Three of South Dakota's four candidates for U.S. Senate met Tuesday night in Mitchell and talked about the importance of being involved in the political process.
"You are going to make the determination in the direction this country goes," Gordon Howie said. "It's important that you're engaged."
Rick Weiland, the Democratic candidate, and Larry Pressler and Howie, both independent candidates, attended the event, named The Great McGovern Forum, at the Sherman Center at Dakota Wesleyan University's campus in Mitchell. About 175 people attended the event.
All three candidates are part of the four-way race for South Dakota's U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, which will be decided by the Nov. 4 election.
"We need to get people engaged because I really believe our democracy is at risk," Weiland said.
Weiland, a Sioux Falls restaurant owner who worked for former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, said the influence of big money and special interests need to be removed from politics, a statement he has made often during his campaign.
Pressler represented South Dakota as a Republican during two terms in the U.S. House from 1975 to 1979, and three terms in the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1997. He told the crowd he decided to become involved in the political process again, this time as an independent, because of the partisan issues afflicting the nation.
"I decided that rather than sitting back I would try to do something about it once more," he said.
Howie, a former Republican state lawmaker from Rapid City, said he decided to become involved when he saw none of the other candidates supported his values.
Former Gov. Mike Rounds, the Republican candidate, declined an invitation to attend the event. It didn't take long for the other candidates to note Rounds' absence.
Weiland was the first to bring up Rounds' absence, saying he was disappointed by Rounds' decision not to attend the event.
"There should be another candidate up here, frankly," Weiland said.
Shortly after the event ended, Weiland's campaign issued a news release criticizing Rounds for not attending. It's vital, Weiland said, for the public to have the chance to hear directly from the candidates.
Dakota Wesleyan's McGovern Center and The Daily Republic partnered to bring the three candidates to Mitchell. KORN News Director J.P. Skelly moderated the event, while a panel of four Dakota Wesleyan students asked the candidates questions on a variety of topics.
When asked about the burden of loan debt on students, all three candidates agreed there was a problem but offered different solutions.
Weiland said lobbying interests have stalled efforts by lawmakers to ease the impact of debt on students after they leave school.
"We can do better than we're currently doing," he said. "You'll get a fair shake if you elect me."
Howie said the government's involvement has made the problem worse.
"When politicians get their fingers in the mix and think regulations, mandates and controls by the federal government solve problems, they actually create problems," he said.
Pressler, who attended the University of South Dakota, as well as Oxford University and Harvard Law School, said he, too, struggled to finance his education.
"It was a struggle for me to get an education, as it was for many of you," he said.
If elected, Pressler said he would work to increase wages in South Dakota, especially for teachers.
The candidates were also asked for their stances on the nation's involvement in several global issues in recent months, including the Ebola epidemic affecting parts of Africa and the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in the Middle East.
Pressler, who served two combat tours with the Army during the Vietnam War, said he does not agree with the country's involvement in what he described as "foreign civil wars."
"I think I'm qualified to say that we shouldn't be spending so much money overseas," he said. "We should be spending it here at home."
Weiland said the U.S. needs to continue to encourage other countries to involve themselves in issues affecting the entire world.
"I really have a problem with this go-it-alone strategy that we've had for the last decade or so," he said.
Howie said before the U.S. becomes involved in global issues, it needs to do more to secure its own borders.
Each of the candidates was asked whether he supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canada through parts of Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska and on to refineries elsewhere in the U.S.
Weiland said he does not support the proposed pipeline and dismissed claims the project would create a significant amount of jobs as an illusion. He also expressed concern at the environmental impact the pipeline could have.
"If that leaks and it gets into the groundwater, we've got a serious problem," he said.
Pressler, too, said he does not support the pipeline. But, Pressler also said he would consider supporting other pipelines to transport oil from North Dakota to free up rail service for farmers in South Dakota.
Howie said he supports the pipeline and criticized President Barack Obama for what he described as the president's attacks on the coal industry.
"It's time we had a voice for strong, positive, safe energy development in this country," he said.
Howie also spoke about his disbelief in climate change and offered as proof last year's Atlas blizzard, which devastated much of western South Dakota.
"What we're seeing is just a lot of hot air in Washington, D.C.," Howie said.