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Candidates for Minnesota governor talk rural issues

GOP gubernatorial candidates Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens (center left) and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (center right) talked before a rural issues forum. DFL candidate Chris Coleman (right), former mayor of St. Paul, talked with Reed Anfinson of the Center for Rural Development.

Candidates for governor from both political parties gathered Friday to address pressing issues in rural Minnesota, including a shortage of workers, housing and health care.

The location: A Bloomington hotel, which seemed to encapsulate the perceived short shrift given rural communities in the state’s political dialogue.

Candidates are hustling to win support at Feb. 6 precinct caucuses, where attendees will have a chance to select their choice for governor in a nonbinding straw poll. Caucusgoers will also begin the process of choosing delegates to their state conventions in June, where the parties will endorse candidates for governor.

With DFL Gov. Mark Dayton not running for re-election, the race is wide open and contested on both sides.

Republican and DFL candidates both pledged solidarity with greater Minnesota, albeit from diametrically opposing viewpoints.

Republicans Jeff Johnson and Keith Downey said the state needs to impose fewer burdens on builders and health insurance companies to free up companies to meet the needs of rural residents.

“You can’t build low cost housing in Minnesota anymore,” said Downey, a former Republican lawmaker from Edina who also previously served as chairman of the state Republican Party. Downey blamed government regulations on developers for driving up the cost of much needed housing in rural communities.

DFL Reps. Paul Thissen, Tina Liebling and Erin Murphy, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and State Auditor Rebecca Otto said the state needs to spend money on housing, child care, health care and other rural needs.

Thissen said when he arrived at the Legislature in 2003, government solved a deficit by reducing aid to local communities and child care subsidies, cuts that have hurt rural communities the most, he said.

Mary Giuliani Stephens, the Republican mayor of Woodbury, promised to tailor solutions to individual communities, like a parent with her children: “I will not do a one-size-fits-all for greater Minnesota. We are one state and one family. But even in my family my children different,” she said.

Coleman advocated for rural broadband internet access: “How are you going to attract families when you have to drive around in your car to get cell coverage so your kid can do his homework?” he asked.

Johnson, the lone Republican on the Hennepin County Board, said greater Minnesota residents should have more health insurance options like low cost catastrophic coverage with high deductibles: “Who am I to say they shouldn’t be able to do that?” he asked.

Walz touted his experience representing one of the nation’s biggest agriculture producing congressional districts: “Not theoretically representing rural Minnesota but actually representing rural Minnesota,” he said.

Otto cited a set of policy plans she’s released, including two years of tuition free college she said would help provide businesses with the workers they need in greater Minnesota.

Reed Anfinson, who owns two rural newspapers and sits on the board of the Center for Rural Policy and Development, which sponsored the forum, was mostly unimpressed with what he called “platitudes” of the candidates.

“With each generation people in the metro get farther away from having a tie to greater Minnesota,” he said.

Anfinson said what rural communities most desperately need are people after decades of population stagnation and loss.

Swift County, where he publishes the Swift County Monitor-News, has lost one-third of its population since its peak in the 1950s, he said.

“We need people creation,” he said.

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