Higher education neglected in governor race

Dayton and Johnson debated Tuesday, discussing health care, transportation and other topics.

Kevin Karner

ROCHESTER, Minn. — The first gubernatorial debate of the 2014 election cycle featured partisanship, crowds wielding political signs and campaigns’ continued silence on higher education topics.

Gov. Mark Dayton, former Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and Independence Party candidate Hannah Nicollet squared off at the Mayo Civic Center on Wednesday, deliberating on topics like transportation, economic development and health care.

But higher education policy was absent from the conversation, and the topic hasn’t been featured prominently on the campaigns so far.

“We haven’t heard anything about that from either candidate,” said Ryan Olson, the Minnesota Student Association’s government relations director. “Without either candidate taking a stance, it’s hard to know what they’re thinking about.”

Johnson’s communication director, Jeff Bakken, said he thought education would be a focus of the upcoming Oct. 19 debate at Hamline University, adding that he isn’t surprised that the topic isn’t featured more prominently in Johnson’s campaign.

“If you did a poll, higher education isn’t going to be in the top five issues,” he said. “It’s always jobs, economy, health care and K-12, more so than higher education.”

Dayton’s website outlines some of his achievements in matters of education, like investments in early education and an expansion of the State Grant Program to help alleviate college students’ costs. Johnson’s website outlines positions on K-12 funding but doesn’t mention higher education.

“They’re aiming for the up-for-grabs voters,” said Humphrey School of Public Affairs professor Larry Jacobs.

And in this race, he said, that isn’t necessarily students.

Jacobs said higher education issues are usually second priority while candidates campaign because they’re trying to target certain voters — in this case, undecided and swing voters.

“They’ll be discussing education broadly,” Jacobs said. “[The candidates] don’t think students will turn out in high numbers — that students disappoint.”

For most of the debate, each candidate responded to the same questions and had 90 seconds to state their answers.

While Nicollet jumped from the left and right on various tax policies, Johnson used his time to take swings at the strength of the state economy under Dayton’s leadership and the Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled state Legislature.

Johnson was quick to raise a recent report that ranked Minnesota last in the Midwest for creating jobs in private sector.

The report, administered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, showed that in recent years, Minnesota’s private sector job growth has lagged behind that of other Midwestern states.

“I would dispute that we don’t have healthy economic growth all over Minnesota,” Dayton said during the debate. “It may not be uniformly common, but it’s very much the same moving forward.”

Olson said that in the future, he hopes to see the candidates address their strategies for retaining “talented” students that receive training in the state.

“We need to have them get jobs here and contribute to the Minnesota tax base,” he said.