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An audience member makes a hand gesture to Jim Oberstar to tell him his speaking time is up at Tuesday's debate between Oberstar (below right) and challenger Chip Cravaack (left), opponents in the 8th Congressional District. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)
An audience member makes a hand gesture to Jim Oberstar to tell him his speaking time is up at Tuesday's debate between Oberstar (below right) and challenger Chip Cravaack (left), opponents in the 8th Congressional District. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Crowd sparks fiery 8th District congressional debate

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Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Jim Oberstar and Chip Cravaack didn't just face each other Tuesday morning at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Auditorium: They faced angry mobs of their opponent's supporters.

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Just seconds into the first comments by DFLer Oberstar, Cravaack supporters began to shout the long-term incumbent down with calls of "liar'' and "Obama Junior.''

When challenger Cravaack's turn came, Oberstar supporters responded in kind.

Moderators asked for civility and respect, but the catcalls and jeering continued through most of the 90-minute forum, often drowning out candidates' answers over a faulty sound system that lacked volume.

Attendance was estimated at about 1,800; the main floor of the Auditorium was almost full.

Oberstar was cut short several times and fell to sparring with Cravaack supporters as they heckled him. Cravaack did not respond to his interrupters.

"You just don't want to hear the facts. You don't want to hear the truth,'' Oberstar said.

"You don't know the truth,'' a Cravaack supporter called back.

The exchange continued when the issue of cap-and-trade legislation, aimed at reducing carbon emissions, was raised. Oberstar voted for the bill, which failed to advance. Cravaack said the nation can't afford higher energy costs. He claimed increased costs for electricity from the carbon-cutting effort could kill Minnesota's taconite industry.

Oberstar countered that the taconite and steel industries are afforded a credit in the version of legislation he voted for, saying the nation needed to make some progress in stemming carbon emissions widely blamed for spurring global climate change.

"It's changing our way of life. We have to deal with this issue,'' Oberstar said to boos and catcalls from Cravaack supporters. Oberstar said the claim that

carbon-cutting legislation will put "our industry out of work is fundamentally wrong.''

When the heckling grew louder, Oberstar accused the Cravaack supporters of being in the "flat-earth society.'' As he tried to rattle off statistics on warming trends, he was shouted down again with calls of "liar.''

The only lighter moments came when Cravaack and Oberstar briefly traded barbs speaking in Italian. Oberstar also thanked Cravaack for his military service and Cravaack responded, thanking Oberstar for his congressional service.

George Sundstrom, a retired Duluth union sheet-metal worker, union leader and Oberstar supporter, said afterward that he was surprised the event got so out of hand.

"I'm angry at how it went on and on. Those people

didn't want to hear; they refused to listen,'' Sundstrom said. "It wasn't a forum, it was a shouting match for the crowd.''

Alan Gonia of Duluth said he's supporting Cravaack. But he said the forum turned nasty because of heightened emotions over federal issues such as health care, the economy and abortion. Gonia, who also attended last month's gubernatorial forum in Duluth, noted that event held little of the rancor seen at the Oberstar-Cravaack debate.

"There are a lot of Tea Party people here who feel very strongly on some of these federal issues," Gonia said. "It's why they are involved. But I still wish they would keep it down enough so we could at least hear both answers."

Sandy Jennisch of Hermantown said she came to the forum favoring Cravaack but still wanted to see and hear how he handled himself.

"I really didn't know him that well, and I wanted to hear how he answered and how he handled himself,'' she said, adding that she was happy with the result. "I thought he was very poised. He was able to get his point across.''

Though there were no Duluth police officers at the forum as the crowd entered, there were five squad cars at the doors when the event ended. Brad Wick, Duluth police spokesman, said there were no reports of any actual violence, though there had been rumors of a confrontation between Cravaack and Oberstar supporters in the Skywalk.

Cravaack, 51, was born in Charleston, W.V., and grew up in Madeira, Ohio. After a career with the U.S. Navy he became a pilot for Northwest Airlines, moving to Minnesota in 1990. Cravaack moved to Lindstrom, Minn., and into the 8th District in 2003. This is his first run for political office.

Oberstar, 76, is Minnesota's longest-serving Congressman, first elected in 1974. He has never earned less than 59 percent of the vote. He's a native of Chisholm and still owns his mother's former house there.

The event was sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Luke's hospital and the Duluth News Tribune.

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