Senior citizens, retirees and others met at the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall last Friday to hold a candidate forum in the 3rd congressional district hosted by the Minneapolis Regional Retiree Council.
The focus of the form was on debt and its debilitating impacts.
"My niece recently completed graduate school at the University of Minnesota [and] she told my brother that she expects she will never own a home because of the debt she incurred while going through school. Debt is a rising tide threatening to drown the American dream,” said Leif Grina, President of the Minneapolis Retirees Council.
Student debt now exceeds all credit card debt. Interest payments on federal debt now exceed spending for national security in our military spending; debt for Americans 60 and older increased from $1 trillion to $2.84 trillion from 2003 to 2016. And not quite a year ago congress and the president passed a tax cut that all parties acknowledge increased the federal debt by $1.5 trillion.
“Congressional leaders claim that cuts to worked for and earned benefits such as Medicare and Social Security must be made to help pay off the public debt—debt they voted to vastly increase last year. Anyone who voted for this should explain why it is okay to burden retirees who have worked for and earned some measure of economic security and freedom with debt created by others. And anyone running for the privilege of casting votes on behalf of others in congress needs to show leadership on this,” said Grina.
Organizers explained that incumbent republican Congressman running for reelection in the 3rd Erik Paulsen was invited numerous times by phone, email and letter to participate but did not respond and therefore wasn’t expected to attend. In attendance was democratic congressional candidate Dean Phillips.
The forum began with three stories from individuals struggling with debt. Golden Valley resident Helen Jirak is a former teacher struggling with the possibility of living without health insurance. Helen’s husband Tom has worked for Medtronic for 36 years as a research and design engineer. He’s had chronic health conditions since his 30s beginning with a diagnosis of trigeminal neuralgia. Helen explained that it’s often referred to as the “sucicide disease” because the associated pain is so excruciating that it leads many to commit suicide. He would later be diagnosed with sleep apnea, receive a cardiac bypass in his 40s as well as a diagnosis of chronic kidney problems and a pacemaker in his 60s.
They eventually received a letter explaining that due to changes in Medicare law, their plan had been dropped. They therefore need a new plan “to align with their Medtronic coverage.” If the pre-existing protections are eliminated, they worry that their premiums will increase dramatically because of Tom’s medical issues. “Along with Tom’s health issues, we are worried about falling into debt,” said Helen.
Paul McDaniel is a member of Save our Pensions Minnesota. As he read a prepared statement, Paul struggled to hold back his emotions. He had “just got a letter saying that he will lose his health insurance.” This, coupled with the struggles his multiemployer pension plan is facing, means that he will have to sell the home he built himself to cover medical bills. He asked Dean Phillips, “Will you support the Butch Lewis Act and raise Social Security [and] save Medicare and Medicaid for all?” The Butch Lewis Act intends to put multiemployer union pension plans in a more solvent position with the via the launch of an emergency government loan program.
Minister Laura Thompson explained that a second career after spending 25 years as a chef necessitated going back to college and accumulating $100,000 in debt. She joked that, “I am not sure I can pay it off before I die.” While in school she noticed that, “A lot of people my age going back to school.”
In response to concerns presented by the council, congressional candidate for the 3rd district Dean Phillips explained that during disasters like massive hurricanes, “We come to the rescue, which is the right thing to do. Why don’t we come to the rescue of people who have worked hard all their lives?” .
He was critical of Republican attempts to cut Medicare, referencing recent announcements from Senator Mitch McConnell about the national debt. Phillips pointed out that after ushering in a tax cut package that benefited the wealthy he now wants to cut Medicare and Social Security. Phillips described these programs as “some of the world’s most successful [programs].” One of his ideas to improve Medicare is offering it “as a buy-in option for young people.”
“Why we are burdened with debt when it comes to educational and health is beyond me,” Phillips commented in response to the testimonies.
As the meeting drew to a close, Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou, president of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, implored the attendendees to engage in labor to labor actions to elect pro-labor candidates during the upcoming midterm elections.