Congressional candidates face off at South High forum

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Nine days away from what promises to be a hard-fought endorsing convention, nine of the 10 DFL candidates hoping to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo gathered Thursday evening at South High School to answer questions, state their positions, and somehow try to separate themselves from a tightly packed field.

The two-hour forum, sponsored by the Minnesota Young DFL and the DFL Feminist Caucus, yielded few surprises from a cast of characters that mostly represents the progressive wing of the DFL. Candidates Jorge Saavedra, Ann Knapp, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Mike Erlandson, Ember Reichgott Junge, Keith Ellison, Gary Schiff, Paul Ostrow, and Gail Dorfman (Jon Olson did not attend) affirmed their commitment to keeping abortion legal and protecting the civil rights of the GLBT community, vowed to get more young people involved in the party and to stay in touch with constituents, and promised to marshal more resources for education.

Saavedra played up his immigrant roots and his experience as a civil rights lawyer, telling the crowd of about 100 that he would be a “community voice” in Washington. Knapp stressed her business and administrative background and her ability to “get stuff done” in Congress. Nelson-Pallmeyer, perhaps the most passionate of an often-passionate bunch, repeatedly emphasized the need for radical change in Washington. “It’s the most dangerous time in our country that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said.

Ellison, an incumbent state representative, brought stories from the capitol, repeatedly emphasizing the work he’s done in St. Paul as a way of establishing his legislative abilities, an approach he shared with Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman. “When government works right, it makes a difference in people’s lives,” she said, noting her work on homelessness, her support for a county smoking ban, and her opposition to a publicly funded baseball stadium. In Washington, she said, she’d be a passionate defender of social justice. “I’m tired of Democrats playing it safe,” she said.

Paul Ostrow, one of two Minneapolis city council members in the race, said he would be a “champion” for his constituents, while his colleague, Gary Schiff, noted that he had more youthful energy than the rest of the field. “I’m the one candidate who’s still young enough to be a member of the Minnesota Young DFL,” he quipped.

Asked what committee he would want to serve on in Congress if elected, Ellison generated some buzz among the otherwise quiet crowd with a little Bush-bashing. “I want to be on the Judicial Committee,” he said, “so I can stand next to John Conyers and draw up the impeachment charges for high crimes and misdemeanors.”

On the question of international experience, Nelson-Pallmeyer landed what appeared to be the only solid punch of the night, when he noted that he’d lived abroad for many years of his life and written a dozen books on international relations. “I’m the only candidate in the race who the other candidates are taking things off my Web site on international issues,” he said.

Dorfman revealed that one of her five children was gay when asked about protecting the civil rights of the GLBT community and, in one of the more moving moments of the evening, vowed to “fight with every bone in my body to allow my son to have the same rights as my other four children.”

Asked whether they would honor the DFL endorsement, two of the nine candidates–Ostrow and Reichgott Junge–said they would run in the primary regardless of who received the endorsement, arguing that a six-week campaign was not sufficient to air the issues adequately. (Schiff countered by noting that “in Europe, entire governments are elected in six weeks.”) Nelson-Pallmeyer equivocated, saying he would abide by the endorsement if the convention endorsed a “peace first” candidate who supported immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the cancellation of all oil contracts, the abandoning of U.S. military bases, and the reconstruction of Iraq through international organizations. Earlier, Jon Olson had said he would also run in the primary.

The convention is scheduled for May 6 at St. Louis Park High School.

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