EAST GULL LAKE-The debate could serve as a microcosm of the race- at times deliberate and measured, then caustic and heated, or, in a few moments, emotionally moving.
But, if Democrat Joe Radinovich or Republican Pete Stauber are going to win the 8th Congressional District, they'll have to prove themselves on a variety of fronts. Time will tell if the debate Monday, Oct. 8, at Madden's Town Hall Conference Center, at the resort in East Gull Lake, separated one man from the other in the minds of central and northeastern Minnesota voters.
Radinovich framed himself as a champion for working-class people who have been gradually disenfranchised by a changing economy, a Legislature out of touch and powerful special interests.
"Our country is wealthier and more productive, more wealthy and productive than any country in the world, yet working people for the last 40 years have seen their wages go flat," Radinovich said in his opening remarks. "We have to do politics different in this country. We have to return power to people like those in this room."
In turn, Stauber presented himself as a longtime public servant and small business owner, whose practical experience covers a breadth of years and vocations.
"Congress needs more men and women who have signed the front of the checks and not just the back of the checks, that have struggled to make ends meet," Stauber said in his opening remarks. "I'm going to Congress to be a problem-solver and my only special interest is you the people."
If history is any indicator, there are no easy victories here. The 8th Congressional District has been a hard-fought political battleground for the better part of a decade-winners by the thinnest of margins, purple on the political spectrum and one of the most hotly contested wars of time, treasure and talent in the union. In 2018, with all the external gravitas of the President Donald Trump administration and whispers of a Democratic "blue wave," it's no different.
Both candidates have indicated to the Dispatch they're ready for a dogfight, one reflected in the significant influx of outside PAC money and aggressive attack ads into the race.
And, with differing interpretations, both pointed to the 2016 presidential election as an indicator of their own future success. For Stauber, it was Trump's' resounding domination in the district by more than 15 points that heralds his ascendancy in a historically Democratic stronghold. For Radinovich, it was Trump's promises to protect Social Security and Medicare and oppose job-sapping international trade deals-traditional blue talking points, Radinovich noted, that enabled Trump to perform well in a traditionally blue district.
Partisan politics aside, their respective beginnings smack of the gritty, blue-collar values the 8th District prizes-what invokes the soot-smudged, calloused mining lifestyle more than Radinovich's Cuyuna Range, or what town embodies ironclad factories and harborfront ethos more than Stauber's Duluth?
But, there the similarities largely end. In many ways, the race represents a convergence of two very separate lives. Radinovich, 32, has left his stamp across the district and state at large-as a state representative, as well as a right-hand aide to prominent DFLers John Ward, Jacob Frey and Rick Nolan. A former police officer, Stauber, 52-outside of the St. Louis County Board-has emerged as a relative political unknown in a high-profile and high-stakes election.
Election Day, Nov. 6, will ultimately sort these differences out. Presenting sponsors of the debate include the Brainerd Dispatch, the Brainerd Lakes Chamber, the League of Women Voters of the Brainerd Lakes Area and the Rosenmeier Center for State and Local Government.
The economy and tariffs
Radinovich criticized Republican policies-headlined by Trump and supported by Stauber-that, Radinovich said, pit sectors against each other like farming and mining, both of whom have been hurt by bad trade policy and a preference for external interests to the district. He lambasted steel-cheater nations like China and South Korea-a problem in part solved, he said, by specific 500 percent tariffs on steel implemented by the President Barack Obama administration, which brought back jobs and strengthened local industry. This stands in contrast, he said, to the imprecise 10-20 percent blanket tariffs of the Trump administration.
"It's a chain saw approach where a scalpel is necessary," said Radinovich, who noted investing in people via broadband expansion, transport, education and infrastructure improvements would improve their opportunities and quality of life.
Stauber praised the Trump tax cuts, noting they've brought more than $1,000 back into the pockets of working and middle-class people they can use to pay bills, for recreation, chip away at student loans and other expenditures. It fosters and is indicative of a thriving economy.
"No one can argue the economy isn't better than it was 19 months ago (or prior to Trump's first day in office)," said Stauber. "Consumer confidence is at record highs."
He also pointed at Trump's tariffs and noted they protect industries like mining and farming-a competition Stauber denounced as farcical-and ones that benefited from the newly created United States-Mexico-Canada Trade deal.
Radinovich said these improvements predate Trump, noting the mining jobs returned en masse before his ascendency to the nation's executive office. He denounced more trickle-down economics and said the district should push for improved union negotiations.
Stauber refuted that statement, noting "Trump pulled the trigger" for the kind of economic expansions we see now and that mining "is our past, present and future."
Balancing industry and the environment
Stauber expressed support for the Polymet Mining initiative, a significant copper-nickel operation near the water-based environments at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. By utilizing 21st century standards and technology, Stauber said, the district will be able to tap into and strengthen an economic pillar of the region while protecting its natural resources.
Radinovich expressed similar support, noting it should be the mandate of whoever represents the district to make sure companies meet or exceed the proper standards-whether that's environmental or worker protections, and they don't inject petty politics into the process. Radinovich criticized both the Obama and Trump administrations for turning the issue into a political tool-specifically, a two-year forestry study Trump ended five months before it was scheduled to be completed and withholding the gathered data.
For his part, Stauber then criticized the Obama administration for imposing a mining ban shortly before leaving office, paralyzing the industry before Trump repealed the ban and an economic boom resulted shortly thereafter.
Citing it as a basic need and a fundamental human right, Radinovich reaffirmed his support of universal single-payer health care-noting if the rest of the developed world can afford health care systems of a similar nature, the wealthiest nation on Earth can, too.
Instead, he said, we're living with the most expensive system in the world by a large margin and one that performs in last place by nearly every metric, compared to other nations of similar status.
"It seems immoral to me that we can't provide health care for everybody," Radinovich said.
"We want affordable, accessible health care that is patient driven and physician guided," Stauber said, labeling his opponent's aspirations as an unattainable system clogged with middle men and political animus, that will cost the nation $33 trillion over 10 years. "This issue is so divisive. We have to start with things we agree on. ... Not the red playbook or the blue playbook."
Otherwise, he said, these plans look to hurt seniors and veterans.
Platitudes and little more, Radinovich shot back, characterizing Stauber's prior campaign statements, his website platform info, and the September debate in Duluth as points when he could've provided substantive plans for health care, but wouldn't progress beyond a few posturing sentences.
Stauber, for his part, said his views on health care rest with free-market principles-with increased competition and access to varying markets, the costs of health care will go down.
When asked to provide their stances on curbing gun violence, both candidates drew on uncommon perspectives-Stauber, as the victim of gun violence; Radinovich, as the member of a family torn apart by gun violence.
"There's too much gun violence in our country," said Stauber, who reaffirmed his commitment to support Second Amendment protections and characterized it as an issue stemming from mental health issues and criminal elements, not law-abiding gun owners.
After Stauber elaborated on his experiences as a Duluth police officer and his brushes with gun violence-during which he suffered a head wound in the line of duty-Radinovich challenged him to provide a substantive, thought-out plan to curb the issue going forward.
"Do you have a position on this?" Radinovich said. "We can't talk platitudes about this, we have to advocate real solutions."
Radinovich echoed Stauber's emphasis on gun violence being partially a mental health issue, noting 60 percent of gun-related deaths are suicides. He said it's in the mandate of a public servant to restrict criminal access to guns in a way that doesn't infringe on the Founding Fathers' purposes for the Second Amendment.
As such, Radinovich said he supports background checks banning bump stocks, banning high-capacity magazines, and raising the purchasing age minimum to 21.
Radinovich said college education is vital for future of workforce and country. He said he advocates both apprenticeships, trade schools, tech schools and community colleges-and that, furthermore, these programs need to be free, with provisions, for students.
In turn, Radinovich pointed at special interests-whether it's powerful lobbyist groups of capital hill and super PACs, or the Trump tax cuts that primarily benefit the upper classes, as a primary barrier to achieving this. There's a vested financial interest in taking advantage of students, Radinovich said.
Stauber questioned why the federal government failed to properly fund special education as promised-citing it as an area of focus for him going forward as a candidate.
Radinovich noted it would be difficult to fund special education with an increased deficit-a deficit, he noted, that is planned to be filled with cuts to Medicare and Social Security by GOP figures like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Trump.
Stauber promised these cuts would not take place and stated it was not the position of Ryan or Trump.
"If I look awestruck it's because I can't let this go-it's because the president's administration and the Republican speaker of the house said they needed to cut social benefits to finance the deficit," Radinovich said, raising his voice above shouts from both his and Stauber's supporters. "They absolutely did."
Stauber stood his ground and said these cuts were never planned and would not happen.
"Promises made," he said. "Promises kept."
Work visas and immigration policy
Radinovich said there needs to be bipartisan immigration reform-on one hand because the current practice is harmful to immigrants who've entered the U.S. illegally, who get low-wages and poor jobs without a clear path to citizenship and native-born Americans, who see their industries suffer from cheap labor they can't compete with.
On the other hand, Stauber said the nation's foundations are in immigrant communities and compassion is needed, but strong borders and tougher crackdowns on illegal immigration are necessary for a healthy society.
Radinovich said, in prior statements, that Stauber supported walls in the north and south-an unrealistic plan, he noted, as most immigrants illegally in the U.S. come with work visas and remain in the States, which a wall wouldn't deter.
Stauber said the American people can't have that discussion until the United States secures its borders with not only a wall, but also guards, sensors, drones and other forms of security.
The opioid crisis
Taking Stauber to task for a lack of substantive, thought-out actions to combat the crisis, Radinovich said the answer comes from practical, effective programs such as the Project Echo program in Little Falls. In turn, he lambasted the pharmaceutical industry, citing it as a willing facilitator and profiteer of the crisis-and one that isn't being held accountable by the state Legislature or on Capitol Hill as the result of lobbyists and special interests.
Lauding the Trump administration's work in the crisis, Stauber noted the issue-from the perspective of a former police officer-is one that we can't "arrest ourselves out of." Instead, Stauber said, it's important to focus on mental health facilities and addiction treatment.
Bipartisanship and civil discourse
Both candidates pointed to their record and personal values as evidence of a willingness and proven ability to work well with people of different political views-Stauber, primarily as a police officer and St. Louis County commissioner; Radinovich, pointing to his stint as a state representative between 2012-2014.
"The divisiveness is palpable," Stauber said. "Joe, you are not my enemy, you are my opponent .. that's one of things we have to understand."
Assessment of Trump
Both candidates took it as a humorous moment to point out their obvious political leanings-Radinovich who didn't vote for Trump and Stauber who supports him.
Radinovich said he was amazed Trump's polarizing campaign won at all. He noted he has deep misgivings about Trump's administration and accusations of rampant corruption, but would work with him on infrastructure if elected-even if the Trump tax bill exacerbates a $1.1 trillion deficit.
Stauber said he doesn't agree with Trump on his personal faults, but lauded the president for the economic performance of the country
"There is no perfect human being," Stauber said. "But look what he's done for law enforcement, look at the military. I can no more defend Trump and the things he's been involved in as I could defend President Clinton."
Radinovich challenged Stauber's assertions that he's an independent actor from the president, noting Stauber has been reluctant to criticize or distance himself from Trump unless pressured to.