Senate debate makes a stop in Austin

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 23, 2000

Overall a smashing success in spite of the rain, the main frustration for area residents with Sunday’s U.

Monday, October 23, 2000

Overall a smashing success in spite of the rain, the main frustration for area residents with Sunday’s U.S. Senate debate was the lack of locally generated questions – exactly five made it into the two-hour debate at Riverland Community College’s Frank W. Bridges Theatre.

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The majority of the questions asked in the two-hour debate among the four major party candidates came from the panel made up of Twin Cities media members.

Blame for the second disappointment of the evening falls entirely at the feet of the candidates themselves.

"I would like to hear what they believe in and how they will vote, not how they believe someone else will vote," Greta Kraushaar said.

Local businessman and rural resident Kyle Klaehn agreed.

"One thing myself and a lot of others feel is that they spend too much time debating things that are not the real issues," he said. "There were a lot of questions people wanted to ask, but there was a lot of time taken up with bickering."

Much of the negative commentary originated from Republican candidate and incumbent Sen. Rod Grams, who several times attacked DFL candidate Mark Dayton’s position on various issues rather than outlining his own. Grams didn’t respond to a challenge from Dayton to focus only on issues and his own platform for the last two weeks of the election season.

Overall, Kraushaar, who is the president of the Austin Area League of Women Voters, was pleased with the content of the debate, the turnout by the community and the number of local questions that were submitted. Audience members included a busload of DFL-faithful from Rochester and members of at least two high school government classes: one from Blooming Prairie and another from Austin High School.

"The problem was not a lack of local questions, there just wasn’t time to get them all in," she said.

The local questioners that did make the cut, however, represented a good cross-section of the community: Mayor Bonnie Rietz, local businessman Kyle Klaehn, AHS student Amber Berhow, Mower County community health director Margene Gunderson and dairy farmer Eunice Biel. All forced the four candidates to focus on very different areas. Gunderson brought up second-hand smoke, Rietz talked about federal environmental mandates, Berhow the problem of a disaffected youth vote and Klaehn wanted to know whether the candidates thought the federal government should do more and what to help the ag economy.

Biel, who hails from Harmony, Minn., spoke for many farmers. Pointing out that the Freedom to Farm Act had led to some of the lowest farm prices since the 1980s, yet some of the ag businesses had reported record profits, she asked what the candidates would do or had done "to equalize the playing field and provide a safety net for family farmers."

In reply, Constitution Party candidate David Swan repeated his mantra of the evening – that, yes, the question concerned a serious problem, but not one that the federal government should be involved with.

"I think the federal government has helped create this situation with its programs," Swan said. "The role of the federal government should be reduced."

The presence of Swan in the debate served to make the positions of all three of the other candidates seem somehow similar, if only because his position was often that the federal government was illegally involved in different regulatory efforts, from the Environmental Protection Agency to health care and Social Security.

In reality, the positions of Gibson, Grams and Dayton had little in common.

On the issue of the family farm and the Freedom to Farm Act, Gibson advocated phasing out federal subsidies to farmers. Grams boasted of his support for the Freedom to Farm Act and said he opposed putting limitations on mergers but supported the creation of a special office to make sure there are no monopolies. Dayton favored raising loan rates to get prices up in the marketplace so farmers could make a profit.

Despite the occasional nasty comment, the candidates’ exchange of ideas during the comment time allowed after each question was answered and kept the debate lively.

"I liked the give and take between the candidates," Minnesota League of Women Voters debate coordinator Liz Nordling said. "We planned on that. Too often the candidates get stuck in their one-minute sound bites. I think more clarification came from giving them time to react to what each other had said after the initial answers.

No official winner was declared, but if Nordling’s earlier observation about the gubernatorial debates carries over, Gibson will be the winner of this race.

"Ventura was always the last to leave the post-debate receptions," she said on an earlier trip to Austin. "He would linger until the last voter had gone while Humphrey would leave the debate immediately and Coleman would stay for about 10 minutes."

Gibson left at the same time as the punch bowl and remaining cookies last night, outstaying all but the organizers.