BEMIDJI -- Candidates for Minnesota Senate District 5 and Minnesota House District 5A squared off Tuesday night in a forum hosted by Lakeland PBS, in partnership with the Bemidji Pioneer, Northern Community Radio and the Brainerd Dispatch.

In the House race, incumbent Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, debated GOP candidate Matt Bliss, and in the state senate race, incumbent District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn debated DFL candidate and current Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht. A planned Thursday night debate between candidates for Minnesota's 7th District, DFL Incumbent Rep. Collin Peterson and GOP candidate Michelle Fischbach, did not appear to happen as scheduled.

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.

The Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project and coronavirus impacts were large focuses of both debates.

MN Senate District 5: Justin Eichorn (R), Rita Albrecht (DFL)

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Albrecht and Eichorn faced off at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 6.

Eichorn, a lifelong resident of Grand Rapids, assumed office in 2017. He graduated from Concordia University-St. Paul.

Albrecht is the current Bemidji mayor, a position she has held since 2012. She is a BSU graduate with degrees in geography and education. Last year, Albrecht retired as regional director for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Questions for the two centered around COVID-19, Enbridge's Line 3 replacement project, Walz’s emergency powers, mental health services, childcare, treaty rights and tribal sovereignty.

COVID-19 fallout

Business recovery in a post-COVID era was a large topic of discussion. Albrecht advocated for the passage of a bonding bill, which she referred to as a "jobs bill" for northern Minnesota. “We want to make sure we are doing whatever we can to help our businesses,” she said.

Eichorn agreed that businesses need support, and also hoped for the passage of a bonding bill. “It is absolutely time to open Minnesota businesses up,” he said. “They are sick and tired of the inconsistent mandates going on.”

Albrecht advocated for adhering to state guidelines and mandates. “When we aren’t following those guidelines, we see things like what’s happening right now -- spikes,” she said.

Eichorn rebutted saying, “We are on day 207 of '15 days to flatten the curve,' and people are tired.”

Climate change and clean energy

Climate change loomed large during the front half of the debate.

Eichorn expressed his support for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project, and frustration with its lack of progress due to hurdles.

“It’s worth more than building the Vikings Stadium, and that’s an economic boost to northern Minnesota that we greatly need right now, because of what’s happened with the pandemic,” he said. “I 110% support Enbridge. We need diverse energy and Line 3 is a part of that.”

He added that when speaking with constituents it is the number two issue brought up. “It’s time to get Minnesota back to work and this is one great way to do it,” he said.

Albrecht also expressed her support for the project, specifically noting its proposed safety measures and plans to remove the old pipeline structures from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s land.

“I support the completion of Line 3 and I believe it will move forward, that’s something that we all want to have completed and done and in the ground, and we do appreciate those jobs, because there are a number of not only local workers that will benefit from it but also a lot of folks will be out spending money,” she said. “We want to make sure that that project gets on its feet.”

Albrecht then went on to say that she believes climate change needs to be further addressed and a shift to cleaner energy sources is imperative. “We have a crisis on our hands,” she said.

Eichorn seemed skeptical as to whether or not climate change was human-caused.

“Should we tackle climate change? To some degree, probably. But we’ve seen climate change throughout all of history before humans were even here. You know, Minnesota was once covered with ice. So we’ve seen climate change throughout history, to how much human involvement there is, that’s the question, there certainly is science on both sides of the issue,” he said, mentioning that he’d like to find a way to have both robust industry and clean air and water.

“Climate change is real and it does need to be addressed and I’m shocked that Justin would suggest that this is a question of whether or not there’s an effect on our environment from us, because we know that it is proven and that it is actually something that we should be concerned about right now,” Albrecht replied. “I really support the transition to a clean energy future and away from fossil fuels.”

Eichorn bristled at this, advocating for what he called a more of an “all of the above approach” having both coal and cleaner energy sources.

The full Eichorn and Albrecht debate can be seen below:

MN House District 5A: John Persell (DFL), Matt Bliss (R)

Incumbent Rep. John Persell has been in office representing District 5A since 2019. Prior to that, he served as the District 4A representative from 2009 to 2013.

Challenger Matt Bliss was formerly the District 5A representative from 2017-2019.

Bliss and Persell are no strangers to competing -- the two faced off in the 2018 election, where Persell won by a mere eleven votes.

Questions for the two centered around COVID-19, water infrastructure, education disparities, relationships with tribal nations and mail-in voting.

Coronavirus impacts

Persell and Bliss began by speaking about their feelings toward the governor’s response to the pandemic.

“I believe the pandemic is real, I believe it’s critically important that we protect our vulnerable citizens, but to allow the governor to continue on with his executive powers. . . it’s incomprehensible,” Bliss said. “I just don’t understand how he can do this.”

Persell expressed support for the governor’s swift actions.

“This is quite a serious undertaking, and I am pleased the governor has chosen the path that he has,” he said. “I want to protect our elders and our healthcare workers, and I think the governor is doing a good job and most Minnesotans agree with me.”

The two then spoke of dealing with a sizable state deficit caused by COVID-19.

“We’re going to have to tighten the belt, and we’ve already done some of that,” Persell said. “Right now the demand for food and shelter in the state of Minnesota is as high as it’s ever been, so we have our work cut out for us.”

Persell argued for a strong federal-state partnership.

Bliss expressed frustration that in the early stages of the pandemic, large corporations like Walmart were open but many small businesses were closed.

“Small businesses and people that work at these small businesses are really being impacted negatively,” he said. “We need to get those people back to work, we need to do it now, safely.”

Both candidates expressed the need for a bonding bill. They also discussed potential ways to support educators and invest in broadband for distance learning.

Enbridge and Line 3

Both candidates expressed their support for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project, though Persell touted the need to move away from petroleum products.

“We need to shut it down, clean it out and replace it,” Bliss said. “We need to move forward with this right now and the governor needs to stop impeding the progress.”

Persell rebutted that the delay was likely an attempt to prevent further litigation.

“I support it,” Persell said of Line 3. “We need to start weaning off of petroleum products and at the same time, petroleum products are very important for our national security. Climate change is real, science supports that by far.”

The full Persell and Bliss debate can be seen below: