In the Race for Minnesota Governor, It’s No More Mr. Nice Guys
GOP candidate Jeff Johnson looks on as DFL candidate Tim Walz speaks during Tuesday's debate. ( Photo by Peter Callaghan/MinnPost)

In the Race for Minnesota Governor, It’s No More Mr. Nice Guys

The two major party nominees, Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz, once made a thing out of their personal camaraderie. With less than a month to go before the election, though, that chumminess has disappeared.

As the days before Nov. 6 become fewer, the patience of the two candidates for governor of Minnesota is growing thinner.

Before and after each won their party’s nomination, Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz made a thing out of their personal camaraderie. While admitting to stark policy differences, each said the fact that they get along should limit the acrimony that has become common in politics today. There were smiles and handshakes and small talk before joint appearances.

No more. The old bonhomie mostly disappeared before Tuesday’s debate, which was sponsored by a batch of Greater Minnesota agricultural entities and held at the Twin West Technology Campus in Willmar.

After a brief handshake, Johnson and Walz retreated to their podiums where they waited for a cue from WCCO radio that its broadcast of the forum had begun. Then the two candidates engaged in their most rancorous exchange so far.

Unlike earlier forums — held before either had faced a barrage of negative media by their rival and their rival’s supporter — the rhetoric was more pointed, labels more inflammatory, interruptions more frequent.

Johnson began with a nod to the previous cordiality — but didn’t linger there for long. “Tim, I think our personalities are actually quite similar,” he said before using a talking point used by Republicans around the country (but with a local angle thrown in). “But your voting record is quite liberal. I mean you’re with Nancy Pelosi and Keith Ellison more than 90 percent of the time. I think it’s 94 percent.”

Johnson also accused Walz, who has represented southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House since 2007, of taking more liberal positions since he began running for governor — positions he termed “pretty extreme and pretty far-left.”

Walz returned to his assertion that Johnson and Republicans are trying to use wedge issues such as urban-rural conflicts over transportation funding and immigration for cynical political reasons. “I think if you work with legislators, you make the case that we’re not going to do this ridiculous thing of pitting Greater Minnesota against the Twin Cities on transit,” he said. “You make sure there’s a balanced approach that serves all of us.”

On illegal immigration, Walz said Johnson, “does nothing but stoke fear.”

During another question on transportation, Johnson said something he has claimed before: that Walz supports a gas tax increase (and that Johnson does not). Walz, as he’s explained before, said he wants everything on the table. But Tuesday, they got into this more-pointed exchange:

“Tim, you have not said you are open to a gas tax increase,” Johnson said. “You said you would raise that gas tax at least …”

“The governor does not raise the gas tax,” Walz interrupted. “The Legislature does. The governor sets a vision and said that we need to talk about revenue …”

“Tim, you said right on your web site we will raise the gas tax. So you’ve got to decide what your position is on that.”

Both complained about campaign ads. Johnson disputed an Alliance for Better Minnesota series that claimed he would end the mandate that insurance policies cover pre-existing conditions. “It goes to that political philosophy that if you repeat a lie enough times some people will believe it.”

And Walz bristled at Johnson’s ads that criticize his health plan by showing people of different sizes trying on the same-size shirt. “This is about people,” Walz said. “This isn’t about cute statements, single payer, whatever. It’s about people’s lives.”

Later, in response to a question about President Trump’s trade war with China that has resulted in high tariffs on Minnesota agricultural products, Johnson said he disagreed with Trump on that issue. “The use of tariffs, I think, is just not a good thing for the state of Minnesota,” he said. “And what I could do more than anything else is be an advocate with the administration.”

When it was Walz’s turn, he looked at Johnson and asked: “Did you ask him Thursday night if he’d take [the tariffs] off?”

“I’m sorry?” said Johnson, seemingly unclear on what was being asked.

“Did you ask him Thursday night if he could take them off or help us?” Walz asked, referring to the Rochester rally at which Trump appeared last week.

“I only got to talk [to him] for two minutes,” Johnson said of Trump.

And so it went. During a lengthy back and forth on health care, Johnson criticized Walz for supporting what is known as the MinnesotaCare buy-in, a proposal pushed by Gov. Mark Dayton to expand eligibility of those allowed to buy insurance through a state’s program. Walz supports a plan to let those who earn more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level take advantage of lower rates enjoyed by the state’s purchasing power.

Earlier Tuesday, Johnson held a press conference during which he claimed that the plan includes lower reimbursement rates for hospitals and providers, something they can absorb because of revenue from patients with private insurance. Moving more people from private insurance to MinnesotaCare would bankrupt rural hospitals, Johnson said. Tuesday evening in front of a mostly rural audience, Johnson repeated that claim and said it has led to the Minnesota Hospital Association opposing MinnesotaCare buy-in.

Said Johnson: “The hospital association itself has said this is going to drive hosp…”

“That’s false,” interjected Walz.

“No, it’s true …” Johnson said.

“Jeff, there’s no public statement from them on that,” Walz said.

“They do not support this, because they … ”

“Is there a public statement from the hospital association that they do not support this?” Walz asked.

“Absolutely,” Johnson said. “In fact I cited it today.”

(The MHA did oppose that plan, primarily over the reimbursement issue.)

Walz later objected to the press conference itself, which he said was called to attack his ideas without offering solutions. Johnson claimed it was to do both, but Walz said it should have involved patients and providers.

“Can I give my pro tip of the day?” Walz said. “Bring them to the press conference then if that’s what you’re going to do. That’s a helpful way for people to get that information. That’s what I do.”

They also argued over whether Walz supports what is termed single-payer health system, in which a government-directed insurance entity contracts with current providers to insure patients. Walz has said he thinks such an evolution of insurance is “inevitable” but thinks MinnesotaCare buy-in is a first step.

Johnson Tuesday tried to pin Walz down, and needled him when he gave lengthy responses. “I still don’t have a clue what your position is on single payer?” Johnson said. “And it’s the most important issue in this election.”

For his part, Walz later teased Johnson for his idea of requiring state regulators to spend some days each year working in the industries they regulate. “I think if you’re going to be governor you should teach some school if you’re going to criticize [teachers],” Walz said.

“I didn’t criticize teachers. I never criticize teachers,” Johnson said. “I did criticize the union. I think there’s a difference.”

“That teacher’s union member is my son’s 6th grade teacher. Just keep that in mind,” Walz said.

Johnson said he thinks the state requirement that farmers leave buffers to protect groundwater is an unconstitutional “taking” of private property without compensation. He calls it the best example of arrogant, government-based regulation.

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Walz said he thinks working jointly on solutions is better than litigation. “I would rather us fix this together than go to court for 10 years,” Walz said after endorsing property tax credits for farmers who have to leave land unplanted. “Not being an attorney, I don’t default to the sue position; I default to, ‘How do we find compromise?’”

Responded Johnson: “I don’t default to the sue position, but I do default to the giving-people-rights-over-government position.”

Dayton made a pair of cameos, at least by reference. Earlier, when talking about the buffer issue, Walz vaguely criticized the way Dayton’s administration implemented the plan, which was seen by many in farm country as top-down. “I am not Gov. Dayton,” he said. “I have a different style. And that would have been brought to it.”

Johnson referred to Dayton in his closing statement: “Rather than more of the same — rather than a third Mark Dayton term a few steps to the left — I believe we need a fundamental change.”