BEMIDJI -- The first two of ten scheduled state legislative debates took place virtually Monday night.

In a forum hosted by Lakeland PBS, in partnership with the Bemidji Pioneer, Northern Community Radio and the Brainerd Dispatch, candidates for Minnesota Senate District 2 and Minnesota House District 2B squared off.

In the House race, incumbent Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston debated DFL candidate David Suby, and in the state senate race, incumbent District 2 Sen. Paul Utke debated DFL candidate Leonard “Alan” Roy. A scheduled debate between Minnesota House District 2A Rep. Matthew Grossell, R-Clearbrook and candidate Jeremiah Liend, DFL-Bemidji, was canceled last minute due to a conflict.

Debates were moderated by Bethany Wesley with panel questions coming in from Dennis Weimann of Lakeland News, Matthew Liedke of the Bemidji Pioneer and Heidi Holtan of Northern Community Radio.

MN Senate District 2: Paul Utke (R), Leonard Alan Roy (DFL)

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Utke hails from Park Rapids and assumed office in 2017. He serves on the following committees: Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy Committee, the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee and the Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy Committee. Prior to his election in 2016, he was a small business owner and worked for Mack Truck dealers.

Roy is currently the secretary and treasurer for the White Earth Nation, where he is also a resident. Roy earned a master's degree in public affairs from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He is also a U.S. Army veteran and still drills as a reservist in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Questions for the two centered around COVID-19, disparities in healthcare, Walz’s emergency powers, Bemidji water infrastructure, media relations and police reform.

Coronavirus situation

The debate opened with a few questions directly related to the pandemic and its impacts, as well as healthcare disparities throughout the state. Both Roy and Utke advocated on behalf of small businesses, hoping to help aid them in their recovery, with Roy calling them, “the lifeblood of our community.”

Utke bristled at the next question, which mentioned essential and non-essential workers, calling the designation a slap in the face to those deemed non-essential.

Both candidates expressed their concerns about the necessity of current coronavirus restrictions.

The two shared their thoughts on the statewide mask mandate. Utke said coming from a rural district, he observes a lot of opposition to mask-wearing.

“In some of these areas, should they be forced? I think that is government overreach. Do I wear one? No, I don’t like to. If I go to the doctor’s office, I have to, but beyond that I just don’t go shopping and doing those things, that hurts our local economy, it hurts our local businesses. I think this has gone too far,” Utke said. “This mask thing to me has gone too far, we need to bring some common sense and some reasonable things back into it.”

Roy called the virus “terrible” and “something that should not be taken lightly.”

“Personally, I do wear my mask as best as I can, whenever I can, wherever I can. I’m a moderate Democrat, probably more on the conservative side of the equation,” he said. “It’s a curious case of turning a mask into a political issue. It’s a health issue, and we need to make sure that we are protecting as many lives as we can.”

He advocated for reopening the state, responsibly.

Police reform

During the debate, both candidates also spoke about police reform, denouncing the idea of defunding.

Utke said he sympathized with George Floyd and condemned the actions surrounding his death. He then went on to acknowledge the importance of police in small communities.

“We defend our police because those officers get put in some horrible situations,” he said. “In this case for police, it’s giving them the additional tools they feel is necessary, and we know that there are additional resources if they need, to me those are the two biggest things.”

“In every occupation, there can be a bad apple, and we maybe saw some things that shouldn’t have happened, but I think they’re going to get better going forward because of that,” Utke added.

Roy echoed this sentiment, acknowledging a need for increased training.

“What happened to George Floyd is absolutely unforgivable,” Roy said. “Do we need to hold those individuals accountable that were responsible for that? Yes.”

“I’m not in favor of defunding the police, I don’t think that’s an accurate term. If anything, we should put more money into police to ensure more community policing and be able to provide them the tools and training they need to be successful,” Roy concluded.

The two seemed agreeable throughout the debate, with Roy quipping about the need to work across the aisle, and mentioning that if not elected, he will likely work with Utke in the future.

“Effective leadership is one that sits down even with those we disagree with, so it would be nice to see that sort of leadership in the senate and with the governor’s office,” Roy said.

The full Utke and Roy debate can be seen below:

MN House District 2B: David Suby (DFL), Steve Green (R)

Incumbent Rep. Green is from Fosston and has held his seat in the Minnesota House since 2013.

DFL Challenger Suby is a resident of the Detroit Lakes area. He formerly operated David Suby Concrete Construction Co. in Fargo for 43 years before retiring and moving to Minnesota.

Questions for the two centered around COVID-19, relief funding, childcare, legislative priorities, climate change, mail-in voting, abortion and mask mandates.

Both were first asked to rate the state’s COVID-19 response on an A-F grading scale.

Green said the grade would be low initially, but that he feels it is time to fully reopen. He believes Walz’s emergency powers should be discontinued.

“I’m not saying this disease isn’t an emergency of sorts, but the emergency has passed,” Green said. “I believe that it’s time to move on, I think we need to open up, we have some very serious concerns coming at us in terms of deficits if we don’t get our businesses up and running again.”

Suby said he admired Walz’s quick actions.

“He had to make difficult decisions, facts led him to issue stay at home orders. No one ever had to make these kinds of decisions before,” he said. “Wearing masks is about the easiest thing a person will ever have to do in their life. It’s not hard to do, and I think we can beat this, it’s the only way we will beat this.”

Both candidates also spoke about relief funding.

“We’re not going to get back to normal for several years if we don’t buckle down and take this virus seriously,” Suby said. “We have to get back to normal before we can really get things figured out here.”

Green said the fastest way to get back to normal is to reopen businesses, advocating for cutting back on regulations.

“How can we move these businesses forward, so they’re uninhibited, and they can open those doors and start seeing cash flow to get people back to work?” he said.

The two then listed their legislative priorities for the next term, if elected.

Suby said the largest issue facing Minnesota legislators will still be COVID-19 and its fallout, as well as passing the state bonding bill.

Green said the foremost issue is the looming deficit.

The candidates also spoke on climate change -- Green said he doubted climate change was caused significantly by humans, and Suby fiercely denied this.

The full Suby and Green debate can be seen below:

More area debates are scheduled over the course of the next week. On Tuesday, MN Senate District 5 candidates Justin Eichorn and Rita Albrecht will debate at 8 p.m. with MN House District 5A candidates John Persell and Matt Bliss following at 9 p.m.

On Oct. 8, MN Congressional 7th District candidates Collin Peterson and Michelle Fischbach will debate at 7 p.m.