FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. -- The state's top candidates for governor pulled no punches Friday, when they met in Dan Patch Park at the Minnesota State Fair.
The debate between Republican Jeff Johnson and the DFL's Tim Walz was hosted by Minnesota Public Radio in front of a lively audience of supporters and other fair visitors.
They covered a wide range of issues the next governor will be expected to tackle, including school reform, health care, transportation and gun control.
Johnson, a Hennepin County Commissioner and former legislator, said he would definitely cut spending on public assistance programs managed by the Minnesota Dept. of Human Services.
"We need to measure these programs to figure out which one are actually working and changing people’s lives for the better, and which ones are not," Johnson asserted.
"We should also pay some attention to the people who are paying for those benefits, I think the taxpayers need an ally in government!"
He also said the key to erasing the achievement gaps in Minnesota is to invest in the reforms that have worked in some charter and private schools.
"Let’s empower parents, and let’s empower teachers to make changes."
But Walz, a six-term Congressman and career public school teacher from Mankato, said safety net programs are typically a smart investment in families.
"I know when I taught school, if a child came to school hungry, they could not learn geography. If they came to school witnessing trauma in their homes or their streets they couldn't learn geography," Walz remarked.
"Those health and human services budgets cuts that Jeff's wanting are going to exacerbate the gaps that are happening here."
Walz said a pledge to impose an austerity budget would make it tougher to build a consensus about targeted spending increases.
He said, by contrast, leaving the possibility of a gas tax hike on the table allows for "an honest conversation" about what Minnesotans want to pay for moving forward.
"I'm a teacher. I’ve lived thrifty my entire life. I understand a piece of this, and I understand Minnesotans are willing to pay their fair share, but they want to make sure it’s fair, and it’s going somewhere," Walz told the crowd.
Walz accused Johnson of giving the "feel-good answers" by pledging never to raise taxes. Johnson, in turn, called Walz the "greatest feel-good candidate I've ever seen" by making too many promises to voters.
"Somebody’s got to pay for all of those increases, and we’ve got to be honest. We can’t make promises we can’t keep," Johnson said.
The Republican drew some booing when he reaffirmed his support for President Trump.
"I support the direction he’s trying to take this country. I think he’s doing a good job. I don’t always agree with him, and we have very different styles about it."
Walz implied that Johnson should've condemned the president, for his relative silence on the death of Senator John McCain.
"I didn't hear a word this week after what happened with Senator McCain," Walz said, gesturing toward Johnson's side of the stage.
"I’ll be attending that funeral tomorrow at the request of his family, and as governor of Minnesota, decency must rule!"