Rep. (D-MN) Keith Ellison and GOP challenger Chris Fields went head-to-head Thursday during a meaty half-hour debate hosted by WCCO News Radio 830.
The debate had spirited moments and heated back-and-forth exchanges.
“That is a lie. You are a liar, sir. That is not true. You ought to be ashamed of saying something like that,” Ellison said after what he felt was a mischaracterization of a Congressional Black Caucus walkout.
But amid the drama, listeners could learn a lot about the candidates. Here are some of the key items voters learned.
The candidates have two very different perspectives on the economic climate.
There aren’t just big disagreements on economic policy; there are big disagreements over how the country is doing. Ellison said things are improving—noting that the situation is better than when Obama took office and arguing that job growth would be bigger if Republicans hadn’t targeted public sector job cuts that put teachers, firefighters and others out of work. Fields said the recovery isn’t proceeding the way it should. He countered that it’s not fair to put all the blame on Bush’s shoulders since some of the policies go back to Clinton. The problem runs across both parties, he said.
- Ellison says: “After the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, in terms of foreclosure and a number of other measures, what we are doing now is working. … If it were 1934 and you knew what pain the Great Depression would cause America, would everybody be standing around saying, ‘Why didn’t you get us out of this faster?’”
- Fields says: “It’s not working right now. The recovery is not working. If you’re unemployed, the recovery is not working for you.” And: “Both parties are to blame. Both presidents Bush and Clinton, in the modern era, have some responsibility for that. So to say that we’re going to reset the clock and go back to Bush-era policies is actually incorrect.”
Fields breaks with his party on defense spending …
Republicans like presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who wants to grow defense spending to 4 percent of GDP, said Obama’s slower-growth plan puts America at risk. Fields countered that much of defense spending is instigated by legislators keen to bring defense contracts back to their districts.
- Fields says: “I have a party that insists we need to grow the Defense Department. I don’t believe that. I’ve been in the Defense Department for the last 21 years, and I can boldly say, ‘Hey, guess what guys. The Defense Department can take a haircut.”
- Ellison says: Fields’ statement came during a portion of the debate where the moderator asked the candidates where they disagreed with their party. Ellison didn’t object to Fields’ stance, but said, “What we have right here is Chris trying to remake himself and turn himself into some bipartisan person when his whole campaign has been devoted to attacking me.”
… but Fields is still solidly in the conservative camp.
While he may differ with the GOP on defense spending, Fields’ suggestions to help North Minneapolis sat squarely on the tax-cutting, regulation-loosening side of the equation. He proposed not taxing service workers’ tips in order to put more money into the economy. He wants a five-year tax holiday for small-business startups to help them get going. And he wants to let employees opt-out of the federal minimum wage.
- Fields says: “I’d focus my energy on reducing spending, wasteful government spending, and making government programs more efficient where we actually need them and a complete, comprehensive tax reform plan,” he said, describing how he’d reduce the deficit.
- Ellison says: The incumbent’s solution for the national debt was to allow the tax cuts for the richest two percent to expire. “This would add needed revenue to the nation’s coffers, reduce our deficit.”
Ellison breaks with the president—to the left.
Where Fields’ stance on defense is more centrist than his party, Ellison offered positions that were more progressive than the president’s—something the moderator was quick to note. The incumbent noted that he pushed for a public option in the health care reform bill, wanted a faster timeline to get out of Afghanistan and opposed indefinite detention of Americans.
- Ellison says: “You asked me if I disagree with Obama on that one, and I’m answering your question in a direct way.”
- Fields says: During discussion on whether the Obama administration is responsible for Libya, Fields said, “The congressman cannot responsibly and in a respectful way address the administration on this issue because the congressman is so tied to the Obama administration that he has lost all ability to hold that administration to account.”
Race—at least its relevance to the campaign—is still a point of contention.
Both Ellison and Fields are black, but Fields has repeatedly accused Ellison of focusing on race and using that in choosing whom to defend. In one short ad, Fields even says, "Vote for this black guy, not that one." Fields criticized the Congressional Black Caucus’ walkout during the vote to hold U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, a black man, in contempt of Congress for not releasing information related to the Fast Furious scandal. Ellison said Fields’ attempt to make this a racially charged campaign is reprehensible. He said the walkout wasn’t about race; it was a protest against using of a contempt vote to win political points.
- Ellison says: “The basic core concept of my campaign is not vote for one black or another black guy. It’s everybody counts, everybody matters—people of all colors, all cultures, all faiths, people of different sexual orientations.”
- Fields says: “Congressman Ellison has some very disturbing views about race. … If you guys are going to stand up for Trayvon Martin’s family—and I believe you should—then you stand up for (Border Control Agent) Brian Terry’s family.”