WORTHINGTON — The three candidates running for the Minnesota Senate District 22 seat participated in a candidates' forum Tuesday evening, hosted by the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce.
Incumbent Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, faced off against challengers Shawna Marshall, DFL-Luverne, and Brian Abrahamson, Grassroots Legalize Cannabis-Luverne.
Constituents were invited to submit written questions through the Chamber or through Facebook. They raised a number of concerns and policy issues to the three candidates.
The Senate hopefuls explained to voters how they would approach the impending budget deficit.
"The state of Minnesota is not allowed to spend at deficit levels," Weber said, sharing that recent estimates fall somewhere between a final budget shortfall of anywhere from $5 to $11 billion.
Rather than making budget cuts, Weber favors shifting funds.
Marshall agreed with Weber's assertion, adding that "we also have to know, 'Where are the areas we have to protect? Where are the places that cannot be allowed to cut into?'"
Communities throughout District 22 depend on social programs, she noted. Those services need to stay in place, even during tough budget years.
"Whatever hard choices have to be made," Marshall said, "we're going to protect our communities and our people."
Abrahamson echoed the remarks of his opponents and added that he would like to prioritize funding for education, infrastructure, medical needs and clean water.
Marshall, a mental health counselor by profession, explained that while economic concerns in and of themselves are challenging, the emotional stress caused by economic losses, uncertainty and isolation is actually more difficult for the government to help with.
Economic and social safety nets can help alleviate stressors and increase resilience, she said. Marshall proposed creating a health care crisis plan with a tiered system of response, divided by Senate district, so in future emergencies, each district in Minnesota responds according to its individual needs rather than following a state plan tailored for the metro area.
Additionally, the state should help businesses rebuild and provide mental health resources for its residents, she continued.
"There's a lot we could do at the state level," she said, saying that key to getting through the pandemic is bolstering state services.
Abrahamson agreed with his opponent.
"We need to be straightforward with people," he suggested. Being realistic about the situation will bring peace of mind, he said.
Weber noted that he wonders if the public will lose faith in medical professionals as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, since safety recommendations have changed a few times over the last several months.
"When we shut down our hospitals, how many missed cases or early diagnoses of cancer were out there?" he asked. "How many people suffered with mental issues — depression and others — and couldn't get treatment?"
He criticized the state's decision in the early months of the pandemic to send COVID-19 patients back into long-term care facilities "while the hospitals were empty." Since then, 70% of Minnesota's COVID-19 fatalities have occurred in long-term care facilities.
"We need to hold some people accountable for what we've done," he said. "There had better be a number of things that, quite frankly, get learned from this experience."
Following each question, candidates were allowed a 90-second rebuttal to any of their opponents' comments. The Senate hopefuls didn't ask for many rebuttals Tuesday night, but following Weber's remarks on COVID-19, Marshall asked to use her 90 seconds.
"We were not shut down," she said of mental health services. Crisis needs were met, and patients were able to get help.
"We have to be careful ... of providing misinformation," she warned.
Police brutality and protests
A question was raised to the candidates about the protests and riots in the wake of the death of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality. Are riots protected free speech, and what do the candidates propose to do to about police brutality?
"I think we need to talk a really hard look at what caused the problem in the first place," said Abrahamson, "and that's police brutality.
"Black lives matter because all lives matter," he continued. "Black people don't want to hear about your Black friends from college or high school. They want you to know that they're going through struggles — so unfortunately, rioting is a response to that."
Weber addressed the initial part of the question.
"(Rioting) is not a legal expression of one's opinion," he said, pointing out that people of color also lost their businesses in the May riots, "There is no excuse for that type of violence. And there is no excuse for any local government or state government or federal government to abandon those individuals who have been given the responsibility of law enforcement.
"There is no question that there were mistakes made in terms of George Floyd's arrest and how he was treated afterward. No one questions that situation," Weber added.
Weber also condemned those who rioted and burned a Minneapolis police precinct in response to Floyd's death.
"There is no good that can come of that," he said. "Those people who wished to speak reasonably for the community ... their voices got lost in the violence that erupted."
Weber criticized Gov. Tim Walz for having what Weber described as a slow response in activating the National Guard, and stated that rioting should not be tolerated.
Marshall began her comments by stating her belief that "we're dealing with two independent issues when we talk about this subject." While rioting is not legal, protesting is, she said, and the two are completely separate.
From a legislative standpoint, the state has a number of actions it could take to try to prevent police brutality, she said.
Police department budgets and training bear scrutiny, she suggested. Along with that, police officers need to be cared for, she added, noting that many officers have post-traumatic stress disorder, "and that causes our officers to be more ready to use that excessive force."
Law enforcement personnel who are terminated from a position due to excessive use of force should not be allowed to get a job with a different law enforcement agency, she said.
Another solution is to find ways to eliminate "the racism that is inherent in our system right now," Marshall added.
"These are uncomfortable questions, but they are questions that we have to ask ourselves, so that we don't end up next year having these same protests and riots, so that we can protect all of our people," she said.
Forum attendees wanted to know the candidates' thoughts on whether Minnesota should restrict the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and if the government should do more to prevent youth tobacco use.
In short, yes, Abrahamson said. Not only should flavored e-cigarettes be restricted, but there should be an age limit on their purchase. (The legal limit for tobacco purchase in Minnesota is 21.)
Marshall specified that while minors shouldn't have access to flavored e-cigarettes, but adult access should not be impeded. It's common for youth to get around the age restriction by purchasing vaping products online, she said, so perhaps a way to alleviate that problem would be to require more steps of personal identification.
"Obviously, we need to do something that we're not doing right now," she said, reiterating that the state should balance protecting youth while avoiding over-regulation.
Weber explained that this is an ongoing conversation in the legislature. He supports funding tobacco education resources for all ages.
He recalled voting against a bill that sought to raise taxes on tobacco products, saying that he told his political opponents, "You know, if you really are sincere about cutting back on peoples' smoking, then why don't you just outlaw it? And you aren't going to do that, and the reason you aren't going to do that is if you lost that tax revenue in the state coffers, we would see what true nicotine withdrawal symptoms are like."
He advocated for less regulation, as well.
"The state cannot, nor should it ever be, the replacement for the parents," Weber said, adding that in the case of families where the children end up in the foster system, then the state should step in with resources to prevent tobacco use.
Marshall again offered a rebuttal.
"This isn't just an issue that families with bad parents face — this is an issue that all kinds of families face," she said, objecting to the notion that if a minor is using tobacco, it's the parents' fault.
The candidates spent the last few minutes of the forum explaining how they plan to work across party lines to come up with the best solutions for their constituents.
Weber pointed to his history of working across the aisle, noting that sometimes he votes for a bill reluctantly because the people need a budget to be passed.
"There actually is a fair amount of cooperation up there (in St. Paul)," he added.
"That (bipartisanship) is something we used to be really good at here in Minnesota," Marshall said. However, recently, the bad habits of Washington politicians have started to rub off on state leaders, and the Capitol has struggled with legislators walking the party line.
"I'm just tired of the partisanship, especially when it gets in the way of doing what's right for our people," she said. She cited the example of this year's bonding bill, which would have greatly benefitted businesses and people all over the district, but was halted in the legislature by a partisan standoff.
Abrahamson agreed, saying that "we do have to have that conversation." Elected officials should be able to talk through solutions to problems, rather than name calling and bickering.
To conclude the forum, the candidates made a last push for votes in their closing statements.
"I very much respect my fellow candidates," Marshall said, acknowledging the efforts of both Weber and Abrahamson to serve people in their individual spheres of influence. "(This) is about showing you the differences in our visions for the future of Minnesota.
"My vision for southern Minnesota is one where we're not having to be in a pandemic or a protest to stand together, to support one another, to work together," she said.
Abrahamson prefaced his remarks with the caveat that he was going to be "pointed" in his statement.
"We don't need career politicians that use their seat to fill their constituents with lies, make empty campaign promises and use their seat for their own personal financial gain. ... We need a true grassroots representative, not politicians who take money from PACs, lobbyists or special interests, like Bill Weber has received half of his donations from. He has shown us who he's fighting for, and it's not the people.
"I'll be a true grassroots representative that is truly one of us," he promised.
Weber described his service to the district as a "distinct honor," promised to address all of his constituents' needs and asked voters to support his vision to "keep Minnesota good and continue to make it better."