BEMIDJI - Republican candidates for governor talked about MNsure, unions, the minimum wage and other state issues Thursday at a debate hosted by the Beltrami County Republicans and the Bemidji State University College Republicans.

Former Minnesota House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, special education teacher Rob Farnsworth, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and State Sen. Dave Thompson all took part in a mostly congenial debate in the American Indian Resource Center at BSU. Candidates Kurt Zellers and Scott Honour were absent from the event.

Seifert won a straw poll conducted among debate attendees, with 26 votes. Thompson came in second with 22 votes, followed by Farnsworth with nine votes and Johnson with seven.

Seifert also won in last week’s Beltrami GOP caucus straw poll with Thompson coming in second.

During the debate, the four men agreed with most of each others’ policy positions and gave similar answers to debate questions. They did notably differ on “right-to-work” laws and the use of constitutional amendments through referendum.

Farnsworth said he’s a teacher’s union member and opposed to making Minnesota a right-to-work state that bans mandatory union membership. A relationship with Minnesota unions would help a GOP candidate in the general election, he said.

“We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country,” he said. “In Minnesota there are 351,000 union members… we have not tried to earn their vote once.”

Thompson said states that are right-to-work do better economically than those that don’t. He would support a constitutional amendment that would establish right-to-work in Minnesota, and pointed out that he helped author such an amendment while in the state senate.

“Economically, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “Union members are about 50/50 on right-to work, it’s the people that run the unions that don’t like it.”

Seifert said although he was previously a member of the teachers’ union and the Teamsters, he was for right-to-work laws. Johnson said he was also in favor of right-to-work.

They all said they would oppose an increase to the state minimum wage.

The candidates were also asked what amendments to Minnesota’s constitution they would support.

Seifert said he was generally opposed to legislating through additions to the state constitution.

“It is not supposed to be a phone book,” he said.

Johnson agreed wholeheartedly.

“Amen, brother,” he said.

He added that the proposed amendments in 2012 that would have instituted a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and established a voter ID requirement should have put forward through the legislature, not as constitutional amendments.

Thompson said he voted for both of the proposed amendments.

“It’s a shame they didn’t win,” he said.

Farnsworth said he supports an amendment establishing a state right to bear arms, similar to the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The candidates also got several chances to express their opposition to MNsure, the state’s new health insurance exchange.

Johnson said the exchange had stifled the ability of Minnesotans to choose their health insurance. MNsure and the Affordable Care Act contradict the Republican principle of free market choice, he said.

“We’re pro-choice when it comes to health care,” he joked. “Maybe not on other things, but when it comes to health insurance, we care about you having as many options as possible… rather than the government making the decision for you.”

Seifert wanted to fire the MNsure board and replace them “with people who know about insurance.” Farnsworth said one of the first things he would do as governor is to shut down MNsure. Thompson was also in favor of getting rid of MNsure but cautioned that it had be done “in a systematic way” to avoid people losing their coverage unnecessarily.

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