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Republican Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, and Democrat Tim Walz, a U.S. Representative from southern Minnesota, speak during the “Greater Minnesota Debate” gubernatorial candidate forum at the MinnWest Technology Campus Tuesday evening. Erica Dischino / Forum News Service

Walz, Johnson stick to common themes in central Minnesota forum

WILLMAR, Minn. — The views of Minnesota's future provided by its major candidates for governor could hardly be more different.

During a 90-minute forum Tuesday, Oct. 9, in Willmar, they stuck to some main themes.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate Tim Walz returned frequently to his plan to build coalitions and find solutions to problems that work for the state as a whole.

Republican candidate Jeff Johnson spoke of changing the culture in state government to make government employees more accountable to the taxpayers who pay their salaries.

The forum was broadcast live on WCCO Radio and held at MinnWest Technology Campus. In addition to the radio station, sponsors were Agrigrowth and the Minnesota Corn Growers, with support from Minnesota's Credit Unions and AARP Minnesota. Moderators were WCCO's Chad Hartman and Blois Olson.

The forum touched on a variety of topics including transportation, immigration, taxes, health care and barriers to economic development. While much of the discussion was polite and low-key, neither man hesitated to throw out a comment while his opponent was speaking.

Johnson said he is in favor of a temporary halt to refugee resettlement in the state, giving officials time to determine the costs and benefits to the state. Minnesota has done more than other states, he said, but some communities, especially St. Cloud, have asked about the cost.

Walz said, "Minnesota is better because of immigration." He said the state's population is aging, and an influx of immigrants will be able to help the state withstand that change. Immigrants also provide jobs, he said, and used Worthington as an example, where the downtown area is full of businesses started by immigrant entrepreneurs.

The men agreed on a couple things. One was the need to do a better job at equalizing education spending across the state. Another was their dislike of the federal government's recent practice of imposing tariffs.

On the rural economic development barriers of access to broadband, quality child care and affordable housing, both candidates agreed on the need for government incentives to develop broadband access in rural areas.

Johnson said he didn't like government competing with business, but he does support a state program "that provides incentives to the private sector to step up."

Walz likened the need for broadband to rural electrification in the last century.

Walz also said businesses can work with government to find solutions to the housing and child care needs.

"The solutions are out there," he said. "You're going to need a leader."

Johnson said scarce child care is partly caused by state government, which has regulated providers to the point of driving some out of business.

Both candidates have been active in Minnesota politics for more than a decade.

Johnson, 51, of Plymouth, is originally from Detroit Lakes. He is a lawyer and served in the Minnesota House of Representatives from 2001 to 2007. He was elected to the Hennepin County Board in 2008. Johnson was his party's candidate for governor in 2014, when he lost to incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton.

Walz, 54, grew up in rural Nebraska and moved to Minnesota in 1996. He joined the Army National Guard at the age of 17 and retired in 2005 at the rank of command sergeant major. He is a teacher and football coach. He taught in Mankato West High School until he was elected to Congress in 2006.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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