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Candidates for the southern Minnesota U.S. House district gather after a Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018, Farmfest forum near Redwood Falls. From left are Carla Nelson, Jim Hagedorn and Dan Feehan. Don Davis / Forum News Service

Rural Minnesota congressional hopefuls agree on farm visa program

REDWOOD FALLS, Minn.—Immigration may be one of the biggest partisan divides in Washington, but there appears to be general support among candidates for rural U.S. House seats in Minnesota for a program providing workers to farmers.

Democrats and Republicans agreed on the need for the visa program during a Farmfest candidate forum Tuesday, Aug. 7. But they disagreed on many other issues.

Rural Minnesota lacks enough workers on farms. An existing visa program to allow people from other countries to work on farms has flaws, and some in Congress are taking a look at improving it.

"Congress should take a central role in that," said Republican Dave Hughes, who is trying to unseat Democrat U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson in the western Minnesota 7th district.

Peterson said he is working with Republicans on a visa bill that would help the situation.

State Sen. Carla Nelson, a Rochester Republican running in the southern Minnesota 1st district, said that besides passing an immigration policy that works, federal officials can help the situation by providing trade education to high school students.

Many of the candidates said they would push for improved trade education in two-year schools.

Nelson's opponent in Tuesday's GOP primary, Jim Hagedorn, said a key item Congress needs to tackle is to improve rural America's quality of life. If that is done, he said, people will want to live there.

Hagedorn blamed Democrats and Republicans both for holding up the visa bill in an attempt to get more extensive immigration reform.

While some candidates said the workforce shortage is the most important issue among rural Minnesotans, 1st district Democrat Dan Feehan said health insurance ranks No. 1 among those he talks to.

Like many Democrats, Feehan said that lowering the eligibility age of Medicare, a health insurance for the elderly, is a good option in a situation with few good options.

Hagedorn said that two years ago at Farmfest he said health care would become the biggest problem, to the doubts of many, but that is coming true. The Republican blamed federal health laws for driving up insurance premiums. He suggested allowing insurance to be sold across state lines.

Nelson agreed to let insurance be sold among states, but added that other actions are needed. She said one that is working is allowing agricultural cooperatives to sell insurance.

Peterson and Hughes, who also faced off two years ago, provided contrasts to voters.

"I was proud to be named this year the most bipartisan member" of Congress, Peterson said in his closing remarks.

The long-time representative has succeeded in a district that more and more is dominated by Republicans.

He also is the longest-serving member of the House Agriculture Committee. Usually, the committee's primary job of drafting a farm bill every five years is bipartisan, but not this year as Democrats would not support the Republican provision requiring more food stamp recipients to work.

While Peterson talked about working with Republicans in Congress, Hughes said he wants to "partner" with Trump "to make our lives better."

Besides not working with Trump, Hughes said that Peterson also "has no collaborative working relationship" with Republican state lawmakers, who dominate western Minnesota.

The two disagreed about trade issues, which affect farmers.

In the past, presidential administrations generally have done a good job of negotiating trade deals, Peterson said. But Trump "has gone off unilaterally. I don't see the end game for this."

While the steel industry and manufacturers could end up getting good deals from Trump trade efforts, Peterson said he does not see how agriculture will benefit.

Hughes said Congress should have a central role in trade issues, but defended Trump.

He said the president's efforts are short-term to get trade talks going. "I am super confident and supportive of President Trump's measures right now."

Nelson said farmers express patience that Trump will work out good trade deals. "But the patience is waning."

Added Hagedorn: "We have to give him a little lattitude to get things done."

Feehan, however. said Congress is an equal branch of government with the president and in the past when foreign markets were opened, "that was not one person who did it alone, so it should not be one person alone who undoes that great work."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.