While they weren’t able to meet in person, State Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, and his DFL-backed challenger Roger Steinkamp spoke side-by-side for the first time at a virtual forum last Thursday night.

The forum was the final of several hosted by the Faribault chapter of the American Association of University Women. It was supposed to be preceded by a debate between Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, and his challenger Ashley Martinez-Perez, but that forum was cancelled after Daniels had a scheduling conflict.

Traditionally, the AAUW’s forums are held in the City Council chambers, but given the persistence of the COVID pandemic, the AAUW opted to eschew any sort of live audience. With early voting underway, it provided a crucial chance for the candidates to voice their views.

The increased exposure could be particularly helpful for Steinkamp, as a first-time candidate. Jasinski, by contrast, is an established local political figure who served eight years as Faribault mayor and two years on its City Council before his election to the Senate in 2016. While Steinkamp hasn’t run for office before, he has built up something of a profile as an agricultural educator and businessman, briefly serving as executive director of Farmamerica, the Minnesota Agricultural Interpretive Center. He currently serves as chair of Faribault’s Environmental Commission.

Steinkamp said he moved to Faribault in 2002 and has since fallen in love with the city. He said that many of his neighbors are immigrants and others who work from paycheck to paycheck and they need strong representation in St. Paul.

He faces a strong opponent in Jasinski, who ousted incumbent DFL Sen. Vicki Jensen, of Owatonna, in 2016 by 17 points. Jasinski’s vote share that year tracked closely with that of President Trump, who easily won the district.

With attention focused on the metro-area, Senate District 24 is seen as less of a “battleground,” as Jasinski noted in his opening remarks. While hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside expenditures poured into the seat in 2016, no comparable investment has come this time.

Thursday's initial question was focused on climate change, a topic right up Steinkamp’s alley given his role on the Environmental Commission. In his answer, Steinkamp emphasized the broad implications of the issue.

“Climate change is one thing that affects almost every aspect of our life,” he said. “We need to listen to the scientists.”

Steinkamp said that to help mitigate the effects of climate change, clear and decisive action is needed. If elected, he said he’d work to promote clean energy, particularly with regard to motor vehicles, which as he noted have become a leading source of pollution. He also highlighted the importance of improving energy efficiency, as well as working with agriculture to reduce emissions. However, he pushed back on criticisms of left-wing policies like the Green New Deal, saying he’d be careful to accommodate business needs as well.

“Are we going to put people out of business trying to change things overnight? No we’re not,” he said. But we need to move in a direction that will help reduce the CO2 emissions and greenhouse gases.”

Aside from the discussion around climate change, nearly the entire forum revolved around the COVID-19 pandemic and its wide-reaching effects. After a decade of prosperity and surpluses, legislators will now have to debate what to do about a nearly $5 billion projected budget deficit. Minnesota’s Constitution requires that the state balance its budget, although it is allowed to issue bonds to pay for infrastructure projects. Unlike regular legislation, a bonding bill needs a 3/5ths supermajority to pass, a provision designed to ensure bipartisan cooperation.

Legislative leaders from both parties have touted that process, known as bonding, as one way to boost a COVID-wracked economy. However, a breakdown in relations between the Republican Senate and DFL House resulted in the failure of this year’s bill.

Jasinski is the only local legislature to serve on the Senate committee that traditionally writes the bonding bill. He pushed hard to include several local projects in the bill, including a berm outside of Faribault’s wastewater treatment plant that would serve as a barrier to flooding from adjacent the Straight River.

While expressing disappointment around the failure of the bonding bill, Jasinski touted his other efforts to boost the economy, including a bill that would have created a $20 million fund to assist restaurants and bars who had to dispose of perishable goods and beverages following the statewide shutdown to minimize the spread of COVID-19. That specific legislation was not passed, but instead rolled into a much broader small business assistance bill written by Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, that provided $60 million in state assistance in addition to local programs funded through the CARES Act.

Jasinski said he’s well aware that more needs to be done to support small businesses. He noted that the pandemic has hit close to home with the recent closure of Grampa Al’s, a popular Faribault bar that has been owned by members of his family for nearly a century.

“That business will never reopen because of what’s happened with the COVID restrictions,” he said.

Steinkamp said he agrees that supporting small businesses is crucial, but said that the government needs to take a more aggressive role in helping everyday people to weather the pandemic as well, referencing the President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal as an example.

“Government has a role to play in representing their citizens,” he said. “When citizens are hurting, we need to be able to step in and come up with the programs to help them.”

The candidates also specifically discussed the healthcare system as it relates to COVID-19. While Minnesota has managed to retain more rural hospitals than other states, many were already facing financial stress before the pandemic and have been hit hard.

Legislators did manage to reach across the aisle and pass $200 million in assistance to hospitals and clinics across the state. Jasinski also touted efforts to expand access to care by loosening restrictions related to telemedicine and boosting access to mental health treatment.

However, the senator has repeatedly voted to end Gov. Tim Walz’s Peacetime State of Emergency Declaration and has been a sharp critic of statewide mandates enacted under its powers, arguing that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit greater Minnesota’s needs.

Jasinski suggested that Walz’s approach could actually be worsening not only the economy but the mental health of Minnesotans. He particularly called out restrictions on nursing home visitations, saying that seniors across the state are “dying of loneliness.”

In addition to Minnesota’s seniors, Jasinski said that workers would be well served if some restrictions are lifted. Even though public assistance may help them to weather the worst of the pandemic, he said it’s no substitute for work.

“When you have people at home, it causes more and more mental health issues,” Jasinski said. “When you get people back to work… it will help the mental health issues.”

While willing to countenance the reopening of small business throughout the state, Steinkamp said his approach to the pandemic would be one of significant caution. He noted that research suggests even younger patients can suffer long term damage to the heart, lungs and kidneys.

“I don’t think it’s just a question of saying Walz should lift the mask mandate,” he said. “We have to keep those mandates that make sense.”

A longtime advocate for universal healthcare, Steinkamp said that the pandemic highlights the need for the entire community, including low-wage workers, to have access to essential care as well as the ability to take time off of work if they get sick.

“Right now, if they’re a low-wage earner, they have to go to work, they can’t afford to lose a paycheck,” he said. “We need to help people through (getting sick).”

Both Jasinski and Steinkamp discussed the socioeconomic discrepancies that have been highlighted over the last several months. The incumbent senator noted that the achievement gap in Minnesota schools remains sizable and is increasing.

Steinkamp, who worked as a teacher for 10 years, said that ensuring that low-income students can keep up with their peers will require investment. He specifically highlighted the issue of internet access, noting that it is holding many low-income and rural students back.

“I talk to many of my colleagues, and they’re stressed out,” he said. “Yes we can be frugal, but no, we’re not going be able to cut our way out of this.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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