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Red Lake forum: DFL candidates pledge to honor treaties, create partnerships

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner answers a question during a forum for gubernatorial candidates Saturday at the new Red Lake Casino, sponsored by the Red Lake Political Education Committee. Joining her, from left, are Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Sen. John Marty of Roseville. All are Democrats. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

SOUTH OF RED LAKE -- Four Democratic candidates for Minnesota governor said here Saturday they'd honor treaty obligations with American Indian nations and oppose a state-run casino.

And they pledged to create partnerships with Indian tribes as well as communities across Minnesota, and not bash them as Gov. Tim Pawlenty did Friday about Bemidji.

Sponsored by the Red Lake Political Education Committee, invites to the forum went out to all Democrat and Republican gubernatorial candidates. But only DFLers came - Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook, Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, Sen. John Marty of Roseville and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

About 70 people attended the forum, which included a chili and fry bread lunch as well as candidate booths with literature. There was also social time for candidates to mingle.

Republican Pawlenty used his Friday radio show to make a point about cities bemoaning Local Government Aid cuts. He was critical of Bemidji raising its property taxes by nearly 20 percent purportedly to make up for LGA unallotments by Pawlenty.

He said Bemidji's taxes will collect $2.4 million more while state aid fell only $189. Pawlenty called Bemidji "a government town in a lot of respects." He blasted contract talks that lead to higher public sector wages and benefits while the private sector is "not doing so well."

"I hear tell that he called Bemidji one of the most dysfunctional cities in this state, or words to that effect," Gaertner said. "What kind of government bashing is that? And what good comes from that kind of disrespect that he shows to local elected officials?

"I will not be that way," Gaertner said. "I make decisions that are right for my community, not my political career."

Jobs are a big issue in every part of the state, said Marty, "and in Beltrami County and the northwest part of the state, it is a particularly serious problem. ... One thing the governor should do in times of high unemployment is not make the problem worse."

Pawlenty's budget cuts have greatly affected the public service sector, he said. "Tim Pawlenty's budget cuts have laid off school staff, bus drivers, teachers, food service people in the schools, ended up with cutting back in nursing homes. Because of cuts in child care we lose child care workers."

He'd call for higher taxes on those able to afford it, and would rewrite state laws to mandate "living wages" for every job.

The challenge in rural Minnesota is not to attract big manufacturers but instead to develop local value-added industries, Bakk said. "Everything that sustains life comes from the ground. There is a huge opportunity in rural Minnesota, both in the ag region and in the forested region of the state for renewable energy."

Using biomass energy can provide a constant power source, rather than occasional as wind or solar power.

Northern Minnesota wood products plants now shuttered, including Bemidji, used 1 million cords of wood a year, he said. "That wood is now available in a sustainable harvest. There is a significant opportunity for us to build a significant biomass industry here to provide energy not only to the communities but to export out."

Bakk would create state incentives to spur biomass development, as it did with ethanol plants.

"We are in very tough times, and what we need is someone to walk into the governor's office on Day 1 and have a proven record of creating jobs," said Rybak, adding that he's created thousands of jobs as mayor of the state's largest city.

"First, we have to invest where there is the greatest unemployment right now," he said. The construction industry suffers with unemployment in the 40 percentile, demanding immediate jobs attention. And the Red Lake Reservation has 55 percent unemployment.

"First, you invest in people," Rybak said. "Everyone one of us now needs continuing, ongoing education, because the economy is changing. We need to restructure education to do all that training as we go along."

Second, "we have to invest where there is the greatest possibility of growth," Rybak said. "It's always been in small business."

All four said they would oppose efforts for a state-run casino which would compete with American Indian gaming.

"I don't believe the state should be in the gaming business," said Bakk, adding he also opposed the creation of the State Lottery.

Growing up between the Bois Forte and Nett Lake reservations, Bakk said he has seen the opportunities created by Indian gaming. The Nett Lake elementary school provides laptops to all children, paid for by the Fortune Bay Casino.

"I have seen how it changed Indian communities for the better, created a lot more opportunity that was not there when I was kid when I watched the poverty between those two communities," he said.

Marty recognized the need for the new Red Lake Casino, but said that "the state reaches out and tries to work with the tribes to find new ways for economic development as well, because the unemployment and poverty is way too great."

Marty said that "we have to make sure we do more than just this, but for now the gaming is (it), obviously as you see here with this beautiful new facility with beautiful things happening. I do not support a state casino."

Rybak said he opposes any expansion of gambling more than it is currently. "Gaming with Indian tribal governments in this state is something that is about righting historical inequities, about leveling the playing field."

But that does not end the state's responsibility to work with tribal governments, he said. "The tribal governments and the state of Minnesota need to be a partnership, an ongoing partnership."

As a prosecuting attorney, Gaertner said she opposes gambling because of the social ills and criminal activity that springs from it. "I am very opposed to a state role in gaming at all."

The state should not "be taking money out of the pockets of the tribes" with a competing casino, she said.

All four DFLers also said they would honor treaty responsibilities with Minnesota's tribes.

Bakk said he met with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe chairmen in Walker on Wednesday.

"We need to work more together on economic development on and off of tribal lands," he said. "For me, it's not telling you that I support; I've demonstrated that."

There are "generations of inequities that we need to take care of," Rybak said.

The state needs to recognize that the tribes are independent governments, Marty said. "I, as governor, would treat you as equals, treat you with respect and dignity."

Meanwhile outside the casino, Senate District 4 DFL candidate Greg Paquin was holding an informational picket against the forum held on an Indian reservation, citing the heavy influence of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association in lobbying.