Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #160. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Oct. 30, 2020; in print, Nov. 1

Two days until Election Day. That is, two days from when this appears in print, but four days from its online publication and a week from when it’s submitted. “Endless 2020” has become a cliché – a year’s worth of news regularly happens in a week.

Amid the omnidirectional din, my antennae have picked up an uncommon and disturbing signal that has a bearing on the election.

Many have already voted. For you, any advice from me is beside the point, though you might be interested to hear me out. For those who have yet to mark a ballot, here’s what I have to say.

It will be no surprise to anyone who follows my columns that I strongly support the DFL. I hope you will vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and also for Tina Smith and Tawnja Zahradka and Collin Peterson. If asked to say why, my response is that of a poster carried in the Oct. 17 Women’s March in St. Cloud: “Too many issues to fit on one sign.”

For more local races, however, there is one particular issue that has not received the publicity it deserves. It has to do with candidate accountability.

St. Cloud Area League of Women Voters forums are a regular and valued feature of each election season. I have always found them informative. And I do not recall any occasion in earlier years on which candidates did not show up. In campaigns I’ve helped manage, the LWV forum was never treated as “optional”; its date was chiseled into the calendar.

At the beginning of a forum the moderator says this: “The LWV is a nonpartisan political organization. This means we do not support or oppose particular political parties or individual candidates.” Further, “We sponsor candidate forums because we believe informed citizens are the foundation of democracy.”

This year, when traditional campaigning has been severely restricted, the LWV forums were especially important, because there were otherwise so few times on which citizens could be informed by seeing candidates in the same room. The forums, in compliance with health directives, were held without live audiences, but were recorded and are available on the League’s website.

And what happened?

At the District 14 forum, held on Oct. 15 in the St. Cloud City Council chambers, three DFL candidates appeared: Aric Putnam for Senate, Tami Calhoun for House 14A and Dan Wolgamott, House 14B incumbent. The chairs provided for GOP incumbents Jerry Relph and Tama Theis and challenger Paul Brandmire were conspicuously empty.

Relph and Brandmire had accepted the League’s invitation to provide a brief statement that was read by the moderator. What they wrote was pretty much campaign boilerplate – Relph praising his record in the Senate, Brandmire mostly recounting his biography, especially his military service. And Theis didn’t even bother to send a statement.

All three, by their absence, chose not to respond to voter-submitted questions about how they would deal with pressing issues – incisive questions that could not be dodged with platitudes:

  • What can be done to improve legislative procedures to avoid delays in bonding bills?
  • When the Legislature begins the redistricting process in 2021, what can be done to prevent partisan election maps?
  • Across the state, there are significant disparities in access to quality education, health care, child care, and housing. What can the Legislature do to address these disparities?
  • As a state legislator, what would your approach be to balancing the budget?
  • Every election cycle, we see the influx of outside money into Minnesota. Has your campaign been affected this year? What policies, if any, could curb negative or false advertising, whatever the source?
  • Given the dual responsibilities of representing your district and working on behalf of the state as a whole, do you think your district has any specific challenges?

At the District 13 forum, held on Oct. 7 at the Sartell Community Center, only two candidates appeared, both DFLers: Katy Westlund, House 13A, and Ben Carollo, House 13B. Their GOP opponents, incumbents Lisa Demuth and Tim O’Driscoll, didn’t show, nor did either Senate candidate, Republican incumbent Jeff Howe and DFL challenger Michael Willemsen. And none of the four no-shows sent a statement.

In this COVID-19 year, when LWV forums were more critical than normal for informing citizens, five of six DFLers in our area faced the questions from voters, and not a single one of the six Republicans took the time to help better inform their constituents. Those six were disrespecting their constituents – and they were disparaging the League of Women Voters.

I wonder: What were they afraid of?

Accountability is an essential characteristic of a legislator. Let the evidence speak for itself. Which candidates demonstrated that trait and deserve your vote?