DULUTH — The first of at least four debates in the race for Congress in the 8th District landed in Duluth on Wednesday, Sept. 26, and when it was over Democrat Joe Radinovich and Republican Pete Stauber met offstage for a photo opportunity.

They held a poster espousing civility in public discourse. They never came too close to being otherwise during what was a welcome forum — one that left behind scandal early and zeroed in hard on the issues, most notably health care and the proposed expansion into copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota.

On the Depot stage, the major party candidates were seated flanking the Independence Party’s Ray “Skip” Sandman.

Sandman, 64, scolded the others in his final remarks, saying neither would get anything done in Congress because they were both bought and paid for.

But the American political playing field included big money before Stauber and Radinovich came along. The 8th’s recent history as a swing district has shown that a neck-and-neck race — as this one appears to be — will likely filter $20 million give-or-take before it culminates with the Nov. 6 midterm election.

Stauber seemed nervous early, using only half of the two minutes available for his opening statement. But in his next moment, the St. Louis County commissioner and retired Duluth police officer effectively shut down the controversy over his use of county email in correspondence with an outside campaign group.

“The county had the responsibility to look into the emails; they did so; they determined there was no wrongdoing and cleared the matter,” Stauber, 52, said in his first public statement about the emails, which were first reported by the MInneapolis Star Tribune and have been kept sealed by the county, citing privacy between a commissioner and an individual.

Radinovich, as he’s done multiple times, owned up to his history of parking and traffic citations, but ended his confessional with a seemingly flippant remark.

“They’re parking and traffic tickets,” the 32-year-old said, “everybody has them.”

As the hourlong debate advanced, Radinovich moved to the edge of his seat. The one-term state legislator and longtime political insider from Ironton, showed a nimble mind, capable of reaching deep into policy. Stauber was less the political savant and more the opportunistic bulldog. While lacking the clout of a robust campaign, Sandman served up common-sense wisdom throughout the forum.

“If you’re brown, you’re going down — that has got to stop,” Sandman said about immigration reform, wondering aloud why European immigrants don’t seem to be so targeted.

Stauber struck a high note early when he said the country needed to get over its stigmas associated with mental illness.

Radinovich creatively called rural broadband the most important infrastructure issue of the day. On the same topic, Stauber, of Hermantown, mustered the example of the Twin Ports Interchange, or “can of worms” section of Interstate 35 through Lincoln Park in Duluth — a $205 million rebuild long scheduled now for 2019. Stauber seemed to sense his mastery of the obvious and later came back around to say he’d pick up retiring 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan’s advocacy for upgrading the vital Soo Locks on the Great Lakes.

Radinovich, though, seemed to stumble on the topic of copper-nickel mining, fumbling through nuanced answers. Stauber picked it out and taunted his opponent, saying Radinovich was doing the “Texas two-step.”

“When I asked him about when the permits are given, he wouldn’t say yes or no,” Stauber said afterward, talking specifically about the proposed PolyMet mine outside Aurora. “When the DNR gives the permits, we think sometime soon, after a 14-year vetting process, they’re going to meet or exceed every state or environmental standard, otherwise they’re not going to get the permit. He still couldn’t commit and that’s good-paying jobs.”

Radinovich said he resented Stauber’s binary, for-or-against approach to copper-nickel mining. He then explained himself in a way he never quite accessed on stage.

“It’s hard for me to articulate, which is a problem, obviously, in a campaign,” Radinovich said. “But there’s a difference between being for mining companies and being for miners. That’s the simplest way I can say it. The mining companies should be allowed to meet our standards, if they can, and they should be allowed to go forward, but their reward is that they’re going to make plenty of money. What we need is somebody who isn’t focused on outcomes for them, but instead is focused on the laws and processes in place to make sure that they are going to meet those standards.”

Sandman, of Duluth, vehemently opposes new mining. He went on to describe health care as a human right. How to access it became a bone of contention for the major party foils, with the topic bleeding into time reserved for other topics. Before and after the forum, Stauber claimed Radinovich “drove us off a cliff,” while presiding in the state Legislature during the advent, earlier this century, of the Affordable Care Act and the state’s problematic rollout of MnSure.

But Radinovich bucked the characterization.

“I haven’t heard one single idea that came from you during that diatribe that put forward a plan that was going to insure anybody in this country,” Radinovich said.

Afterward, Stauber insisted he had a plan.

“Oh, I do,” he said, before reciting his campaign literature about patient-driven, physician-guided care. “We all know it’s an issue that needs to be fixed.”

Radinovich called the costs associated with health care both the biggest issue facing the 8th District and a national crisis — the result of too much money going to interests other than patient care. But government-run health care risked kicking many Americans off their employer-run programs, Stauber contested afterward, calling single-payer “destined to fail.” He later insisted the answer to health care reform was bipartisan action.

“Did you see me shake Skip’s hand?” Stauber said afterward, citing a moment in the debate Stauber used to illustrate his bipartisanship. “I’m not only going to reach across the aisle, I’m going to get up and walk over and legislate for the betterment of this county.”

The forum was nearly devoid of the spectre of President Donald Trump, who campaigned for Stauber at a Duluth rally in June. Stauber’s lone mention of the president came when he credited that visit with the administration’s lifting of a ban on mineral exploration in the Superior National Forest. Radinovich wove a narrative of how Trump-led tax cuts were helping the wealthiest Americans while raising the national debt to levels that would require cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The candidates are scheduled to face off again at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8 at Madden’s Resort in Brainerd. Subsequent debates are scheduled for Oct. 30 in Hibbing and an upcoming live radio debate Oct. 26 on Minnesota Public Radio.

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