Two incumbent Duluth legislators, District 7A Rep. Jennifer Schultz and District 7B Rep. Liz Olson, took on their respective Republican challengers, Tom Sullivan and Art Johnston, Tuesday morning at the second online candidate forum hosted this year by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and the News Tribune.
Straight out of the gate, it was clear the candidates took starkly different views of Gov. Tim Walz's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Johnston agreed the COVID-19 outbreak certainly qualifies as a crisis, he said: "We have to go on with our lives. We have to open up the economy. We can all do that safely if we all wear masks everywhere and we keep our social distance. We know how to do that.
"I think we can do a lot better. I think our government has to go back and show people not to be so scared. We can't be afraid to get out of our basements. We have to go back and be part of the economy," Johnston said. "We have to be brave. We have to show leadership in saying, 'We can address this crisis and solve it.'"
Olson, his opponent, noted that 49 states have granted emergency powers to their governors.
"So we are not an outlier," she said. "I believe Gov. Walz has done exactly what he needs to do, in terms of taking leadership at a state level. Because, as we stand, unfortunately, the federal government has not provided that kind of leadership.
"Our state is following science in understanding that the best way to get through COVID is to get it under control," Olson said.
Sullivan said the state has been unfair in its decisions about what businesses could stay open and what measures they had to take as they reopened.
"Walmart, Target — all the big-box stores are open. Yet, all the small businesses that we need to survive in our community are all being closed and locked up. (As if) you can't get COVID at Menards, but you can catch it at church. So, locking up churches and small businesses is not the solution," he said.
However, Schultz, his opponent, gave the governor high marks, saying: "His priority is to protect people, but also to make people feel safe. And if they don't feel safe, all the businesses could open but no one may show up," Schultz said.
"I think we are doing very well compared to other states in making sure that we contain the virus and protect the people of our state," Schultz said.
Sullivan remained unconvinced, however, saying: "I would vote to have the dictatorship that Walz has got going right now, I'd vote to have that ended, because we need to have some representation in outstate, and right now we don't have that."
While Schultz acknowledged that mining has played and continues to play an important role in the Northland's economy, she said: "We also need to diversify our economy throughout the region. And that means looking at jobs in other areas outside of mining, like in the green economy.
"In terms of copper-nickel mining, we need to know we can do that safely. We have to be confident in the permitting process, and we have to rely on science and reason to go forward," she said, adding that one of her top concerns is whether financial assurances offered by mining companies to cover any needed cleanup costs are sufficient, "to make sure we're not paying the tab on any environmental cleanup if there is an issue."
Sullivan insisted copper-nickel deposits on the Range can be tapped in an environmentally safe manner. He said that proponents of "green energy" should remember that a single wind turbine contains around 1,000 pounds of copper, most of which comes from overseas mines, often operating with little regard for the environment.
"We've got it sitting right underneath our feet here in the Iron Range. And why don't we just pull it out, and use it from there?" he asked.
Olson agreed that mining continues to play a key role in the Northland.
"It's a part of our economy, our history and our story," she said, pointing to the region's history as an iron supplier. But as other types of mining are explored, Olson said: "We have to continue to follow the science and have good robust processes that we make sure companies and corporations go through, and we need to do so with voices of the people of northern Minnesota at the table, helping to make those decisions, because we're the people that are going to work there, our Iron Range colleagues are going to work there. And we're the people who are going to live in this environment long after all of this has been debated and closed in one way or another."
Johnston suggested the state sign off on already drawn-out plans to develop copper-nickel mines, saying: "Mining is a part of our past, our present and our future."
As for the delay in permitting copper-nickel mines, Johnston said: "This is a direct attack on the mining industry."
Sullivan referred to policing as "the toughest job that you could possibly face in today's society."
"How would you like to stand there and have some rioter or looter across from you throwing things at you, spitting in your face, screaming obscenities at you, and a police officer has to sit back and not do anything?" he asked.
"I know that the DFL legislators have voted to defund, and that's absolutely ridiculous. Crime has soared in Minneapolis as a prime example. And I don't want to see that happen in Duluth," Sullivan said.
Schultz responded: "I want to make it very clear. The DFL has not defunded the police."
Instead, she said lawmakers have looked to bring forward reforms with bipartisan support, "because something had to be done to address all those issues." Schultz said those reforms have included a ban on chokeholds, a ban on "warrior training" and reforming data collection practices. She also said more needs to be done to make arbitration of police misconduct cases more effective and to develop better means to de-escalate law enforcement encounters.
Sullivan suggested Minnesota should consider following Florida's lead, where he said an anti-riot bill has been introduced.
"Cut off welfare for rioters. There's got to be some punishment for these people," he said.
Johnston said there have been "tragic" incidents of individual police misconduct that must be addressed, but he warned against overreacting.
"When I see the DFL allowing cities to defund their police forces, what's happening in Minneapolis and St. Paul, that's pretty scary. We do have to have police. The police do protect all of us, not just some of us but all of us, particularly here in Duluth," Johnston said.
Olson agreed that defunding is not the answer but said: "We do need to make changes, and we need to look at structures that have not benefited everyone in our community, and I think that conversation has been healthy, to a point. And we worked with the Senate Republicans, and we passed major legislation that really addressed it."
Olson suggested lawmakers work hand in glove with law enforcement to bring about change, noting that Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken was very involved in discussions at the state level and testified in several committee meetings.