by Jake Kapsner

Increased financial aid to college students, free higher education and using the state budget surplus were focal issues at Wednesday’s Minnesota gubernatorial debate at the Carlson School of Management.
Of the state’s 10 candidates for governor, only six were present for the debate. With the exception of former Brooklyn Park mayor Jesse Ventura, every candidate expressed a strong commitment to higher education.
“You can tell who cares about students at the University,” said Shenoa Simpson, chairwoman of the legislative affairs committee for the Minnesota Student Association, which sponsored the event.
She said the student group thought the debate would allow for stronger interaction between candidates and students.
A moderator posed the same two questions to each candidate, and after about a half-hour the audience of more than 100 students was given the floor for questioning.
The six candidate pool dwindled in mid-debate as Attorney General Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III left to address urgent business in the Minnesota tobacco trial. Humphrey, a leading attorney in the state’s crusade against tobacco companies, said before leaving that he “has a deep commitment to education, and at the centerpiece of that commitment is the University.”
Other candidates present at the debate included Lieutenant Governor Joanne Benson, Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman, former state legislator Ted Mondale, and Green Party candidate Ken Pentel.
Candidates not present were St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, former state treasurer Mark Dayton, State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, and former state representative Allen Quist.
At the debate Freeman endorsed what he calls a K-14 plan, which would provide a free year of college education to high school graduates.
Mondale promoted something strikingly similar. His “Gopher Scholarship Proposal” would deliver scholarships to high-school graduates with at least a B average and commitments to community involvement.
However Benson and Ventura expressed skepticism for such alleged “free” tuition.
“It’s one thing to earn something, it’s another to make it into National Lampoon’s college vacation,” Ventura said.
Members of the audience posed questions on the proposed light rail system and urban sprawl.
Responses were largely parroted expressions of a need to develop the Hiawatha corridor, a plan they agreed is overdue.
“We want to move people, not cars,” Pentel said while emphasizing the need for sustainable environmental and economic systems.
Speaking in the third person about the merits of heavy rail versus light rail, Ventura said, “If Jesse the Body uses it, you will too.”
Benson recommended experimenting with commuter rail before going ahead with the construction of a light rail system. Benson, who called herself “The Brain,” jokingly challenged Jesse “The Body” to a battle in the political ring.
Although the debate was mostly a light-hearted discussion, students seemed interested in what the candidates had to say, nonetheless.
“I thought Mr. Ventura and Mr. Pentel answered the questions in the most forthright, off the cuff manner,” added University student Jay Mastrud.