More than 700 people attended Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate at Ted Mann Concert Hall on the University’s West Bank, featuring the three major candidates for governor: DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch; GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty; and the Independence Party’s Peter Hutchinson.
Prior to the event, more than 50 Pawlenty supporters outside the hall cheered, “T-Paw,” and “Four more years,” until the governor pulled up.
Inside, University police removed two audience members who, at separate times, directly addressed the candidates during the debate.
Debate Minnesota organized the event, co-hosted by the University’s department of communication studies.
Edward Schiappa, head of the department and a Debate Minnesota board member, said public political debates usually end up being nothing more than joint news conferences, where neither candidate tackles any issue in depth.
“We want to go for depth, as opposed to breadth,” he said.
As the candidates took their seats, they lined up by height and political orientation, left to right, Hutchinson in the middle.
Hutchinson was randomly chosen to open the debate, saying, “A leader is someone who goes out and changes things to make things better.”
Hatch opened by saying “Education means hope for many Minnesotans.”
Pawlenty said, “This election like all elections is about the past and therefore the future.”
The candidates fielded questions on education and transportation from moderator D.J. Tice.
Hatch said Americans believe in a meritocracy, and that in a global world, citizens need to be competitive.
He then described his distaste for testing.
“There’s a lot of teaching to the test and that’s not good,” he said. “You want to teach these kids how to learn.”
Pawlenty defended the testing processes.
“We want to make sure we have tools for accountability,” he said. “This rejection of accountability measures is very concerning.”
Pawlenty said Minnesota leads the nation in school reform through programs like performance pay versus seniority pay.
Hutchinson said Minnesota students do well in high school, but 36 percent need to take remedial courses upon entering college.
“It costs about 40 million bucks a year in tuition and state tax subsidies to reteach what our kids should have learned in high school,” he said.
Hutchinson said Minnesota roads are in poor condition.
People driving on Interstate 94 are “playing dodge ’em” around potholes, he said.
Hatch said a governor needs to build confidence with the state’s people, with transportation funding evenly balanced between rural and urban areas.
Pawlenty defended his administration, saying it wasn’t fair to blame 20 years of backlog on his three years in office.
“In my time as governor we have had about a 30 percent plus per year increases in transportation construction,” he said.
Hutchinson addressed the increasing rate of college tuition through a two-pronged strategy.
The first step, he said, is to get control of health care costs, freeing up money to keep tuition low.
“We’ve got to get control of health care costs,” he said.
Hutchinson’s second step is to double needs-based financial aid.
Pawlenty called the increases “a real problem.”
“Tuition rates went up during the budget crisis at a rate that was concerning,” he said.
Rate increases have returned to what he called a normally proposed level of about 4 percent a year.
Pawlenty also touted his Achieve proposal, granting any Minnesota high-schoolers in the top 25 percent of their graduating class, or an equivalent ACT score, two years of free tuition at a public school if their family incomes are less than $150,000.
On top of that, Pawlenty said, he would like to fund colleges better, but did not say where the additional money would come from.
Hatch said former governors ensured Minnesotans had financial access to college educations, as well as geographical access: schools within 30 minutes of everywhere in Minnesota.
A Pawlenty spokesman said his candidate was fantastic against the “Hatchinson brothers,” a nickname coined by the governor during the debate.
Hatch said he wanted to keep his campaign positive.
His big campus issues are lowering tuition rates and retaining financial access for students to colleges, he said.
Hutchinson said the best compliment he received was that some people came to the debate as Hatch or Pawlenty supporters, but now would vote for him.
“I think that’s the best evidence of why we need someone else,” Hutchinson said.