Senate DFL candidates mix it up at debateby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Three Democrats who hope to take on Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman next year came together Friday to talk about the issues. Mike Ciresi, Jim Cohen and Al Franken talked about the war in Iraq, health care, taxes and other issues at a forum in St. Louis Park sponsored by the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce.
St. Louis Park, Minn. — The candidates politely fielded a series of public policy questions before business and community leaders.
The first topic was the issue that most expect will be the key issue in next year's election -- the war in Iraq.
Mike Ciresi called for a United Nations International Peace Conference, to help find a solution.
Ciresi said U.S. troops should be redeployed as the Iraqi government takes control of its country.
"They have to meet the benchmarks which they established. We did not establish them, both economic and political benchmarks," said Ciresi.
Cohen also called for a peace summit.
"And when we have this international peace conference, which I support, we need to be sure that we will have Iran and Iraq and Syria and Turkey, and the countries of the entire region. We need to talk with those with whom we differ to find a lasting solution," said Cohen.
But Al Franken insisted the best way to convince other nations to try to find a solution in Iraq would be for the U.S. to begin pulling out troops.
"This talk about an international conference, we've been trying to have an international conference for a long time. They're not going to do that job unless we start leaving," said Franken.
The three DFLers also expressed alarm about the growing disparity between the rich and poor in the nation. And each called for ending the Bush administration tax cuts for Americans with annual income in excess of $350,000.
Franken questioned the logic of the tax cuts.
"This is the first time in the history of civilization that we've had a tax cut at a time of war," Franken said. "We're making our guys go over to fight -- our men and women go over to fight -- and then come back and pay for it for the rest of their lives."
Ciresi said by rolling back the cuts on top earners, tax collections would increase by as much as $60 billion -- money he says could be used for universal health care.
"Everybody has got to be covered. We need affordable, accessible," said Ciresi. "There's got to be an essential benefits policy that is an identical policy that everybody can purchase. If you want to go beyond that, there's a smorgasbord like federal employees have, they have a smorgassboard effect -- you can do that."
Ciresi said he opposes a move toward a single payer system.
Franken said, like Ciresi he favors universal health care for adults. But Franken wants a single payer plan for children.
"It would make premiums cheaper obviously for small business. Kids don't cost that much, and then it would provide a basis point to see how single payer works," Franken said. "Because that's what Canada did. Saskatchewan adopted a single payer. It worked, Canada adopted it."
On immigration, Ciresi called for more secure borders and five-year worker permits. Franken said the best way to prevent illegal immigration would be to furnish legal workers with high-quality documents, so employers would clearly know with whom they're dealing.
The candidates also talked about wheter to increase the federal gas tax in the context of the I-35W bridge collapse.
Franken and Ciresi called the gas tax regressive. Franken said he was unsure about a federal gas tax hike. Ciresi said he would support a four- to six-cent per gallon increase.
Cohen said he also supports increasing the federal gas tax.
"We see that we either pay now or we pay later," said Cohen. "Either bridges are supported and built and maintained, and roads, or we find that they collapse and we have an infrastructural disaster."
In remarks at the beginning and the end of the debate, Franken and Ciresi underscored their Minnesota connections.
Ciresi hammered home the fact that he's lived in Minnesota his entire life. As the attorney who won Minnesota's massive settlement from the tobacco industry, Ciresi pointed to his legal track record of fighting for Minnesotans.
"I think this election is going to be about leadership and who's delivered for Minnesota. For 35 years, I've been delivering for Minnesotans," said Ciresi.
Franken did not talk much about his career in comedy, and instead focused on his middle-class, suburban St. Louis Park roots. He railed on President Bush.
"When this guy goes, the world's going to breathe a sigh of relief and we're going to start a new era," said Franken. "We need a new president and a House of Representatives with a large progressive majority, and a Senate with a majority of people who care about average, working people. And I intend to be one of them."
Cohen used some of his own time to contrast himself with his much better known DFL competitors.
"There used to be a day not too long ago when you didn't have to be a famous celebrity and a multimillionaire to run for the United States Senate, and I'm making a part of that American dream come true. Nor do you have to be beholden to special interests," said Cohen.
All three candidates pledged to drop out of the race if they lose the DFL Party endorsement next year.
- All Things Considered, 10/05/2007, 5:16 p.m.