Local Democrats and interested residents attended a public candidate forum sponsored by the Senate District 16 Democratic Party this past Sunday afternoon. The event was held at the YME High School auditorium in Granite Falls and attracted roughly 50 attendees.

All Democratic candidates for governor were invited to participate, but only former State Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy and former State Speaker of the House Paul Thissen were able to attend. A representative for Congressman Tim Walz read a short speech from Walz explaining why he had to remain in Washington to help resolve the government shut down. In the speech, Walz outlined his vision for Minnesota, and emphasized his experience representing rural voters.

The forum covered a wide range of questions including the buffer law, rural broadband, healthcare, daycare, and taxes. Each candidate was given a short time slot to introduce themselves to the audience.

Murphy talked about her background in nursing, and how the experience of her mother's illness and passing inspired her to run for local office. Although she represents a metro Senate seat, Murphy positioned herself as a partner with Greater Minnesota. She argued that solutions to rural problems begin at the local level but are supported through resources and funding by the state government.

Thissen began his introduction by emphasizing his connections to Greater Minnesota. His family first settled in the state in the 1860s and later established a farm in Blooming Prairie (which is still in the family). “We have lost the art of governing,” Thissen told the audience. He touted the accomplishments during his tenure as House Speaker, and promised to return the state to a more bipartisan spirit of governing.

Agriculture dominated the early part of the conversation. Both candidates demanded swift action to deal with recent downturn in the farm commodity prices. Thissen said he would work to find new markets for Minnesota farm products, balance the regulatory process, and meet the physical and mental health needs for struggling farmers. Murphy emphasized the need for greater investment in farm technology, and applauded the role played by the University of Minnesota in creating breakthroughs in agriculture.

Both Thissen and Murphy also touched on the controversial buffer regulations enacted by Governor Mark Dayton. Both Murphy and Thissen stressed the importance of clean water, but acknowledged that the new regulation could have been implemented differently and with greater input from impacted farmers.

The candidates were quick to showcase their ‘rural’ credentials and often inserted personal anecdotes into their responses. In recent years, the DFL has struggled to win votes in rural parts of the state, and has been criticized by the rival Republican Party as only representing metropolitan interests. Murphy and Thissen (who both represent districts in the Twin Cities) attempted to push back against this narrative in their speeches during the event.

More funding for the broadband grant program, public buy-in for MNSure, and more investment in education were all offered as solutions to help revitalize small town communities. Murphy and Thissen stressed the need for more spending across the board, a line that got strong applauses from those in attendance.

They also discussed ways of resolving the urban/rural divide which they say is holding back the state. Murphy promised to restore trust between the two sides and work to establish more cooperation between the different levels of government. Thissen, echoing her remarks, said that rural voters were key to building momentum behind a ‘Democratic wave’ and fighting for “progressive values.”

At the end of the event, party organizers announced the results of a straw poll conducted to gauge support for the different candidates. The results were as follows: Erin Murphy (22), Paul Thissen (20), Tim Walz (13), Rebecca Otto (6), with 7 uncommitted.

Democratic candidates will next have to win the support of the party leadership during the June 1-3 state convention, followed by the primary election scheduled for August 14 of this year.