With less than a month to go to election day, first-term Congressman Jim Hagedorn fielded a wide range of questions from Owatonna Chamber of Commerce members Monday.
The event was the first in a series of candidate forums to be held by the Chamber over the coming weeks. Chamber staff also reached out to DFL candidate Dan Feehan’s campaign, but he declined the invitation. The forums are sponsored by the Chamber, Owatonna Noon Rotary Club and Owatonna People’s Press.
While Democrats currently enjoy a comfortable majority in the House and are expected to keep it in November, the 1st District is seen by national prognosticators as a race that could go either way. In 2018, Hagedorn beat Feehan by just 1,315 votes out of nearly 300,000 cast.
Just one of a handful of seats nationwide to switch hands from Democrat to Republican in 2018, the 1st District stretches across southern Minnesota from Winona to Luverne. Trump won it by 15 points in 2016, but prior to that it voted twice for President Barack Obama.
Along with fellow Minnesota Republican Congressmen Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber, Hagedorn rode aboard Air Force One with President Trump on Wednesday, shortly before the President’s COVID diagnosis. Hagedorn tested negative for the virus on Friday, though it can often take days for the viral load to increase to detectable levels. He maintained that his interactions did not meet the definition of “close contact” — more than 15 minutes within 6 feet of a COVID-infected individual.
Though Hagedorn has been cleared by the House physician to work, he appeared virtually at the Owatonna Chamber forum. Chamber President Brad Meier said the decision was made out of an “abundance of caution.”
Hagedorn touted his conservative record and local work on local issues. As a member of the Agriculture and Small Business Committee, he said he’s worked hard with colleagues from both parties to protect the region’s ethanol industry and help small businesses hit by COVID.
“As I’ve said all along, I’m a conservative who will vote as a conservative, and I’ve fulfilled my promises in that area,” he said. “I also said I’d look out for the needs and interests of the district, and I’ve fulfilled my promises in that.”
Though Hagedorn may have had a concerning last few days, the first question from moderator Randy Doyal, CEO of the Al-Corn Clean Fuel plant in Claremont, was certainly no softball. Doyal pressed him hard on a controversial expenditure scandal that has rocked his office.
Hagedorn’s office expenditures became the source of controversy after it was revealed that he spent 40% of his allotted office expenditures in the first quarter of 2020, totals dwarfing every other congressional office and raising significant questions. Much of that funding went into direct mailings to constituents. Scandal arose when it was revealed that part of those printing costs were paid out to a company owned by John Sample, a part-time staffer in Hagedorn’s office.
Hagedorn fired his chief of staff shortly after the allegations broke, though Sample remains on staff. The Congressman insisted that he did nothing wrong and began an internal review when he was made aware of the issue.
“The way the contracts were put together, I didn’t approve of that,” he said. “When I found out about it, I immediately made personnel changes.”
Hagedorn pushed some blame to the Democrats, noting that the House Administration Committee had approved the mailings. At a recent debate, he counterattacked his opponent Feehan for working for several Washington-based groups over the last several years.
COVID, childcare and reopening
Hagedorn pledged to support legislation that would shield businesses from COVID-19 related liability lawsuits, provided they follow state, local and federal guidelines. He said that without those protections, many businesses could face huge risks in reopening.
“We have to have it for our schools, small businesses and others so people can get back to work,” he said.
Doyal also pressed Hagedorn on the issue of unemployment insurance, noting that many local businesses had said increased unemployment checks made it more difficult to bring employees back to work.
Hagedorn said that he backed the CARES Act and other legislation in part because he believes it’s important to support people going through hardship due to COVID-19. However, he doesn’t believe the unemployment checks under the CARES Act were administered well.
“In the future we need to have a standard that protects and helps people when they’re down and out,” he said. “But when they’re called back to work, they need to lose their unemployment.”
In general, Hagedorn said that Congress should take a very cautious approach to unemployment benefits. Should those on unemployment get paid more than those in the workforce, he warned it could disincentivize work.
Hagedorn, who identifies as a fiscal conservative, said that additional stimulus is justified but that it should be targeted to where it is most needed. In particular, he said farmers and small businesses in the 1st District are in need of assistance.
“Everything we spend moving forward should be targeted toward where the need is,” he said, adding that without additional small business assistance, Hagedorn said that business closures could devastate the local economy. In addition to providing more funding, he said that Congress should work to streamline the assistance application process for small businesses as well.
Another top issue for the chamber was the lack of affordable childcare. Hagedorn touted legislation he’s backed that would allow parents to use pre-tax income to pay for childcare, and has also backed bills to provide loans and grants for aspiring childcare providers.
Hagedorn said that the issue has been exacerbated by the approach of his predecessor as 1st District Congressman, Gov. Tim Walz, toward the pandemic. Along with Emmer and Stauber, he’s urged Walz to relax restrictions to help get Minnesota students back in school.
“The problem is exacerbated when parents aren’t able to go back to work full-time because they’re having to take care of kids at home,” he said.