COVID, crime dominate first gubernatorial forum at Farmfest

By: - August 3, 2022 2:47 pm

Gov. Tim Walz and Republican-endorsed challenger Scott Jensen had their first debate for Minnesota governor at FarmFest in rural Morgan, Minnesota, on Wednesday. Photo by Michelle Griffith / Minnesota Reformer

MORGAN, MINN. — Gov. Tim Walz and his Republican opponent Scott Jensen shared a stage for the first time Wednesday at Farmfest, where they debated COVID-19, school spending and the government’s role in the lives of Minnesotans. 

In an audience full of farmers and ag industry workers, crowds loudly cheered for Jensen when he criticized Walz for his COVID-19 executive orders, and when he implied Walz bore responsibility for Twin Cities crime rates.

“We need more cops on the street. We need restorative justice,” Jensen said during his closing statement. “There is a poison of lawlessness that is bleeding out all across Minnesota, and we know this is a problem. We’ve gotta enforce the law.”

Walz, in an impassioned closing statement, rebutted Jensen’s attacks and implied Jensen didn’t understand what it means to enforce the law.

“Having served 24 years in the National Guard, that’s a lot more experience than watching ‘Top Gun Maverick’ and second-guessing our men and women who are putting themselves at risk.”

Farmfest, an agribusiness fair organized by the American Farm Bureau, is in the 7th District, not unlike the 1st District that Walz represented for a dozen years in Congress.* Walz garnered hearty applause for many of his responses, showing he still has allies in his home district but the crowd was often unfriendly. 

While Walz praised Minnesota’s swift COVID-19 response and the state’s vaccine distribution plan, he had to pause because the crowd was heckling him.

“I’m proud in Minnesota that we were able to do that — keeping our death rates from COVID the lowest 10 in the nation —” 

The crowd interrupted him with “no” and “boo.”

Walz’s first term has been marked by several crises, including a pandemic that brought the economy to a halt while forcing doctors and nurses to the brink, as well as the fiery aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. 

Jensen, a family doctor with a practice in Chaska, drew national, right-wing media attention with his skepticism of the need for strong COVID-19 mitigation measures and the safety of vaccines. A one-term Minnesota state senator, Jensen has long criticized Walz for business and school closures during the pandemic but also attacked Walz during the debate for failing to protect vulnerable people.

“There is nothing about our response to COVID in regards to our seniors, our frail, our elderly, our assisted living or nursing homes that would be a model for the United States,” Jensen said.

Jensen, playing to a crowd that shared his disagreement with Walz’s pandemic measures, said that Walz had a “one size fits all” pandemic approach and did not take into account that rural areas had lower case rates. (Over time, rural counties were hit harder.)

The crowd reacted loudly to remarks about COVID-19 and crime, but the debate was largely centered around agriculture. Debate panelists asked the candidates about inflation, food security and climate change.

Jensen typically advocated for less government intervention and sought to steer the conversation towards COVID-19 and crime, while Walz touted Minnesota’s low unemployment rate, infrastructure spending and state government’s strong fiscal outlook.

The political landscape is uncertain going into the fall. Walz has the advantage of incumbency and has held a narrow lead in public polling, but Democrats expect to face a difficult environment due to inflation and history — the party that controls the White House usually loses midterm elections. 

An unknown: The role of former President Donald Trump. A handful of states held primary elections on Tuesday, and Trump-endorsed candidates won across the country. Jensen said after the debate he’s had no contact with Trump. 

Jensen is seeking to reset his campaign, which in recent weeks has been mired in various abortion controversies, especially since the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade on June. 24. Abortion didn’t come up during the debate.  

Debate panelists asked the candidates a final question: How well would the Minnesota Vikings play this year? Walz and Jensen found common ground — neither candidate was optimistic about the team’s performance.

*Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the congressional district that Farmfest resides in. 

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues. For two years she was also a corps member with Report for America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms and news deserts. She lives in St. Paul and likes to knit and watch documentaries in her free time.