Congressional candidates sound off on airport issues

As candidates from the Fifth Congressional District slowly filtered out of the Burroughs Community School into a rainy Aug. 24 night, it seemed fitting that the noise from several airplanes flying overhead was loud enough to drown out any thoughts they might have had from the night’s debate.

The candidates spent more than an hour sounding off on questions related to federal aviation issues, including noise issues that have plagued Southwest homeowners, in a debate sponsored by the antinoise activist group South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC). But while the forum covered several topics — from noise issues to airport safety to airline pension funds — the questions posed to the candidates by SMAAC and members of the audience were often complex and made it difficult to come away understanding where the candidates stand and, more importantly, where they might differ on broad aviation issues affecting Fifth Congressional District residents. The forum at the Lynnhurst school was also sparsely attended, with fewer than 30 people in the audience.

But eight candidates dug in anyway. DFL-endorsed candidate Keith Ellison was at the debate along with Democratic candidates Mike Erlandson, Paul Ostrow, Ember Reichgott Junge and Gregg Iverson. Green Party-endorsed candidate Jay Pond, Independence Party-endorsed candidate Tammy Lee and Republican Party-endorsed candidate Alan Fine were also at the forum.

For Southwest residents, one of the most pressing aviation issues is the unrelenting noise from the hundreds of daily arrivals and departures from the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Five homeowners who live in the 60-64 DNL (a measurement of day and night sound levels) contour are in the process of suing the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) for what they say are broken promises about noise mitigation. The plaintiffs contend that MAC promised residents in the 60-64 DNL full noise mitigation packages including air conditioning, insulation, and new doors and windows. The commission contends that it agreed to do some mitigation but did not promise to provide the same noise mitigation packages given to those living in the 65-and-up DNL areas.

All of the candidates at the forum seemed to agree that the homes within the 60-64 DNL should be insulated. Erlandson, Reichgott Junge, Ellison and Ostrow — the four main contenders in the Sept. 12 DFL primary election — were emphatic that the MAC did promise residents in the 60-64 DNL full noise mitigation packages and should uphold that promise.

Reichgott Junge said the airport expansion was approved with the understanding that these homes would be insulated, and now that isn’t happening.

“I think it’s an outrage that we have to sue MAC to make it happen,” Reichgott Junge said.

Of all the candidates, Fine was least clear on his position, noting that “promises should always be honored” but not specifically addressing whether he felt MAC is obligated to fully insulate homes in the 60-64 DNL contour. He said the lesson that should be learned from this situation is that the public should secure up-front money from organizations like the MAC when it feels it has been promised something such as full noise mitigation packages.

As they made their way through the questions, the candidates often relied on tried-and-true rehearsed responses and campaign themes. Erlandson emphasized that he has worked on aviation issues at the federal level for almost two decades while working with retiring U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo (DFL-Minn.) and has experienced airport noise at his home in the East Isles neighborhood. Reichgott Junge pointed to her 18 years of experience in the Minnesota Senate and said during her time there, the Legislature dealt with a number of airport issues. Ostrow said he has had experience with aviation issues during his time on the Minneapolis City Council, where he supported the city’s current litigation against the MAC in an attempt to get full noise mitigation measures for homes in the 60-64 DNL contour. Ellison emphasized that although he isn’t an authority on complex airport issues, he will be a champion of the people, pointing to his work representing residents of Minnesota House District 58B.

“I’m not an expert on airports, but I am an expert on advocating for communities,” Ellison said, vowing to research aviation issues with which residents of the district express concern.

Iverson contended that he can understands airport noise issues all too well because he lives just north of the airport at 34th Avenue South and 55th Street East and is subject to a daily barrage of airport noise. Lee also emphasized her knowledge with airline issues, stating before almost every question she answered throughout the debate that she has worked in the aviation and tourism industry for the past seven years.

Pond said one of the reasons the debate attracted so few observers, despite many people’s strong feelings on airport noise issues, might be because people feel disassociated with the polarized system of politics. He also emphasized that as a Green Party candidate, he wants Congress to enact further reductions in airplane noise and air pollution.

When asked whether they had accepted campaign donations from the airline industry, only Erlandson and Lee said they had. Erlandson said he had received a check from Northwest Airlines and Lee said because she’s worked in the airline industry for a number of years, she has friends and knows people in the industry who have donated money to her campaign — but she said she has not accepted any PAC money from the airline industry.

Kari VanDerVeen can be reached at [email protected] or 436-4373.