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U.S. Sen. Tina Smith draws a number from candidate forum organizer Kent Thisse to determine where she sits during the Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, Farmfest event. Don Davis / Forum News Service

Minnesota U.S. Senate candidates trade arguments on trade

REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. — Minnesota's U.S. Senate candidates agree trade is important to farmers, but differ when it comes to details.

Reactions were varied at a candidate forum Tuesday, Aug. 7.

Republican-turned-Democrat Richard Painter's take was: "This trade war is an unmitigated disaster. Farmers will lose their farms over it if we don't turn this situation around."

Republican-endorsed Karin Housley assured farmers that she has their back will not let that happen: "I have a direct line to the president."

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said she will work for free trade because farmers tell her they prefer that over the $12 billion aid package President Donald Trump proposes to help farmers survive a trade war.

The comments came as the all-things-agriculture Farmfest show opened near Redwood Falls Tuesday. The candidate forum included included Smith, Painter and Housley, as well as lesser-known candidates Democrat Nick Leonard and Republican Bob Anderson.

The forum was the first of a record four candidate forums during the three-day event. Tuesday's opener was for candidates running to fill the final two years of Al Franken's term.

Governor candidates take the stage Wednesday, with those running for the regular six-year U.S. Senate term due up Thursday. The governor forum will be broadcast on WCCO radio 830 in the Twin Cities.

Leaders of farm groups asked the Senate candidates questions, and it was obvious they are concerned about a trade war after Trump slapped tariffs on China and other countries as he tries to negotiate fair trade agreements.

A farm bill now being negotiated between the House and Senate contains provisions to help expand international trade, said Smith, a Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton appointed to fill Franken's seat until Minnesotans could elect someone to finish the term.

Anderson admitted he is not well schooled on many agriculture issues — "I make teeth for a living" — but defended Trump, citing the $12 billion aid he wants to give farmers who otherwise may lose money in trade disputes. The aid shows "he is listening," Anderson said.

Leonard, who grew up on a farm not far from the southwest Minnesota Farmfest site, said he fears the aid is coming too late. He said he recalls the 1980s when many of his classmates' families were forced from the farm due to financial problems.

Smith sounded concerned about the long-term effect, too.

While farmers and ranchers will take the aid, she said, it may be hard to get the customers to return to buying farm American farm products. "Market share is really hard to get back."

Painter, who as a Republican was a frequent Trump critic on cable television news programs, said President Herbert Hoover in the 1930s put tariffs on some imports, but they failed. "Don't we learn from history?"

Trade uncertainties are among many items causing what has been called a rural mental health crisis.

Overall, Housley said, "No. 1, we have to reduce the financial stress on farmers."

She blamed federal health care laws known as Obamacare for increasing regulations and raising health insurance prices. She called for allowing the free market to take over.

Smith, on the other hand, said the federal government should open Medicare, an insurance program for the elderly, to everyone. She also said Trump is wrong in trying to overturn an Obamacare provision that requires insurers to provide insurance regardless of a person's existing conditions.

Painter suggested providing health care insurance for any one who needs it based on income.

The candidates showed some differences on an issue that raises the ire of many farmers: whether wolves should fall under government regulation as a way to protect livestock.

Smith said she hears farmers say the wolf issue "is a real problem," but did not give her solution. She said "I will listen hard on what you all think about this as we move forward."

Painter did not need to think any more about the issue. "I think they should remain on the endangered species list."

Housley, however, suggested getting the federal government out of the issue and hand wolf management decisions over to the states.

The wolf population has rebounded enough that it no longer needs strict protection, she added.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.