BEMIDJI -- With Republican politicians absent, what was once a League of Women Voters debate turned into a Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party candidate forum Thursday.

The event featured District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, retired Northwest Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Director and Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, who's running for Senate District 5, and Jeremiah Liend, an operations support specialist for the company Complete Solar and candidate for House District 2A. The three of them answered a variety of questions in the Bemidji City Hall chambers.

Absent from Thursday's event were:

  • Incumbent District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids.
  • Incumbent District 2A Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook.
  • Republican candidate and former District 5A Rep. Matt Bliss.

According to a disclaimer given at the start of the event, organizers said attempts to reach Grossell were unsuccessful. Additionally, it was noted that Eichorn and Bliss did not attend, citing concerns of the organizers having a bias.

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Perspectives on Line 3

For the candidates who were in attendance Thursday, one of the topics brought forward for discussion was a long running subject for the area. That topic was where the candidates stand on Enbridge's proposed Line 3 replacement project.

The current Line 3 pipeline was installed in 1968 and is running at 50% capacity. The new pipeline would move 760,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada, through Minnesota, to a terminal in Superior, Wis. The project is estimated at $2.6 billion.

"I do support the project," said Albrecht. "One of the priorities I'll have if elected is to transition us to a clean energy future, because I think that's important. But right now, we use oil, and I believe that moving oil through pipelines is the safest way, so I support it. The current Line 3 needs to be replaced, it's old, and the new one will have thicker walls and more monitoring. I'm also familiar with the permitting application process through state agencies. I know them to be very dedicated to their work and make sure that all the compartments of the permit are followed."

In his response, Persell also expressed support for the project.

"The current pipeline goes under many water ways, including Cass Lake," Persell said. "That's one of the reasons why the current pipeline needs to be out of there. I believe that until we don't need petroleum for our national defense purposes, we need to support moving petroleum and a new pipeline is the way to do it."

For his comments, Liend said the best approach is supporting clean sources of energy.

"I believe that Line 3 should be removed and we should begin our transition to a clean energy economy," Liend said. "For one, I don't think we have the capabilities to clean up pipeline leaks when they occur. Until we can be assured that companies like Enbridge are willing and capable of cleaning up their messes, we should instead be focused on building up developments that won't diminish and destroy our environment."

Differences from the metro

Another question asked to the candidates was their views on differences between Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities metro area.

"Are there areas where we're different? Certainly," Persell said. "The example I'd offer is our vast natural resources and waterways. In the metro, they have to protect those, but we have significant timber and water resources up here to protect and manage. Otherwise, I think people are people, and we all live in a similar lifestyle."

Liend said there are different needs but common goals in his answer.

"Northern Minnesota and the metro do have different needs, but in general, we all want the same things," Liend said. "For instance, COVID restrictions are necessary in the metro because of their dense populations. They're equally important in rural areas, though, where there can be less access to quality medical care. Our needs are unique, but shared."

In her response, Albrecht called the subject a "wedge issue."

"It's something we should try to avoid," Albrecht said. "People are people across the state, the needs and desires of folks everywhere are pretty much the same. They want a good job that pays well, they want to have schools where their children are going to accelerate and have a great education, and they want healthcare that will take care of them and their families when they're sick. Generally speaking, most people want the same things and the idea of 'divide and conquer' is frustrating."

Housing issues

Adequate housing in the area was another topic asked about Thursday evening. In his response, Liend said it's important for the Legislature to offer new ideas.

"This is a really important issue and it speaks to my desire to make sure we don't have any homelessness in this district and state," Liend said. "I believe we need to do more to provide low income housing, and we need to explore different living options, such as forming eco-villages and licensing of tiny homes to make sure that nobody is left out in the cold."

For her response, Albrecht cited the significance of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

"One of the main, important things we need to do at the Legislature is fund Minnesota Housing every year," Albrecht said. "That is something that has proven to help develop housing, especially in rural Minnesota, for example here in Bemidji through the HRDC (Headwaters Regional Development Commission)."

"Certainly housing access issues are with us here in northern Minnesota," Persell said. "We need to also ensure those who need homes have access to health care, including mental health care and substance abuse care as they need it, because that is a big part of our homelessness issue."