‘Minor’ party candidates shine in 5th District forum

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In the final Fifth District congressional forum before Tuesday’s hotly contested DFL primary, five DFLers vying to succeed retiring U.S. Rep Martin Sabo were upstaged by the three endorsed candidates from the district’s “minor” parties.

DFL endorsee Keith Ellison and his three major opponents—former state senator Ember Reichgott Junge, longtime Sabo aide Mike Erlandson, and Minneapolis City Council Member Paul Ostrow (Patrick Wiles also participated, but had to leave early)—jousted only occasionally while responding to a series of questions focusing on education policy. But it was Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, Republican Alan Fine, and the Green Party’s Jay Pond who provided most of the entertainment—and some of the most intriguing responses.

Calling herself a “consensus-builder” who would create a “Common Sense Caucus” in Congress, Lee displayed a smooth delivery and adept grasp of the issues during the two-hour session before a packed house at Field School in South Minneapolis. The mother of a 3-year-old daughter who described herself as a “Head Start kid,” Lee lambasted the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law as “a joke” and said she would work to increase federal education funding by slashing other departments.

Asked if she would favor abolishing the federal Department of Education, Lee said there were other, less vital bureaucracies worth taming. “If I were to abolish any agency it would be the IRS,” she said. “And the Department of Homeland Security would be a close second.”

Later, when asked what her first act would be as the district’s representative, she remarked on the stuffy auditorium, noting that, “The first thing I would do is make sure every school in the country can afford to have air conditioning.”

Lee suggested that there was plenty of fat to trim in government, ticking off a litany of outrageous pork-barrel projects passed by the last Congress, including the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska and a space surveillance system. “It’s not enough that the government can spy on its citizens, now it’s spying on aliens,” she deadpanned.

Fine, the endorsed Republican candidate whose campaign has already featured an evening of “piano and policy” in which he performed some of his own compositions and Friday’s five-hour “Building a Bridge” symposium at the University of Minnesota, heard plenty of Republican bashing (at one point, noting that, “It’s hard to be a Republican here.”), but stressed that education issues shouldn’t be held captive by any partisan politics. “As a community, we need to discuss and communicate a lot more,” he said. And he later reminded his opponents that, as a veteran college instructor, he’s the only teacher in the bunch. “The problem is we don’t have enough teachers in Congress,” he said, smiling.

The Green Party’s Pond, who ran unsuccessfully against Sabo two years ago, focused his attention on broader issues that affect education, arguing that stagnating wages, a decade of draconian welfare reform, and a failed health care system all contribute to the challenges public education face today. “It’s our personal responsibility for not providing enough resources for education,” he said.

And he stressed how he’s been influenced by his own educational experiences, including learning to play the trumpet in the school band and traveling as a young adult with the Up With People troupe, perhaps the only part of his resume he shares with Reichgott Junge.

Pond said he spent six months observing congressional culture last year and came away with the impression that the nation’s campaign finance system is broken. “At 6 p.m. all the congressional offices close and they all go fundraising,” he said. “That means they’re working for someone other than us.”

The assembled DFLers mostly reiterated bits of their stump speeches they’ve been practicing since May, when Ellison shocked the party faithful by cruising to a third-ballot endorsement.

Ostrow vowed to be a “champion for young people,” demonstrated some fluency with the special education challenges the city’s schools face, and said he would bring the successful Teach For America program to Minneapolis.

Erlandson touted his “proven track record of getting things done for the district,” suggested that the U.S. Department of Education could use some trimming, and offered a rare (and effective) glimpse into his personal commitment to education when he described his relationship with a Washington, D.C., man he helped learn to read.

Reichgott Junge also sought to soften her image by noting that her parents “never owned a home,” choosing instead to invest in their daughter’s education. She stressed her experience on the Education Committee at the state legislature and her commitment to early childhood education. And in an obvious reference to Ellison’s difficulties with his taxes and parking tickets, she described herself as a “woman of principle.”

For his part, Ellison delivered a rather low-key performance, ticking off his opposition to No Child Left Behind, his support for teacher diversity and training, early childhood education, and incentives to cut student debt. “I challenge the idea that we need to make government smaller,” he said at one point. “We put our treasury where our heart is.”

Asked whether he would personally respond to letters from children, Ellison vowed that he would, which allowed Erlandson—who’s worked in Sabo’s office for 19 years—to note with some barely suppressed glee that the congressman receives about 40,000 e-mails, phone calls, and letters each year.

Still, Ellison struck back by questioning his opposition’s party loyalty. “I respect the DFL endorsement,” he told the crowd. “I believe in the process and I hope you do too.”

In an interview, Lee suggested that her DFL counterparts were feeling the effects of the long campaign. “I haven’t had to participate in 80 candidate forums,” she said.

But Fine lamented the few opportunities to sit at the table with the entire field of candidates. “It was interesting,” he said of the forum. “I just wish the public could hear all of us” without the partisan labels.

He said he looks at elections as learning opportunities—both for the candidates as well as for the public. And after Tuesday’s primary, he said, he hopes that education can continue.

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