Each year, I enjoy the privilege of attending the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention, which allows for great networking opportunities and always-informational sessions on various facets of the newspaper industry.
This year, for the first time in my memory, the MNA, along with the Minnesota News Council and League of Women Voters Minnesota, hosted a pre-caucus gubernatorial debate. And this wasn’t just any debate – the number of candidates from the DFL, Republican and Independence parties numbered in the range of 20 – and there were still some (most notably, Worthington High School alum Matt Entenza) who were absent. As a small-scale "political junkie" (a small nod toward Wednesday afternoon’s segment on Minnesota Public Radio’s "Talk of the Nation"), I was eager to see so many candidates in one place discussing their views on any number of issues.
While I enjoyed being able to hear first-hand the opinions of so many gubernatorial hopefuls, I couldn’t help but come away with one predominant impression. A forum with such a large number of participants just isn’t the same as a one-on-one visit with any politician, whether he or she is running for governor or city council.
Sure, there were some candidates who separated themselves from the pack a little bit last night, but those who did so – in my view, anyway – were the ones who made the most negative impressions. Phil Herwig, a GOP candidate (albeit one who faces long odds in getting his party’s nomination) came across as too angry, and at one point took many of his opponents to task by denouncing them as "out of their minds." Another GOP candidate, Leslie Davis, consistently spoke about something about the "Davis Money Plan," which I still don’t know much about or understand. DFLer Tom Bakk, with whom I enjoyed a fine visit several weeks ago at the Globe, was well-spoken but seemed to come across as a little gruff; in person and one-on-one, he displayed a much more amiable and personal side that I compared in a blog post to that of Tim Walz. And then there was Ole Savior, the so-called "perennial candidate," who was clad in Vikings gear and a black leather jacket while wearing what appeared to be some kind of rouge on his cheekbones. His suggestion that the Minnesota State Fair run year-round was, let’s just say, the topic of considerable rest-room conversation during the brief intermission.
Most surprising to me during the debate was the tone struck toward the end by DFLer R.J. Rybak, the current mayor of Minneapolis. I’ve read that Rybak has won several kudos for his management of the city in the wake of its bridge collapse tragedy, and I was eager to see just how viable a candidate he might be. But Rybak’s most notable moment was when he did much more than decline to answer a yes-or-no question about whether Tim Pawlenty’s Q-COMP program would be renewed under his leadership. Instead, he hailed the question as "stupid" and in essence attacked the debate event itself. In a way, Rybak was right – it’s extremely difficult to answer most issue-oriented questions with straight yes or no answers; it’s the amount of nuance, and the accompanying level of articulation, that separates candidates. Yet I felt Rybak’s "stupid" comment was wrong and ill-placed, and I thought it hurt any positive opinions of him that may have already been formulated.
There was one candidate, Rahn Workcuff of the Independence Party, who had someone (a daughter, perhaps?) verbally articulate a majority of his answers to questions due to a disability. But when it came to the rapid-fire, yes-or-no-answer portion of the debate, Workcuff spoke memorably. His "no" answers weren’t simply nos; they were "Hell, no"s.
Mr. Workcuff, and all the other gubernatorial candidates out there, please come visit Worthington. I look forward to meeting you and having a conversation about the issues that allows the opportunity to go beyond time restrictions and penchants for sound bites.