan
BEMIDJI—Incumbent Republican candidates met with their DFL opponents Thursday, Nov. 1, for the Citizens for an Informed Electorate forum held in City Hall, in their race for seats in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
For District 2A—which encompasses Lake of the Woods, Clearwater, and most of Beltrami and Hubbard counties—incumbent Matt Grossell squared off against challenger, and political newcomer Michael Northbird, who is the DFL-endorsed candidate.
For District 5A—which covers the city of Bemidji, seven Beltrami County townships, southwestern Itasca County, and northern Cass County—incumbent Matt Bliss debated the issues alongside former legislator John Persell.
The forum was moderated by Maggie Montgomery and Michael Naylor, and was sponsored by Northern Community Radio and the City of Bemidji. Dennis Montgomery kept candidates in line with the call of a loon as the sounder for end of time, to the delight of the audience.
The candidates were allowed a few minutes each for their opening and closing statements, and two minutes to respond to the questions.
Opening statements began with Grossell, who briefly described his two years in the legislature, as well as his prior experience as a military veteran and law enforcement officer in Clearwater County.
“Our voice [in northern Minnesota] holds just as much weight and value as anyone else’s in the state,” said Grossell. “I am a father, a grandfather, a brother and an uncle who has worked hard to make our state a better and safer place.”
Northbird, in his statement, said he was just an ordinary person.
“Democracy is the belief that there is extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people,” he said. “I want to talk to you [all] person to person, Minnesotan to Minnesotan, heart to heart.”
Northbird has worked for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe as an environmental program manager since 2015, prior to that, he worked as environmental program manager for the Leech Lake Nation, of which he is an enrolled member. Northbird said it was important for representatives to listen, and adapt their positions to represent their constituents.
“Representing isn’t necessarily about coming in and sticking to your guns, it’s about answering to the people you’re representing,” said Northbird.
Bliss described his accomplishments in his first two years of office, his Navy experience and the business he owns during his opening statement.
“Two years ago I asked you to put your trust in me, and I thank you for that privilege,” said Bliss. “I’ve strived to be worthy of that honor, and I’ve worked on legislation that not only benefits northern Minnesota but all of Minnesota.”
Persell, in his opening statement, stressed his knowledge of the work that needs to be done in St. Paul. Persell served as the representative for District 5A from 2010 to 2016. Persell also has 40 years of experience advising on policy for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.
“We had a $1.4 billion surplus [in the last legislative session], and most of it was given away to corporations and tax breaks,” said Persell. “How do we prioritize? We need common sense for the common good, to support working folks throughout the state.”
The first question asked of the candidates concerned higher education and its costs. The state used to fund two-thirds of the tuition for students, now it only covers 40-percent.
Northbird responded, “We need to invest in the future of our children. [Persell] spoke of a budget surplus, why can’t we use situations like that to help cover the cost for Minnesotans looking for a better future?”
In Bliss’s response, he put the rising cost of education on the costs of administration.
“The problem with the Minnesota State system, is that it is heavily centralized in St. Paul,” he said. “They occupy some of the most expensive real estate in the state, leasing three floors of the most expensive skyscraper we have.”
Bliss elaborated that many of the Minnesota State headquarters’ duties are duplicated within the various institutions across the state, and also emphasized the need for more students to enter the trades and go for two-year degrees instead of the traditional bachelor’s degree track.
Persell said the money that used to fund state college and university tuition started decreasing during the Jesse Ventura and Tim Pawlenty governorships.
“We started borrowing from the schools and ended up in a big deficit when Tim Pawlenty was in office,” said Persell. “We can make the ends meet and put the funding towards higher education.”
Grossell said more money was appropriated during the last legislative session for higher education, as well as a law to assist students with loan forgiveness.
“From my own experience, in order to secure my college education, I served my country first,” said Grossell. “Some progress can’t be made overnight, but we will continue to work towards affordable higher education for our students.”
The second question asked the candidates their opinion of the political action committees, or PACs, that support negative campaign ads.
Bliss said, “It’s actually illegal for me to ask them to do something. I wish it wasn’t there, but it is on both sides. All my ads you see are positive, and that’s how I want to do things.”
Persell said, “The negativity is so persave now, and nobody likes it. We don’t even know who is doing much of it, and seen on both sides of the aisle. We would be a lot better off if we could get together, without negativity associated with it.”
In his response, Grossell said, “There is no place for it in my campaign. My focus is on sticking to the issues, to campaign on them, put out who we are, how we want to serve, and how we can make this a better place.”
Grossell also added that the outside groups have First Amendment rights to say what they want to say, and that veterans fought for their right to do so. Persell, Bliss, Grossell and moderator Michael Naylor are all veterans.
The next question concerned the daycare shortage.
Persell said an increase in subsidies will make it possible for people to start their own daycares to address the shortage that has particularly impacted rural areas.
“We can certainly do better than what has happened here in the past few years, we hear about rolling back rules and regulations that may help some individuals get into hte daycare business,” said Persell.
Grossell said rural Minnesota doesn’t have the same workforce needs as the metro area, and that the state’s regulations are forcing daycares to close their doors.
“We need to keep working with legislators to make sure we find the right way to do this, to make sure daycares are compliant and safe for our children, but regulations that won’t force them out of business.”
Northbird said, “We need to make sure providers are able to provide, not stretched so thin they do close up shop.”
Northbird agreed with Persell on more subsidies, and using surplus money to supply grants to potential daycare providers.
Bliss said that due to regulations, a quarter of daycare providers have been lost in the last eight years.
“We are having a hard time not just on the cost of funding daycare, but finding daycare providers,” said Bliss. “[Persell] always wants to fund more. We have had hundreds of millions of dollars leaving the state, we need to take that money and roll it back in, direct it to the people who need it.”
The millions leaving the state Bliss mentioned alluded to the investigative journalism piece from the metro, which discovered that many people were fraudulently using daycare vouchers, and a child wouldn’t attend a daycare center at all, even though the paperwork showed that they did.
The next question asked if the candidates support the development of environmentally sustainable energy, technology and infrastructure.
Grossell said he supports that already, through his support of electrical energies.
“MinnKota has been working toward sustainable energy through their coal-burning plants, which are some of the cleanest, most-efficient plants that are out there.”
Grossell also said North Star Electric in Baudette is researching solar and wind, but their research indicates that it could not sustain a grid, and the need to stop regulating energy industries to death, because the costs for energy will increase.
Northbird, however, said that renewably-generated energy is the second most-used contributor to the electric grid.
“It is a viable, usable thing,” Northbird said. “Red Lake is on the verge of being 100-percent renewable powered, and in Leech Lake, some of the first low-income solar farms in the country.”
Northbird also mentioned the farmers in southern Minnesota, who place windfarms on their property, because they believe it is their future.
Bliss said renewable energy is getting efficient, but it cannot be stored.
“Energy companies need to have the capability of 100-percent of the needed energy at any given time. I would love to not have to use any fossil fuels, but we’re not there yet.”
Bliss would support some subsidies towards getting away from the use of fossil fuels, he said.
Persell said tremendous progress has been made in renewable energy sustainability.
“This is a question that takes all of the above, all the answers, except do nothing, are right,” said Persell. “Just about everybody could have a solar panel or two, if we could move that forward. I would certainly support some subsidies, from our state and federally, to keep us moving in that direction.”
The next question concerned the upcoming redistricting process that will come after the 2020 census. The candidates were asked if they would support an independent commission to be responsible for redrawing the maps, rather than the current responsibility falling on the state legislature.
The DFL-ers Persell and Northbird supported an independent commission, while the Republicans Grossell and Bliss would rather keep the legislature in charge of the process.
“I don’t think anybody involved in government should be able to manipulate their own government to benefit themselves or their party,” said Northbird. “With everything in technology, we should someday be at a point where we can have an algorithm do it, to take people out of it entirely.”
“We tried to put forward guidelines [during the last session], so we couldn’t make up rules on how to redistrict. It would be there for the public to see, but it did not pass,” said Bliss. “This should be left to the legislature, with clear, unambiguous guidelines.”
“[Redistricting] is a job that gets so political because of the stakes that are out there,” said Persell. “I can’t think of a reason why partisan politics would stay in the center of it, that’s just a court case waiting to happen.”
“Whoever is doing the redistricting, I trust that they will work together, and do it in good faith, for the benefit, not the detriment, of our state,” said Grossell.
Candidates were then asked to explain the debate between unions and “right to work.”
“If you choose not to join a union, you should still benefit from the rights that the union fights for,” said Bliss. “In a recent Supreme Court case decision, school unions have to get an affirmative ‘yes’ before they can take union dues.”
Persell said, “There are options for those who don’t want to join a union. They can pay a minimal fee for the services the union is providing. The union is bargaining on their behalf, they are the beneficiary of wage increases, better health insurance, or whatever the particular issue is that they’re bargaining for.”
I’ve worked both union and nonunion jobs. I’ve never seen anything bad about unions,” said Grossell. “I’ve always been treated well, and I see it as a benefit. I believe there is common ground, for both [unions and nonunions[ to be used by our workforce.”
“I definitely support unions and oppose right to work,” said Northbird. “Nobody’s not going to get a job because they don’t want to join a union. Right to work is intended to strip employees and workers of their bargaining power, their benefits, their unionship.”
The final question asked was on what actions should be taken to address water quality concerns.
“We need to have continued monitoring of water quality,” said Persell. “In agricultural areas, the nitrates, filtrates, the sand, look at what happened to Park Rapids. They had to put in new wells in order to meet nitrate standards.”
Persell said regulations are needed to keep Minnesota’s waters clean, so it may remain a viable part of the state’s economy with fishing and recreation.
Grossell said that water quality is a bipartisan issue, but regulations are hitting small communities and farmers hard.
“We’ve got some of the best, purest, cleanest water in the nation,” he said. “Why does everyone got to attack the farmers, they have done more to make sure they’re doing things right.”
Grossell alluded to farmers using satellite imagery to determine the correct amount to apply nitrates, and in what quantities.
Northbird said maintaining regulations are more important than adding them or decreasing them.
“We need to ensure wetlands continue to be protected, they are earth’s natural filtration systems,” he said. “In my work with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, we have done studies and tests, in the middle of nowhere, we have pharmeceutical hits in the testing of the water. We need to have those laws, protections, we do have to stay there and not go away.”
Bliss emphasized the need for reasonable regulations, and the need for community members to have more involvement in setting the standards rather than an agency in St. Paul.
“Farmers and stakeholders are not opposed to regulating themselves,” he said. “They came up with alternative types of filtering systems, rather than the buffer zones, and the state has allowed them.”
The candidates made brief closing remarks, largely rebuking the statements their opponents have said. The forum lasted approximately one and a half hours.