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Johnson, Bjorkman corner Dakotafest conversation

U.S. House Congressional candidate Ron Wieczorek, Independent, of Mount Vernon, second from left, speaks while sitting with fellow candidates Libertarian George Hendrickson, left, Republican Dusty Johnson, second from right, and Democrat Tim Bjorkman during a U.S. House candidate forum on Wednesday at Dakotafest. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 2
U.S. House candidates George Hendrickson, left, Libertarian, and Independent Ronald Wieczorek, second from left, applaud the end of the forum as Republican candidate Dusty Johnson, second from right, and Democrat candidate Tim Bjorkman shake hands following the forum on Wednesday at Dakotafest. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 2

Wednesday's Congressional forum at Dakotafest had four participants and was structured to limit the back-and-forth typically found in a political debate.

But the two major party candidates — Republican Dusty Johnson and Democrat Tim Bjorkman — found each other anyway, as the candidates faced off during the candidate forum in Mitchell.

Johnson, from Mitchell, and Bjorkman, from Canistota, referenced each other throughout the 90-minute event. Also on the dais was Independent Party candidate Ron Wieczorek, of Mount Vernon, and Libertarian Party candidate George Hendrickson, of Sioux Falls.

Bjorkman was aggressive early in the debate, arguing he was the only person among the four candidates who had fought to save family farms during the farm crisis of the 1980s.

"My whole life has been committed to standing up for small communities," Bjorkman said. "Farmers ranchers, small business owners, those are the people I've stood and fought for."

Johnson said between his experience working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture or as a Public Utilities Commissioner or as a former chief of staff from Gov. Dennis Daugaard, made him the best choice for South Dakota's only seat in the U.S. House.

"South Dakota is a great state because South Dakota agriculture is great," Johnson said. "Rural development and ag have been at the heart of my career and I'm taking that approach to Washington."

But Bjorkman frequently tied Johnson into his answers, citing Johnson's involvement with the state's criminal justice reform and calling that a failure. Johnson responded by saying the state has worked to lock up "drug pushers" and that drugs courts have proven to work in the South Dakota, something he'd like to replicate in Washington.

Bjorkman argued that Johnson liked the House version of the farm bill, which the Bjorkman, a former First Circuit Court judge, said was heavy on special-interest influence. The two also disagreed on the legality of the current tariffs implemented by President Donald Trump. Traditionally, the World Trade Organization allows tariffs if national security is at stake. Johnson said a few sections are written narrowly and have executive authority.

Bjorkman tried to challenge Johnson on the issues of reforming Congress, including standing against the Congressional dues system and term limits.

"This is his chance. ... Are you with me and the people or are you with the special interests and the big party bosses?" Bjorkman asked, before the moderator stepped in.

"I'm not nervous on these issues," Johnson responded.

Early, Johnson spoke about his comfortability with the event, saying he had been to Dakotafest 10 times and has received donations from 1,700 South Dakotans at an average of $100. On a question about broadband, Johnson reiterated his current private sector work as an executive with Vantage Point Solutions in Mitchell and said that there won't be a "stronger advocate in Congress" for rural broadband.

"So I know rhetorically, it's a lot more popular to try to divide us," he said. "If ag is going to continue to grow, it's got to be something together. ... Working together we're going to make this country even better and I have to tell you, I've got the energy, the excitement and the temperment to get it done."

Bjorkman echoed his vow to resist donations from political action committees and special interests, arguing that money is the source of the gridlock in Washington.

"It's not because we can't get along. Dusty and I get along fine, I think we enjoy talking to each other," Bjorkman said. "Dusty isn't my opponent. My opponent is the big party bosses in Washington who want to control people like that. I will stand against them at every turn."

Of the four participants, Wieczorek, of Mount Vernon, most frequently went off course his answers during the forum. He repeated his four-point plan for turning the country around, which includes a national banking system and restoring the Glass-Steagall Act and reviving the space program. He told the crowd that at 75 years old, he "shouldn't even be up here" running for Congress but thinking of his grandkids, he can't sit idly by as the nation falls apart.

"I think the nation is in a time of crisis," Wieczorek said. "Ideas have become much more important than money. ... We're morally on the wrong track. We've got to get morality back in our economics. It's time to start thinking for ourselves and think for yourself for the sake of your grandkids."

Hendrickson, who has held careers in law enforcement and as a small business owner, said the ability to communicate and listen was his best trait. He spoke about supporting the E30 blend of ethanol and said less regulations would serve ag producers better.

"More liberty is always better," he said. Ag prosperity has to be our No. 1 priority. Our entire republic depends on it."