There was barely an empty seat to be had at La Barista Monday night, as area residents packed the local restaurant to hear District 4 State Sen. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley) and District 4B Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth) - along with U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Detroit Lakes), who was a surprise guest at the Legislative Town Hall hosted by the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters.
"I wanted to see what these guys (Eken and Marquart) were up to," Peterson said when asked to address the audience briefly at the start of the evening. He then decided to join the state legislators in answering audience questions during the 90-minute forum. Republican legislators Sen. Paul Utke and Rep. Steve Green both declined invitations to attend the Detroit Lakes event; forum moderator Deanna Sinclair noted that each had received "multiple requests" to attend.
Local residents' questions at the forum included how constituents might help foster bipartisanship, and combat the atmosphere of hyper-partisanship that has taken over the political landscape - particularly in Washington, D.C.
Congressman Peterson's response was short and to the point: "Turn off your TVs."
When that statement brought a few chuckles from the audience, he added, "I'm serious."
Peterson explained that he felt it was important not to watch television news programs like those produced by Fox News, MSNBC and similar media outlets.
"It's propaganda," he said, adding that those networks were making money by "saying what you want to hear" - i.e., reinforcing listeners' opinions and ramping up their outrage, rather than offering a truly objective point of view.
"My advice is to turn them off," he said. "Don't listen to them."
Eken, meanwhile, suggested writing letters, not just to local legislators, but to local newspaper editors, talking about the need for compromise and bipartisanship.
"Bipartisan agreements tend to be longer lasting, because you have 'buy-in' from both sides," he said, referring to MinnesotaCare as one example of legislators from both sides of the political aisle coming together to find a solution.
Marquart agreed, adding, "Compromise is not watering something down. You can still do wonderful things when you compromise."
He said that both he and Eken are "pretty moderate" in their political outlook, and that he has both Republican and Democratic legislators whom he calls friends.
Both Eken and Marquart were pretty optimistic about the 2019 legislative session in St. Paul; Peterson was much more skeptical about the situation in Washington.
"It's a mess," he said bluntly, adding that the Democrat-controlled House was passing bill after bill that was "going no place" in the Republican-controlled Senate. He later noted that he doesn't expect much to get done with regard to appropriation bills that "haven't passed in 20 years," and need to be acted upon by June 30.
By evening's end, the trio had fielded nearly 20 questions, ranging from what can be done to combat the high cost of health care to the rising federal deficit, and the need to address elder abuse with better regulation of assisted living facilities, which do not currently need to be licensed under Minnesota law.
When asked what their top priorities were, Eken and Marquart both talked about addressing the state's health care and education needs, but Eken also mentioned border-to-border broadband, while Marquart brought up a couple of priorities for local residents: Passing legislation to enact the local option sales tax that was approved by Detroit Lakes voters in November, for the purpose of building a new police facility; and appropriating $3 million in state bonding funds for the purpose of building a new Becker County Museum in Detroit Lakes.
Later in the forum, they discussed the new museum in more depth; Marquart noted that "one of the real selling points" of the museum proposal was the broad range of support it has received, in the form of donations from Becker County as a whole and from the communities and townships within it, not to mention all the other organizations and individuals that have contributed to help make the new $6.5 million facility a reality.
"It is a badly needed project," said Sen. Eken, adding that while both he and Rep. Marquart have authored bills in support of the proposal, and are firmly behind it, they don't expect it to pass this year because it's not a major bonding year.
"But I think we'll be in a good position for next year," Eken added.
(Video provided courtesy of Fundamental Technologies and the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters.)