Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Augsburg College DFL Gubernatorial Debate

Six DFL candidates participated in the DFL gubernatorial debate at Augsburg College last night (February 16, 2010). They were R. T. Rybak, Tom Rukavina, Paul Thissen, Mark Dayton, John Marty and Tom Bakk. The event was sponsored by Sabo Center and Augsburg Political Science Department.

Since I never like to go home first after work, I went straight to Augsburg . I arrived around 4:30. I found the building and the auditorium, then went next door to the Student Center cafeteria and had a very light dinner, which I couldn’t finish because I’ve lost my appetite in the past couple of months.

I went back to the Music Hall, where the debate was taking place. It was still early, so I wandered down the hallway and found a Medieval Event going on in the chapel. How I wanted to go there instead of to the debate. If you’ve seen one gubernatorial candidate forum, you’ve seen them all. It’s not often that a medieval event takes place, though. I have a double major from the University of Minnesota in English literature and history. My history emphasis was Tudor/Stuart England as well as Renaissance and Medieval History. I love the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee and try to go there every year.

Duty called, and back I went down the hallway to the auditorium. It was still early, so I chatted for awhile with the moderator of the gubernatorial debate. This was Jay Benanav, Augsburg 's director of government relations. He is a former member of the St. Paul City Council. I had a very interesting conversation with him for about twenty minutes.

"The next governor will set the tone for issues ranging from health care to the environment to taxes to economic development," said Benanav. "All of these issues will impact the job market in the state and would directly impact the ability to get a job in Minnesota after graduation."

By now people were beginning to arrive, including campaign staffers. Benanav went off to prepare for his duties of the evening. Frank Brown, my friend from TakeAction MN and Second Chance Coalition, walked in the door and came over to say hi to me. It was good to see him again.

Rybak has a lot of excellent staffers. They’re always right on top of it as they try to get new supporters. They tried to get me, but Brian II from Dayton ’s campaign put a stop to that. Orrie tried once again to get me to support Rukavina. Since I’m going to be a delegate at the SD53 convention this Saturday, and since my alleged candidate is not part of the endorsement process by choice, Orrie figured I may as well caucus for Rukavina. I really ought to caucus for reNEW MN. (Coincidentally, I just got off the phone with Elizabeth from TakeAction.) Tom Rukavina caught me in the aisle of the auditorium and pressed one of his campaign buttons into my hand and smiled so engagingly. How come Dayton never does that? Oh well, he gives hugs. I can go a long time (at least 24 hours) on a good hug. Hugs are energizing.

Kudos to Paul Thissen, Tom Rukavina and Mark Dayton for coming up to me before the debate and asking how I am. They all know I’m fighting liver disease. It’s nice of them to remember to inquire after my health. I had a chance to talk to Paul Thissen for several minutes regarding Pawlenty’s horrible budget news. Paul is always ready to listen and to respond in a meaningful way. When you talk to him, you know he’s really listening. He’s focused on you and not on the next voter or the next person who might be walking in the door. He should give lessons on that to all the other candidates.

Frank Brown and I sat in front of the auditorium, in the second row, so we could see the candidates up close and hear what they said. The forum began promptly at 7:00. A few prepared questions focusing on education issues and policy were asked of the candidates. At the end of the prepared questions and the candidates’ answers, the audience was invited to ask questions.

Here are some of the questions and how the candidates responded to them.

Question #1:  School districts are creatures of the state. What is the responsibility of the state vs the responsibility of the school district? How should education be funded?

R. T. Rybak - He gave a rousing but brief analysis of how funding won't come from Pawlenty. He believes that most of the control of schools should be at the local level. People should rally around the kids in the communities. He gave some examples of what's been working in Minneapolis.

Tom Rukavina - Jobs, jobs, jobs and education, education, education. I think the jobs jobs jobs is from Bakk's campaign, although that mantra really should have gone to Dayton as he worked so closely with Rudy Perpich, whose mantra it was originally. He likes the Minnesota Miracle. He talked about excess levy. He says the current main criteria for education comes from federal laws and mandates and that they are handed down with no money.

Paul Thissen - We should consider what tone the governor will set. The state should provide resources for education. Education should be funded by the state. He's a fan of having a liberal education in order to provide students with a well-rounded education in order to prepare students for life and lead them into the future.

Mark Dayton - He believes that shifting the financial costs of education onto property taxes is unconstitutional. He has the knowledge to back up that claim. When he is governor, he will increase K - 12 funding every year that he is in office, no excuses and no exceptions. He means it, too. You can count on it. As far as campaign promises and doing what he says, he is never wishy-washy. As far as politics, he says what he means and means what he says.

John Marty - Education is a good thing to invest in for our future. We need to train people from an early age to be good human beings and to be compassionate toward others. He thinks that our educational system should teach, among other things, language, music, arts and sex education. He is in favor of a broad range of subjects being taught to our kids.

Tom Bakk - If you can pass a levy in a school district you can get funding. If the levy doesn't pass, the school district doesn't get that funding. Many school districts are being left behind because the levy doesn't pass. He used Grand Marais as an example. 

Question #2:  What ideas do you have for new models of education. Where will you get other ideas?

Tom Rukavina - He'll get new ideas from teachers. Governor Pawlenty is pulling six million dollars out of the educational system, including colleges. We must train the workforce with educational opportunities. He has legislated mining endowments for the University of Minnesota.

Paul Thissen - He will look to teachers and communities for new ideas. We must close the achievement gap. Look to the good charter schools for good ideas. 

Mark Dayton - He will look to teachers and administrators. As Senator, he legislated Excellence in Education. He voted against No Child Left Behind because it didn't work. He gave another anecdote about energy savings in a particular school in Minnesota. This school uses geothermal energy and has built a dome around the school.

John Marty - He wants to reinstate a state-wide school board. He doesn't want to leave it in the hands of the governor and the commissioner. He wants to have master teachers who mentor younger teachers. He believes in taking care of the whole child and meeting their needs.

Tom Bakk - Governors set the tone. The next governor will be very important. We're at a fork in the road. The next governor will need to bring in teachers and administrators and talk about what is working in the educational system and what is not working. Pawlenty says our schools are failing, but Bakk says that is not true. Minnesota schools have the highest ACT scores and the highest graduation rates in the country. 

R. T. Rybak - He told the audience that he spends a tremendous amount of time in schools. He feels energized when he comes out of schools. He wants to teach students about agriculture and let them learn how to home grow and how to cook the food. He wants more programs like elementary music. He talked about the success of the Minneapolis Promise.

Question #3:  How much K  - 12 federal funding concedes to the federal government?

Paul Thissen - Be wary of the strings attached to federal government. The Feds try to tie our hands. 

Mark Dayton - Paul Wellstone held the legislature for No Child Left Behind for six months. Teachers don't want to teach to the tests. They want to instill a love of learning in the kids. The Feds should fund special education. Dayton told of his experiences teaching school right after his college graduation from Yale University. 

John Marty - No Child Left Behind is a terrible way to test kids. We can't measure compassion, character, etc.

Tom Bakk - The carrot always comes with attachments. (Great metaphor, Tom.) Real reforms come from states, not from the Feds. We need to find a new way to fund schools.

R. T. Rybak - TPaw puts too much ideaology into education. The next governor needs to be involved. The achievement gap is at a critical level. This brings an urgency to the education issues.

Tom Rukavina - We judge the school districts on who shows up to take the tests. Some kids just don't come to school on test day. 

Question #4:  What is a fair, transparent, expedient way to evaluate teachers?

Mark Dayton - Evaluation of teachers should be a local matter. It should be done by the superintendent, principal, etc. Teachers should be held accountable. He doesn't know of any teachers who don't want to be accountable. (I do. Talk to my son Charles and his wife Becky. Also my son Marcus. They can tell you about several teachers at Irondale who never wanted to be held accountable. These teachers were terrible! One teacher didn't even teach. He just had his classes watch movies all the time. Another didn't know the first thing about the math he was teaching. He always had to go next door to another teacher and ask how to do the problem. There are a lot of teachers like that in our school systems.)

John Marty - Put the evaluations of teachers at the local level. Most teachers really care about the kids. (I don't know about most. I do know that there are far too many who don't care about the kids. Some of it is probably because they are overworked and underpaid. Some is because teachers are no longer allowed to discipline naughty kids in any way whatsoever. Some are just worn out from years of teaching.)

Tom Bakk - The way we pay teachers is fundamentally flawed. Teachers need more money.

R. T. Rybak - He recently blogged aobut a teacher on his website. Go there and read it. He likes to sit with others at the table to look at educational challenges and the achievement gap.

Tom Rukavina - He can't think of one bad teacher that he ever had. Teachers have the most challenging job in society. We don't pay them enough.

Paul Thissen - The problem is, how do you measure a teacher's performance? He thinks they should get higher salaries if they are teaching in tough communities.

Question #5:  How would you structure early education in Minnesota?

John Marty - Make sure that every kid with intensive needs gets intensive help. Visiting nurses should go to the home when necessary. We need to meet the mental health needs of the students and their families as well as look at the chemical dependency issues. Also, parents need education too.

Tom Bakk - The legislators get to see the research that's going on. Studies at the University of Minnesota shows incredible learning that happens in just the first three months of life.

R. T. Rybak - Kids must come to school ready to learn. Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis is modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone in New York. Allina in Minneapolis has the Backyard Project. We need to stop kids from having kids. We must train the parents.

Tom Rukavina - A Virginia school district has an innovation for bonding. It didn't get funded, though. Taxes are an investment in society.

Paul Thissen - Wants to make good information available to parents. He also wants to move Early Childhood Family Education to the public school system.

Mark Dayton - He thinks it's important to have funding for all day kindergarden. He volunteered at Head Start 40 years ago when he was a senior in school. (Now there's something new I hadn't heard before. It's always good to mention new things that the audience doesn't know about yet. It keeps the responses fresh and interesting.) He thinks that better and more productive citizens are created through Early Childhood Family Education.

That was the last of the set questions. After that the audience asked questions of the candidates. By that time I was tired of scribbling notes so I put down my pen and notebook and just listened. The candidates were all talking rather fast tonight as they wanted to convey a lot of thoughts in just a minute or two. It was very hard for me to keep up with my notes. I have got to get a digital recorder.

After questions from the audience and candidate responses, each candidate was given time to present their closing statements.

Here's my take on the evening:

These particular six DFL gubernatorial candidates were all in top form tonight. Every one of them was excellent in their answers as well as in their communication skills. If this was the first time I had heard any of them, I would not be able to choose just one to vote for. If I did not already have a chosen candidate who I support, I don't know how I would make the decision. All six of these candidates pretty much agreed on all the issues. If we really want a DFL governor this time, I guess we need to decide who is the most electable. The problem with that is, though, that you never know for sure until the primary and the general election in November. Which one can beat Marty Seifert or Tom Emmer? Will it have to be someone who doesn't have much that the Republicans can throw up in their faces? Or are all the DFL candidates looking for things against the GOP candidates as well? Is it going to be another mud-slinging campaign? God, I hope not. People are so sick of that.

A few more remarks about the evening:

Tom Rukavina was outrageously funny again tonight and at times had the audience in stitches. Is he losing votes and delegates because people think he can't be serious? I know he can be dead serious when he wants to be, but I've heard some people say they wondered about it. It's great to have a good sense of humor, though, to add spice to the evening.

At one point Tom Rukavina flung a cheap shot at Mark Dayton. It started out as a compliment but ended with a barb. He said that Dayton quit the Senate. I knew as soon as those words popped out of the Representative's mouth that he shouldn't have said that. Then it was another candidate's turn to answer the question that had been asked, and next it was our former Senator's turn. Mark Dayton took half the time allotted to the question to respond to what Rukavina had said. He gave an excellent answer, then went on to respond to the original question. I thought it was smart for Dayton to set the record straight on what his Iron Range Buddy had said.

Paul Thissen made a verbal gaffe when he accidently said breast instead of best. Some of the students in the audience snickered, but Thissen made an excellent recovery in spite of the somewhat embarrassing moment.

The best humorous moment belongs to Mark Dayton. He said, in response to the question from an audience member about the teaching of more languages in the schools, "I went to China seven times and tried to learn the language but found I have two left tongues. I did learn to say the chid sat on the chair under the airplane."  ROFL.

All in all in was a good evening. I enjoy being around a lot of people. I liked seeing old and new friends again. I wish I could have talked to the candidates longer afterwards, but they're always in such a hurry. Perhaps they hurry elsewhere to talk to people who can donate more money to their campaigns. I personally have never been poor in my entire life. I've merely been temporarily broke for the past 59 years.

That's the thing I would hate most about being a candidate. The constant chasing after money and trying to get others to donate to my campaign. That would be very distasteful.

One more comment: the candidates should smile more when the other candidates are speaking. Most of them frown way too much. Why would anyone vote for someone who frowned all the time?

That's all, folks. Until next time...

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