Candidates for governor vie for labor support at state AFL-CIO forum

The four leading DFL candidates for governor made their pitch to union activists from across Minnesota today at a forum in St. Paul, promising to support working people and their organizations if elected.

State Reps. Erin Murphy and Tina Liebling, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and State Auditor Rebecca Otto were united in their opposition to right-to-work legislation and support for union organizing and collective bargaining.

[Watch the full debate on the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Facebook page.]

Bargaining rights and professional standards would be off the table in Capitol negotiations with Republicans under her administration, Murphy said. Otto pledged to be the “most pro-labor governor since Floyd B. Olson.” Walz cast himself as an “organizer in chief.” Liebling spoke of finding inspiration in the iconic photos of Memphis sanitation workers carrying “I am a man” signs.

Unions, Liebling added, are “about human dignity and freedom, about being able to stand together and fight to have a decent life.”

The candidates also brandished their union credentials. Murphy is a member and past executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association, Otto and Walz are former members of Education Minnesota, and Liebling was a steward in her union when she worked as a public defender. All four said they had walked a picket line in the last year – “in heels,” Murphy quipped.

When it came to issues, the candidates frequently agreed. They supported raising the minimum wage, expanding free access to higher education and protecting public pensions. Minnesota’s next governor, they agreed, should get the state on track to a single-payer health care system, crack down on wage theft and make needed investments in infrastructure and public schools.

The candidates differed, of course, over who among them could best sell a bold, progressive vision for shared prosperity to Minnesota voters.

Otto, the only candidate on stage who has won a statewide election, said her focus on “bread and butter issues” would resonate best. “The DFL should never be afraid to run on an economic populism message,” she added.

Walz and Liebling touted their success winning in traditionally conservative areas, flipping red districts to blue. Voters are anxious about their economic security, Walz said, but in 2016 they didn’t hear a message from labor-endorsed candidates that spoke to their concerns.

“This is about us taking a message beyond the four walls that we’re in,” he said. “As much as having the right idea, it’s being able to articulate it to those very people who are casting votes and are going to be impacted by it.”

Instead of taking shots at each other, the candidates targeted their criticism at President Trump, likely GOP gubernatorial nominee Tim Pawlenty and Wisconsin’s anti-worker governor, Scott Walker.

Murphy said her administration would take action where the federal government is failing to lead, on issues like immigration and rising student debt loads, which are “inhibiting young people’s ability to participate fully in our economy,” she said.

Otto said she would “clean Pawlenty’s clock” in a general election matchup. Walz said he would aggressively recruit teachers and high-road businesses from Wisconsin, where Walker’s anti-union agenda has driven educators away from the profession and left wages stagnant.

“If the states are the laboratories of democracies … that laboratory’s on fire right now,” Walz said of Wisconsin.

The debate capped the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s 2018 Campaigns Conference, two days of workshops, panel discussions and trainings for political activists and organizers.

The event kicked off labor’s statewide political campaign, Labor 2018. Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy, the state’s highest-ranking labor leader, said electing a labor-endorsed governor will be labor’s No. 1 goal in a busy election season. The state House of Representatives is up for election, as are both of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats.

“It’s going to be up to all of us to get the word out to fellow union members why this election is so important,” McCarthy said. “I think you heard (why) from the candidates here today.”

Marcia Avner, a nonprofit leader and longtime progressive voice, moderated the forum. She did not mince words about the stakes for 2018.

“We need to elect a governor whose values and actions serve the working people of Minnesota,” Avner said. “We cannot afford to lose.”

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