WORTHINGTON — In a nearly hour-long debate Tuesday evening, Minnesota House District 22B incumbent Rod Hamilton and challenger Lynn Herrick appeared to have more similarities than differences.
So much so, in fact, that moderator Ryan McGaughey asked at one point if they should all sing "Kumbaya." Hamilton and Herrick simply grinned.
Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, is seeking his ninth term in the Minnesota House, having first been elected in 2004. In his 16 years of service, he noted his ability to work across party lines, particularly in getting legislation passed to complete the Minnesota 60 four-lane expansion from the Iowa state line to Mankato and working on a state funding advance to expand the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System in southwest Minnesota.
Married for 31 years with two grown children, Hamilton said it is very important to work together and have peaceful and civil conversations.
Herrick (DFL-Worthington), married for 50 years with three grown children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, worked as a licensed psychologist and therapist, and has resided in Worthington since 1988. Admittedly entering politics later in life, he said he’s a compromiser who can work with others to get things done.
The two candidates responded to seven different questions, ranging from the state’s budget deficit and business impact from the global pandemic to health care, taxes, police reform and being a voice for people of color in the district's communities.
On the state budget deficit, Hamilton said he supported Gov. Tim Walz early on in the pandemic, and still believes the state should follow science. However, he said in April that not collecting sales tax or employment taxes as a result of shuttered businesses and laid off workers was going to hurt the state. Locally, shoppers were crossing the state lines to Iowa and South Dakota, further hurting Minnesota’s economy.
Had businesses been allowed to reopen sooner, Hamilton said the state would have the dollars to pay for critical services.
“There’s going to be some very difficult decisions being made,” he added.
Herrick replied that he understands the economic consequences, but people need to understand how serious the pandemic is.
“Yes, we do have to look at the economics,” he said. “We also have to understand our citizens are getting sick, and we have to do something about that. It doesn’t do any good to open up the economy when we don’t have citizens to go out and spend.”
In rebuttal, Hamilton said COVID is a serious issue and he takes it “very seriously” as someone with a compromised immune system.
Meanwhile, Herrick said the flow of dollars to Iowa and South Dakota has “gone on for generations.”
“We do need to figure out how to keep spending here in southwest Minnesota,” he added.
On the issue of health care, both Herrick and Hamilton spoke from personal experience — Hamilton as an individual with multiple sclerosis, and Herrick as a spouse of someone who has been disabled for years.
Hamilton said he’s a strong advocate for affordable, quality and accessible care, as well as complete transparency. He said if the state was able to compare providers, it could shop around and therefore, see competitiveness in the market.
“Even though Minnesota has some of the best care in the world, we can do better.” said Hamilton, who also noted his strong support for robust research, the protection of Medicare and Medicaid and reforms.
Herrick said he agreed with Hamilton on protecting Medicare and Medicaid, and that he wants to see an expansion of MNsure, the state’s health insurance marketplace, which has allowed more people to be covered.
“Minnesota did a good job creating that program,” Herrick said. “I do think we need to look at accessibility more.”
Hamilton said he has gone toe-to-toe with health insurance companies and pharmacy benefits managers during his own care, to which Herrick said Hamilton’s position as a legislator has helped him advocate for his care.
“We need to have that same advocacy for all citizens,” Herrick said, noting that his wife, due to her pre-existing condition, had difficulty finding supplemental insurance after her Medicare supplement insurer pulled out of Nobles County.
“That shouldn’t have happened under the Affordable Care Act,” he added.
A question posed to the candidates about ensuring availability of personal protective equipment for nurses and front-line workers had Herrick saying the state wasn’t as well-prepared as it should have been.
“What we learned is that we cannot rely on the federal government,” he said. “We have to prepare as a state to deal with this, and we need to make sure we have our stockpiles of PPE so we don’t have to panic when another pandemic occurs or this one lasts much longer than we expected it to.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, offered thanks to his nurses and said his daughter is a registered nurse working with COVID patients.
“This is one of the reasons why I did support the governor on the initial shutdown,” Hamilton said. “It allowed us as a state to be better prepared.”
He also encouraged people having difficulty getting PPE to reach out to him.
Posed with a question on police reform, Hamilton said the state legislature recently passed a bill aimed at reducing police violence. The legislation bans departments from warrior-style training, chokeholds and neck restraints, and calls for enhanced reporting and data collection.
“There are things we can and should do locally,” Hamilton said, such as cross-cultural awareness and keeping the flow of communication with leaders of Karen, Latino and East African populations to better understand the issues.
Herrick said a result of the 1980s farm crisis in Minnesota was the closure of state-operated mental health hospitals.
“That has had an affect on how people are responding now,” Herrick said. “We got rid of state hospitals and flooded correctional facilities with people who have issues. Because of that, police officers have become fearful of interacting with the public.
“I think we need better education for our police,” he added. “I want to work against the fear.”
Those responses were followed up with a question pertaining to people of color saying their voices are not being heard.
“How, as a legislator, can you make sure these people are heard and not forgotten about?” McGaughey asked.
Herrick said the influx of people of color in Worthington began around 1988, and it’s taken a time for them to develop their leadership.
“We’re getting stronger and stronger voices from the minorities now and I appreciate that,” Herrick said. “We need to reach out to them; they won’t reach out to us — they don’t have the confidence to do that yet.”
Hamilton said he’s been to Worthington several times to meet with various groups and discuss issues important to them.
“I’ve met with Dreamers; I’m trying to do that outreach myself,” Hamilton said.
With children of color representing approximately 80% of Prairie Elementary students, and 75% at both the middle and high school in Worthington, Hamilton said the councils, boards and commissions in five to 10 years will not look like it does today — and it shouldn’t.
“It should represent the community,” he added.
The last question of the evening pertained to taxes and budget cuts in the age of COVID.
Hamilton said it will be a tough time for government, and legislators need to be thoughtful, while Herrick said the surgical knife will need to be applied.
Both candidates agreed that fraud, waste and duplication of services should be addressed.
In closing, Hamilton said he will continue being himself and leading by example.
“I try my best to bring people together and try to have civil discussion,” he said, noting his myriad endorsements in this election.
Herrick said while he’s new to the political arena, he feels like he’s had enough experiences in his lifetime and knows what our citizens need.
“I’m very appalled at how divisive our people have become,” he said. “It’s gotten out of hand. I think some of the partisan shenanigans that have happened up at the state level have to be addressed.”
In lieu of a handshake at the end of their debate, Hamilton and Herrick shared an elbow bump.
The general election is Nov. 3, with early voting now open. Absentee and mail ballots have also been distributed to registered voters.