The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 21, 2014

Reporter's notebook: Ag gathering laugh draws attention


The Mankato Free Press

---- — NORTH MANKATO — It's the laugh heard around the world. During the Ag Symposium Wednesday at South Central College, Congressmen Tim Walz, Collin Peterson and Sen. Amy Klobuchar were asked a question about the implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

“I thought the Affordable Care Act would save $2,500 per family. What happened?” asked an audience member.

Peterson quipped: “I voted ‘no,’ so I’ll let these guys handle that.”

Peterson's comments were met with laughter from the packed crowd of area farmers and from the Democratic lawmakers. Walz and Klobuchar subsequently gave their responses to the question.

“This health discussion has got to be broader, it’s got to point out where there are weaknesses and failures, it’s got to make sure we’re not leaving people behind or distorting the system,” Walz said at the event. “But don’t pretend there was some type of safe harbor before this where everything was just peachy keen.”

There was no immediate criticism or complaint reported about the incident from the audience.

However, state Republican lawmakers and activists quickly seized on a video clip shot by television station KEYC to criticize the lawmakers. Republican activists characterized the lawmakers as laughing about the problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and at the question, instead of at Peterson's comments. The video quickly surged through state and national conservative websites. The criticism overlapped with the messages being pushed by national Republican organizations, such as the National Republic Congressional Committee.

National network Fox News eventually posted the video on its website and contacted The Free Press, which had a reporter at the symposium, for details about the audience reaction. (He gave them a boring, straightforward answer: "They laughed.")

Blue Earth resident Jim Hagedorn and state Rep. Mike Benson of Rochester, who are both Republicans running to challenge Walz for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, each issued a statement criticizing the incident.

“I am outraged that Tim Walz believes the failed roll out of Obamacare is a laughing matter,” Benson said. “Adding insult to injury, Tim Walz’s laughter in reaction to questions about the failure of Obamacare’s roll out shows just how out of touch he is with the pain being felt by the people of southern Minnesota.”

Benson said he will prioritize overturning the Affordable Care Act if elected.

Hagedorn similarly accused Walz of avoiding the question. He also noted he held an event criticizing the law in Rochester this week.

In response to the nationwide attention, KEYC released a large clarification statement Friday to address concern that its video had been “taken out of context to unfairly characterize that day's conversation.”

“Anyone in attendance, or watching the news story on our air or website, knows that a certain amount of laughter came first from the audience, then the three panel members,” said KEYC News Director Dan Ruiter. “The story accused all three panel members of laughing at someone else's suffering. It also accused all three panel members of ducking the question. Anyone in attendance that day, or watching the story in its entirety that evening, knows that nothing could be further from the truth.”

Walz spokesman Tony Ufkin said the characterization that Walz laughed at the problems with the law was unfair and completely inaccurate.

"The KEYC clarification speaks for itself. The Congressman always shows concern for constituents and answers their questions, as he did in this case. He also met with the individual after the event to offer his assistance. The Congressman has always said health care reform is a journey, not a destination. But let’s not pretend that the old system was a safe harbor," Ufkin said in a statement.

Peterson's office did not return calls for comment.

The speed and scope of the video's spread has been a surprise, but it clarified something that has been brewing since last year: The debate over the Affordable Care Act appears that to be position to be the marquee issue to dominate campaigns during this year's elections, possibly even more extensively than during the law's controversial passage.

An excerpt from Fox News about the video can be viewed at: bit.ly/1nUmiwg

Staff Writer Josh Moniz can be reached at 344-6316 or jmoniz@mankatofreepress.com.