Ducking the Debate

ONTONAGON – Three of the four political candidates scheduled to debate in Ontonagon agreed more than they disagreed in a amicable debate centered on issues of local concern.

State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, his Republican challenger, Greg Markkanen, and Lon Johnson, Democratic candidate for Congress, answered questions for nearly two hours from a panel of media and Ontonagon County Democratic and Republican party representatives, as well as the public at the Ontonagon Area School cafetorium Tuesday evening during the debate monitored by Ontonagon Judge Janice Burgess.

Although a seat remained open for him, Johnson’s Republican challenger Jack Bergman, who had previously confirmed his attenance, canceled on Friday in favor of attending a fundraiser in Lansing on Tuesday.

“He’s not a man of his words,” Johnson said. “I think how you campaign is indicative of how you’ll govern. He’s dodging.”

All three men agreed they would work for their Upper Peninsula constituents’ concerns over party loyalty.

In response to many questions asked only of him, Johnson said he will model himself after former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, who has endorsed him, and focus on an agenda to bring more federal funds to the first congressional district and streamline the tax code “rigged by the wealthy and the well connected. This is an epidemic that’s happening across our country.”

In an interview at the Daily Mining Gazette office earlier on Tuesday, Johnson said tax reform is needed now because the national economy needs to work for everybody with a “fine balance between capital and labor.”

“I would argue that that balance is tilted toward the wealthy and connected,” he said.

Regarding climate change, Johnson said at the forum the U.S. needs to transform its primary power and energy usage and look for ecological alternatives.

“I believe in climate change,” he said.

In contrast to Bergman’s desire to privatize Social Security, Johnson promised to never touch it or Medicare.

“It’s a promise we made to you,” he said. “There are no advantages to privatizing Social Security. You worked a lifetime to earn that benefit. Making Medicare into a voucher program would destroy it.”

Regarding education, Markkanen, a Baraga Area Schools civics teacher, would like to expand vocational education to give students a trade to pursue if they don’t attend college.

“I feel strongly about education,” Markkanen said. “Schools across the state need to be equal,” in per-pupil funding.

“We are underfunded,” Dianda said, saying local districts get $7,600 per student while downstate schools rake in $12,800 for each one. “I will vote against any unfunded mandate.”

Dianda and Markkanen agreed that Proposal A has been a failure and that school vouchers and privatization would be a bad idea for local schools. Proposal A eliminated the use of local property taxes and increased the state sales tax to fund education.

The opponents also agreed term limits should be eliminated and wages should be increased.

They all appreciated the opportunity to debate in closing remarks.

“This is what America is all about,” Markkanen said. “This is how a democracy works. This is the very foundation of citizenship and political action.”

Said Dianda, “I’m so very humble to be your state representative. I have that in my heart every day. One thing we all are is Yoopers. We do what it takes to get along.”

In his closing remparks, Johnson stood up in front of his table to address the audience more directly.

“I will work every single day to create a better life for you and your kids,” he promised. “Say no to trade deals that ship jobs overseas. It’s time for us to lead again.”

Craig Peterson contributed to this report.