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Election 2016: Senate candidates debate wide array of issues

The two candidates vying to represent District 9 in the Minnesota Senate debated Thursday night on Lakeland Public Television. Incumbent Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and DFL challenger Jason Weinerman answered questions posed by a panel of area m...

DFLer Jason Weinerman (left) and Republican Sen. Paul Gazelka debate Thursday night at the studios of Lakeland Public Television. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch
DFLer Jason Weinerman (left) and Republican Sen. Paul Gazelka debate Thursday night at the studios of Lakeland Public Television. Chelsey Perkins/Brainerd Dispatch

The two candidates vying to represent District 9 in the Minnesota Senate debated Thursday night on Lakeland Public Television.

Incumbent Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and DFL challenger Jason Weinerman answered questions posed by a panel of area media figures, including Dennis Weimann of Lakeland Public Television, Heidi Holtan of KAXE-Northern Community Radio and Zach Kayser of the Brainerd Dispatch.

The debate lasted an hour. Each candidate had two minutes to answer questions and one minute to offer a rebuttal. The candidates also had one minute of bonus time they could choose to use once in either an answer or a rebuttal.

In introductions, the candidates stated what their priorities would be, should they be elected. Gazelka, an eight-year senator, said one of his top priorities would be to repeal MNsure, or fix it if the support for repeal is not there. He also said he would work to pass tax relief for on business and agriculture property taxes, along with tax credits for student loans and a social security income tax exemption.

Weinerman, running for the first time, said he would restore fiscal responsibility to the government and use surplus funds to "strengthen the foundation upon which Minnesota was made great."

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Presidential nominee support

The candidates were asked which of the presidential candidates they supported and why.

Weinerman said he supported the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, although he said she was "definitely not the perfect candidate." Even so, Weinerman said Clinton had a better focus on the working class and a clear commitment to equal rights, with a better chance of unifying the country.

Gazelka said as a Christian conservative, the question was a "very interesting" one for him. He said he supported Donald Trump, although he first listed a series of reasons he could not support Clinton. This included her handling of the Benghazi attack, the inappropriate use of emails and what he described as "funneling money" through the Clinton Foundation.

Gazelka chose to use his extra minute for this question, to further explain his support for Trump. He said he's the anti-abortion candidate and would appoint judges who would follow the Constitution. Gazelka said he wants to close the borders, wants to go after Islamic terrorism and is a job creator. He said Clinton would do the opposite of what Trump would do, although he acknowledged the Republican nominee was not his first choice.

"He's crass, he's crude, which doesn't line up with how I want to be in life," Gazelka said. "He's not my perfect candidate. He wasn't in my top 10 candidates."

Problems with MNsure

The state's health insurance exchange was the next topic handled by the candidates.

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Gazelka said MNsure has "flopped miserably." He said when it was passed, it had zero Republican support and the Democrats took none of the Republicans' ideas. He said he would prefer to go to the federal exchange, although if MNsure remains he'd like to see some changes. Those changes included tax deductions for people purchasing health insurance on their own and reducing the mandated coverages, such as sex changes.

Weinerman agreed with Gazelka that MNsure needed to be fixed. He said it would require a deeper look to determine what is driving the higher end of the rates and what's driving the lower end. He agreed with subsidizing premiums for those seeing massive increases and also supported a "cluster pool," allowing individuals to act as a larger group.

Weinerman disagreed with turning it back over to the federal exchange, however, adding, "I don't think turning things over to the federal government is the way to go."

Renewable energy

Weinerman said investing in wind and solar resources was a "tremendous opportunity" for the state. He pointed to Camp Ripley, which he described as doing "truly revolutionary, innovative things" by installing a massive solar array, which when finished will produce more power than the camp currently uses. He commended electric co-ops he said are helping rural residents meet their energy needs while also striving to meet the mandate of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.

Weinerman said the way forward was to continue phasing out fossil fuels. He pointed to global climate change and water pollution as factors informing his opinion.

Gazelka said he was not opposed to solar and wind energy, although he was not in favor of the 2025 mandate, which he said was pushed through when Democrats had control of the House, Senate and governor's mansion.

"I don't want to make our country go faster on this than we need to," Gazelka said, adding he wanted a "balanced approach."

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He said he did not want it to be too difficult for businesses to move forward because of the high emphasis on renewable energy. He pointed to the potential PolyMet mining operation and the suspended Sandpiper oil pipeline as examples of processes that took too long.

Social issues

The candidates were asked which social issue was the most important to them.

Gazelka said he is "pro-life" and he supports doing away with taxpayer-funded abortion. A current issue troubling to him, however, is transgender use of bathrooms and locker rooms and participation in high school athletics. He said he understood it was a "very sensitive" issue, but he did not agree with changing the whole system and allowing boys who are transgender to shower with girls.

"Without a doubt, God created men and women equal, but different," Gazelka said. "That difference is something we should honor."

He said he is passionate about his four daughters "being the absolute best and highest they can be in life."

Weinerman said the biggest social issue for him is "equality across all classes of society." He said he is a "proud pro-choice Democrat," and he believes women have the right to choose what they want to do with their bodies. That includes abortion, but also includes whether they want to have sex and what kind of contraception they want to use.

He said the Minnesota State High School League has a stringent policy in place to determine the veracity of someone's transgender issues. It's not as though a linebacker on the football team can suddenly decide they want to join girl's field hockey, Weinerman said.

Weinerman said he found Gazelka's position interesting, because he felt it did not hold true with the conservative value of people being able to make the decision about their own destiny.

"He wants the state to define what it means to be a man, define what it means to be a woman," Weinerman said.

Economy

Reinvigoration of the economy in central Minnesota was the center of the next question for the candidates.

The candidates agreed the expansion of broadband internet through rural Minnesota was critical to ensuring the region would remain economically relevant.

Weinerman said another primary factor to jumpstarting the economy was to ensure infrastructure to allow for growth, pointing to the repair of roads and bridges. He said in addition, those repairs would bring jobs themselves to the region.

Gazelka said for the economy to be prosperous, private business owners had to be successful. He said often these business owners are penalized instead of being helped, with onerous regulations and a heavy tax burden. He also said lining up education with the job market would have an impact of the workforce.

In his rebuttal, Weinerman said during the recent recession, state funding was cut, but now that there is a surplus, the Republicans want to give tax relief. He said there could be some minor tax relief, but he would prefer the money be reinvested in the local government to ensure businesses have a foundation.

Gazelka responded, noting the state's budget has increased from $35 billion to $42 billion in the last four years. He said some areas reduced spending, but overall the budget increased by 18 percent.

Weinerman chose to use his extra minute to respond to Gazelka, stating Minnesota is not back to where it was before the recession. He said if Republicans were in charge, there likely would be a budget deficit again.

Mental illness

Candidates were asked how the state can do better when it comes to meeting the needs of those with mental illness.

Gazelka said it's a complicated issue and he is trying to learn more about it. He said he agreed with the move from the regional treatment center concept to community-based treatment, because patients "have people around that can help them."

He said there are a number of gaps, and one of those is care for patients with a tendency toward violence. He said he's spoken with those in law enforcement and at hospitals, and if the experts agree, he plans to push for urgent care centers for mental health.

Weinerman said there is a lot of stigmatization with mental illness.

"I think we don't treat mental illness like other physical illnesses," Weinerman said. "Some people consider those who have mental illness to be somehow flawed."

Weinerman agreed with the urgent care concept and noted there should be more support for long-term mental health care.

Gazelka said he's witnessed mental health struggles of family members, and he and Weinerman are "pretty close" on this issue in believing there should not be stigma attached to mental illness.

"I totally agree that they should not be stigmatized, and in fact, loved even more if we can," Gazelka said.

Terrorist attacks

In light of the recent stabbing attack at a St. Cloud mall, the candidates were asked what more the state can do to prevent terrorist attacks.

Weinerman described the attack as a one-time incident. He said Muslim communities needed to be embraced in the state, and incidents like the one in St. Cloud might not happen "if we didn't ostracize them and treat them all as if they are terrorists."

He said the stabbing was horrible, but Minnesota also has a history of school shootings conducted by students who were not Muslim.

Gazelka said he supported "building bridges with the Muslim community," but he said he also wanted to acknowledge the St. Cloud attack was Islamic terrorism. He discussed a recent 10-day visit to Germany, during which he said there was a knife attack, a gun attack, a bomb attack and a machete attack in the country. He said the reason was the 1 million "Islamic refugees" recently accepted there.

"I would rather not accept more refugees from the Middle East," Gazelka said.

He said it leads to secondary migration and strains the state's economy, adding Willmar was an example of a community strained by an influx of Somali refugees.

Weinerman responded the state should be careful about not overreacting to the mall stabbing.

"We had a single incident of a single person who claims to be influenced under Islamic terrorism," Weinerman said. "We have a tendency of jumping to horrifying conclusions."

He disagreed on Gazelka's assessment of Willmar, pointing to a recent St. Cloud Times article extolling the successes within the Willmar school system of accepting students of different cultures.

Gazelka said his brother, who lives in Willmar, would tell a different story. He said it was a balancing act, but people needed to "see it for what it is and then try to find solutions for it."

Gun issues

The last question posed to candidates concerned their opinion on a recent law passed in Missouri, which allows residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit.

Gazelka said he is the National Rifle Association-endorsed candidate and he has a permit to carry. He said he would not push for similar legislation in Minnesota, but he would vote for it.

He said his priority would be for Minnesota to have its own Second Amendment, so if the federal government ever decided "they don't want to honor our Second Amendment" the state would have its own protections.

"We are in a changing world, and I think it's wise for people to carry," Gazelka said, pointing to the importance of conceal and carry in the St. Cloud mall stabbing. In that incident, an off-duty police officer carrying a firearm shot and killed the suspect.

Weinerman said he believed every person should be legally allowed to acquire any amount or type of firearms they choose and there should not be restrictions. He also believed language in the Second Amendment, referring to a "well regulated militia," meant those who choose to carry are essentially becoming a part of the law enforcement system.

"I believe there is an assumption of that individual that they are willing to use deadly force," Weinerman said.

In that case, he said there should be stronger training requirements for those acquiring conceal and carry permits.

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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