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Lehmann, Myers square off in GOP 4A forum

The Rev. David Myers says we're at war and a true conservative needs to go to St. Paul during a Beltrami County Republican House 4A forum. Myers and Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehmann, right, are seeking the GOP 4A endorsement to run against Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. At center is moderator and Beltrami GOP Chairman Ken Cobb. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

After a 90-minute Republican House 4A forum, one thing became clear -- David Myers is a far-right conservative while Richard Lehmann is a moderate conservative.

House 4A Republicans need a conservative choice in the race to defeat freshman Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said Myers, pastor of Ridgewood Baptist Church in Bemidji. "I'm running because the politicians of both parties ... have sold us down the river and we need to stand up, and we need to take action."

It's time, he said, "because we are at war. Our way of life is being hijacked and you need a representative who will fight. You don't need another so-called conservative who's going to work across the aisles just maintain the same-old, same-old business as usual politics."

But compromise is the way of politics, said Lehmann, Bemidji's mayor for the last 10 years. It's how he's got things done on the City Council and in lobbying at St. Paul.

"I think it's very important that you work across the aisles," said Lehmann, who described himself as appealing most to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans. "What is happening is we're not getting things done. We're not getting things done because there's a party that's not listening. When I go down there, I'm going to listen and I'm also going to work.

"You have to work to bring consensus to get things done," Lehmann added. "Whether you like consensus-building or not, that's what I had to do as mayor."

The forum was held at Beltrami Electric's meeting room, with about 30 partisans, many of them delegates who will endorse one or the other candidate.

The two candidates disagreed little on major conservative issues. They both agreed that they were anti-abortion, anti-gun control and defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Lehmann, however, said his priority if elected would be to find jobs for Minnesotans, especially in helping small businesses grow, while Myers key priority is to repeal "Obamacare," the recently passed federal health care reform package. He said 37 states have joined in opposing the package, saying the federal government, under the 10th Amendment, can't foist health care onto the states.

Lehmann said he would abide by the endorsement of delegates, tentatively set for May 8, while Myers, who ran in 2005 against then-Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said he would not abide by the endorsement and would either challenge Lehmann in the Aug. 10 primary or file as an independent.

"It's just too darn important right now" to send a true conservative to St. Paul, Myers said. Persell is "too far to the left" to represent the community.

The two differed on how to approach a traditionally Democratic arena, the local American Indian reservations to woo votes.

"I don't know if it's possible," said Myers. "We're talking such an entitlement mentality on those reservations that I don't think they're going to support someone that says I believe we need to cut those entitlements. I'd do my best, I'd go to their powwows when they have them ... but are they going to support me in the end? I don't think they're going to support any Republican in the end. You do your best, but you have to be realistic."

Later, Myers said he wouldn't necessarily "write off" the Leech Lake Reservation vote, but not many resources would be targeted there. "We need strategy to allow us to win without those reservations."

Lehmann said he'd work with the American Indian population to site jobs on the reservation.

"There's a certain amount of pride that comes with employment," he said. "That's were you focus your energies, to help those people get jobs."

There isn't much pride on the reservation, which suffers from chronic unemployment, Lehmann said. "They want jobs just like anyone else wants jobs. We need to encourage job growth there. We get them to work, and away from entitlement programs."

Helping to instill pride and ownership comes with having a job, he said. "The important thing is work with them, understand their needs, but not make any promises that propagate what we stereotypically see as a problem with them -- we need to work with them to work out of what we view as being issues there."

Non one, Indian or non-Indian, should become reliant on government, he alluded.

The two also split on a city issue, which they both said would become a campaign issue. An audience member asked how the mayor could support a "boondoggle" in the Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"The event center in Bemidji is going to spur the next era of economic growth in our community," said Lehmann, a strong event center supporter. "There are people who disagree with that, and that's fine. That's basic democracy ... But I look at the work we did in St. Paul and that garnered support from the governor, the speaker of the House at the time, Steve Sviggum, from Democrats Frank Moe and (Republican) Carrie Ruud ..."

The event center will be a campaign issue, he said, "but if it doesn't spur economic growth, and I very personally believe it will, I will be very surprised as there's nothing within 100 miles that has the same thing."

Myers said the event center "absolutely" will be a campaign issue, calling the facility "a white albatross that's going to be hanging around our necks."

He referred to a 2006 vote which passed by less than 50 votes to allow the city's half-cent sales tax to go to paying off event center construction bonds as being pushed by Bemidji State University hockey fan students, as the BSU WCHA hockey team is the anchor tenant.

"I won't be surprised if it fails to generate -- in fact, I will be surprised if it actually generates any real revenue other than maybe for the food and beverage people," Myers said, adding that BSU should pay for the hockey arena.

"We are going to see increased taxes," he said. "It's going to increase the sales tax, and it's going to do that forever. ..,. The way it was rammed down our throats, we need to remember that. It was pushed down our throats with 48 votes that came out of the college, primarily."

Lehmann refuted that, saying the real referendum on the event center was in 2008 when he won re-election over Councilor Nancy Erickson, a staunch event center opponent. Lehmann won re-election by more than 900 votes.

"When you look at 2008, that was the referendum on the event center," Lehmann said. "Had I not worked hard and got re-elected, that event center would be gone. It wouldn't be here. It wasn't the sales tax that forced that down our throats, we still had to go and get legislative approval, and we did."

Lehmann and Erickson had "absolute polar opposite views on that, yet 900 people more voted for me than voted for my opponent," he said, "because they saw that the future of this community and the future of that event center was that important."