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Senate candidates face off at forum

DFLer Karla Bigham and Republican Denny McNamara faced off Jan. 30 at Cottage Grove City Hall for a Senate District 54 candidate forum. Katie Nelson / RiverTown Multimedia

With less than two weeks left before the Feb. 12 Senate special election, candidates Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, and Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, clashed at the Jan. 30 League of Women Voters' candidate forum.

The forum covered about 20 topics submitted mostly by audience members and varied from immigration to healthcare. Both candidates formerly served in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

The forum kicked off with a discussion of how sexual misconduct could be prevented at the Capitol, since the seat they are campaigning for was vacated when former DFL Sen. Dan Schoen resigned amid such allegations.

McNamara said a task force on sexual misconduct is a "good first step."

"We must treat all fellow employees and colleagues with the utmost respect, and there is no place for sexual harassment, not only in the Legislative workplace, but any workplace," he said. "As the resignation of our state Senator has proven, more than ever we need trustworthiness, honesty and integrity in the office."

There needs to be a process needs to be in place for all Legislators, lobbyists and Capitol staffers to comfortably report andy sexual misconduct, Bigham said.

"It's incumbent upon each and every one of us to help navigate this change, because it's a necessary change," she said. "I want to be part of that future ... We each have to hold ourselves and our elected officials to a higher standard."

One of the major issues among voters in the district is the cost of healthcare and prescription drugs.

Bigham said she supports the MinnesotaCare buy-in so there is a public option to lower costs.

"Healthcare has to be affordable and accessible and we need more competition in the market," she said. "... People are having to decide between necessary medicine and eating. This is just wrong. And the profits these companies have are astronomical and it's not right and they should do the right thing and be competitive with their prices."

It's a priority to drive down costs of healthcare, McNamara said.

"We can't do enough to go after big pharmacy as far as I'm concerned ... More transparency would be terrific for people to understand how expensive it is, so we can cost-shop and see and understand what the costs really are," McNamara said.

The candidates were tasked also with the question of oversight of crimes and abuses in senior living facilities across the state.

"Republicans in the Minnesota House when I served always have done great with seniors and supporting nursing homes," McNamara said. "... It's really important to take care of those who are getting older and struggling."

Increased penalties for abuses taking place are necessary, Bigham said.

"This is an important issue as we have an aging population, and we need to make sure that they are respected when they are at our nursing homes and that there are ways that reporting is handled and done in a timely manner," she said. "The backlog is inexcusable of these reports."

When candidates were asked their position on immigration reform, they zeroed in on their roles in the workforce.

"The immigrant population is and vital and vibrant part of our workforce and we need to make sure that we're working with them," Bigham said. "Whether it's retail, hospitality, agriculture, they are a huge part of those industries and vitally important. I think we need to treat folks with respect, and compassion and understanding and have discussions in a way that respect everybody involved."

McNamara said "illegal is illegal" and the law should be enforced, but he remains positive that reform could take place this year.

"We have a number of folks in the country today that we need to find a way to keep them here and make it work for them," he said. "... We've got some folks that are washing the dishes, washing our clothes, flipping our hamburgers, planting our trees, mowing our grass, doing all this different kind of work, and we need to recognize that we have to make it work and find a solution."

Both candidates said they are not in support of right to work laws that would prohibit employees from unionizing.

McNamara and Bigham also agreed they would like to see the state provide more services for Minnesotans struggling with mental illness, as well decreasing taxes on seniors' social security payments, expanding broadband access and continuing to work on green energy initiatives.

Libertarian candidate Emily Mellingen was invited but did not participate in the candidate forum.

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