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Low-income people vote, too

Rosemary Hampton holds up a sign to notify candidates as to how much speaking time they have left. (Photo By Naomi Yaeger)1 / 2
CHUM intern Lisa Tranah keeps track of the candidate responses. (Photo By Naomi Yaeger)2 / 2

"My name's Carol, I own my home in West Duluth, I pay my taxes and I do vote." Thus Carol (last name withheld) began her address to a slate of political candidates at the Local Solutions to Poverty forum Oct. 6.

Instead of the usual format of candidates speaking about their positions, the event featured people who have experienced poverty to tell their stories and present questions.

"I worked from when I was 14 years old until I was forced into retirement in the year 2000 because of disability," Carol continued. "I take fewer pills than I'm supposed to and I do that in order to delay falling into the Medicare doughnut hole. That's the point during the year when the insurance coverage will stop, when my drug expenses have gotten too high. My health is deteriorating and it continues to get worse because I can't afford the drugs that might really help me."

Her question to the candidates for the Minnesota House in Districts 7A and 7B: "Do you support taking medical assistance and MinnesotaCare out of the hands of insurance companies who take a cut out of it for themselves and instead have the state directly pay doctors and hospitals? And do you support going even further by having Minnesota create its own universal, affordable single-payer health care system for all state residents?"

The audience applauded enthusiastically. Each candidate had one minute to respond.

Becky Hall, Republican candidate in 7A, said that while she supported affordable health care, "I don't want the state of Minnesota to run our health program because they've done a lousy job of it as it is ... I'd like to see more market-based principles and a little more freedom in health care."

Kris Osbakken, Green Party candidate in 7A, said, "Absolutely to both questions. This whole system's programs are handed out to private operations, and is supposed to be overseen by both GOP and DLF, and they have walked away with tons of money and neither party has any oversight."

Jen Schultz, DFL candidate for 7A, spoke about a program in the Twin Cities in the '90s in which employers bypassed insurance companies and contracted directly with hospitals and doctors. "We are trying to shrink the doughnut hole in Medicare Part D through the Affordable Care Act, but it's still not affordable for everybody. We have a lot of more work to do." She said yes to both questions.

Erik Simonson, incumbent DFL candidate in 7B, also said yes to both questions, but said he was "very proud" of the current system. "You can't reform health care overnight. Yes, we admit, governor admits, we had problems with the computer system, but MNsure is working," he said.

In all there were six "storytellers." The candidates had a hard time saying no to any of their questions, though sometimes after their answers the audience called out, "Is that a yes or no?" Ultimately the answers were all "yes" except for Hall saying no to only two items, state-guaranteed sick days and and a universal single-payer health care system.

Lisa Ronnquist urged the funding of culturally-specific programs which helped her recover from alcohol addiction and go on to help other people. Both of the County Commissioner District 1 candidates, incumbent Frank Jewell and challenger Jim Booth, said yes.

Janet Kennedy spoke of the value of programs that reach out to minorities. "Our community cannot survive and prosper as a whole if we're not walking on even ground," she said.

Tiffany McDonald said, "Thousands of Minnesotans lack the right to take days off for their sick family members," and asked the candidates if they would guarantee the right to paid sick days.

Samantha Alvar, a single mother and a student at the College of St. Scholastica, asked the candidates if they would support adding transportation funds for recipients of MFIP (Minnesota Family Investment Program). "I speak to each of you who are parents and understand my situation, I want to get through school and be there for my son," she said.

Larry Pfeifer, a resident at the Seaway Hotel, spoke about living with "bad management, bad sanitation, safety issues, security issues" until it was taken over by the Housing Redevelopment Authority. He asked if the candidates if they would support state investment in housing.

Emily Edison, executive director of SOAR Career Solutions, talked about the need for reentry programs for ex-convicts. Mark Engebretson, employment advocate for CHUM, spoke about the barriers to low-income people who need driving licenses for work, including high traffic fines, insurance and instruction costs.

Simonson's Republican challenger in 7B, Travis Silvers, was invited to the forum but did not attend.

The event was hosted by CHUM, Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, AICHO, Community Action Duluth, The Employment Table, Loaves & Fishes and Citizens Federation.

A video recording of the forum will be available at www.chumduluth.org.

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