North, Patrick Henry students organize governor candidates’ forum

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“There’s an assumption that people know how to access resources, but that is not what is happening,” said Natalie Johnson Lee, representing Descendants of Africa, described as a group formed early this year to advocate for, advance issues of, and educate all people of African descent.

First of a two-part story: Eight DFL candidates responded to questions of particular interest to ‘Descendants of Africa’

Johnson Lee’s remarks opened a DFL gubernatorial forum held recently at North High in Minneapolis in an effort to lessen these perceived obstacles by providing a platform for voters to meet and hear the viewpoints of the slate of candidates campaigning for the endorsement of governor on the DFL ticket.

Starting at 6:30 pm on Thursday, March 18, eight of the 11 invited candidates sat on stage before over a hundred people responding to audience-generated questions.

The participating candidates were Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, State Representative Paul Thissen, State Representative Tom Rukavina, Speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives Margaret Anderson-Kelliher, Peter Idusogie, State Senator John Marty, Former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton, and Ole Savior. Troy Parker, a DFL Party member who recently ran for a seat on the Minneapolis City Council to represent the Fourth Ward, presided over the evening’s discussion.

The Student Councils of North High School and Patrick Henry High School also played a defining role helping to organize, present, and facilitate the forum.

The students provided each candidate with a pair of escorts onto the stage and presented questions of their own for the candidates to answer. Additionally, the students recorded the proceedings for broadcast on cable TV.

One of several introductory speakers, Booker Hodges, a deputy sheriff in Dakota County and president of the Minneapolis NAACP branch, praised North High Principal Ellen Stewart and the students for their help in bringing about the forum. “To my knowledge, this has not happened to have this sort of event in North Minneapolis, an unfortunate reality,” Hodges said.

He went on to provide the grim picture that “50 percent of our kids in North Minneapolis are not graduating from high school,” citing a failure of the adults in the lives of children. Hodges’ remarks led directly into the first question of the evening.

How do you plan to help schools return extra-curricular activities that have recently been cut?

R.T. Rybak stated that we shouldn’t have to fund these activities through private systems. His stance was that we should have the State fund it: “Have the government do more to fund the basic services,” Rybak said. He also mentioned The Power of You, a program designed to make post-secondary education tuition-free for eligible students.

Paul Thissen firmly stated that any school that doesn’t have access to a full range of activities that all the other kids have is unacceptable. “The extra-curricular gets kids engaged in school, and when we do that, the education takes care of itself,” Thissen said. “We should be funding this stuff as a state, not through property tax,” the attorney said. “Kids learn best when they have all kinds of opportunities.”

Tom Rukavina lamented that many schools have closed in the Iron Range. “We’re gonna cheat the future if we don’t take care of our kids today. The only fair tax is an income tax,” he said. “Property tax is totally unfair.”

Margaret Anderson-Kelliher announced, “Equal education for all – that’s a constitutional promise.” Anderson-Kelliher touted the New Minnesota Miracle, a product that came out of a bipartisan Education Finance Reform Task Force, to fund Minnesota’s public schools. “We will miss the mark if we don’t fund early education across the state,” Anderson-Kelliher concluded.

Peter Idusogie believes that education is the great equalizer. “It is the lifeline for someone born in less than ideal circumstances. I’m committed to seeking new revenues,” he said.

John Marty stumped that “education is what made Minnesota great, and we have to return to it.” Marty, chief senate author of New Minnesota Miracle, explained that we’ll pay for it with income taxes. “We need to address the whole child [so that we have] safe communities, food, and role models [for our children],” he said.

Mark Dayton told the audience that he’s glad to see that the students are looking to go to college. He frequently advocated raising taxes on the rich: “The wealthiest of this state are not paying their fair taxes,” said Dayton.

Ole Savior, eclectic citizen and active member of the DFL, held against the tide when he said, “I do not feel raising taxes is necessary.” He advocated bringing more money into Minnesota via tourism from Canada and Europe.

Further, Savior stated, “Oil companies are cheating us left and right. $2.75 for a gallon of gas is not right. It shouldn’t be that way. Disneyland is looking for a third place to build, and we can be that place. We can do this. We can bring more money into the state.”

A representative from the Somali community asked: Here is a community that is struggling to integrate with the African American community. Is there any candidate who can say something definitive about the challenges that these communities are facing?

Savior may have misunderstood the question, as his response did not appear to address the issue: “We need to get more money into our budget and all your problems will be solved,” he said.

Dayton exclaimed, “Not in our state; that kind of bigotry will not be tolerated. In the first month as your governor, I’ll convene a summit meeting with African American leaders to talk about what we can do.”

Marty made note of the need to be proactive in changing attitudes: “We need to make sure that everyone has full access to Minnesota resources. We don’t force [ESL learners] to take the standardized test in English when they aren’t ready to take it in a foreign language,” he said. “All of us are immigrants except for Native Americans,” concluded Marty, who left at this point for a Senate vote in St. Paul.

Idusogie grew up in Nigeria and Ghana. He said, “I will go out of my way to reach out to the Somali people. I recognize there are three generations of Somalis: those who left after/during the civil war [which began in 1991], those who came here as teens, and those who were here before that. We are a nation of immigrants. My number-one concern is to tie everything to the quality of life of the Minnesota people.”

Anderson-Kelliher delivered one of her defining lines: “There should be no decision about us without us,” suggesting the need for equal representation of all Minnesotans in the decision-making process. One specific action she recommended was that incoming immigrants attend school for a longer period of time so that they can catch up in their English-speaking skills. “They need more time to achieve their diploma/GED,” she said. She believes that professional degrees acquired in other countries should also be acknowledged and accepted.

Rukavina made sure that the Minnesota Dream Act, a bill that would provide in-state tuition to all Minnesota high school graduates regardless of their immigrant status, was at the forefront so that there might be money for tuition. Elected in 1986 to the Minnesota State House of Representatives, he also funded The Power of You. “We cannot cheat our new immigrants from getting those good jobs,” he said.

Thissen wants Minnesota to succeed as a destination state. “We need to welcome and be open to immigrants,” he said. “As a pro bono attorney, I’ve helped Africans get their asylum. However, this [integration] is a problem that needs to be solved by the communities themselves; it’s not the work of the governor.

I want to work in partnership to make sure that that happens,” said Thissen, also a representative in the State House.

Rybak said he has worked with immigrants as mayor of Minneapolis.

“It’s wrong for somebody who is a doctor in Somalia to be driving a cab here in Minneapolis,” he stated. He’d like to put Somalis in positions of authority. He also proudly stated that Minneapolis has the first three Somali police officers in the USA.

Next week: The candidates respond to questions on No Child Left Behind, MnDOT contracting, racial profiling and the future of North High.
Susan Budig welcomes reader responses to tomandsusan@juno.com.