Minnesota state Rep. Duane Quam and his rival, Jamie Mahlberg, got through the first half-hour of Monday’s debate without any unpleasantness, really without anything approximating drama.
The four-term Republican and his Democratic challenger passed the microphone back and forth in decorous, 30-second intervals. There were no insults or raised voices — not from the candidates or the handful of prospective voters seated in neat rows inside the Rochester Public Library.
And then, just before the evening wrapped up, someone asked about inflation.
“Would you support putting an automatic increase on the general education formula to match the consumer price index rate of increase the previous year?” came the question from the audience.
Debate rules set by the League of Women Voters dictated that Quam answered this one first. An engineer who has served for eight years in the Minnesota House of Representatives, he delivered a dry and detailed argument against the general principle of education funding formulas, and handed the microphone to his opponent one last time before things got weird.
“I’ve seen the systematic disinvestment in public education,” Mahlberg, a psychology teacher who had never run for office before, told the audience. “I think we can do better than that, and we can start doing better than that by simply making sure that formula increases over time.”
She smiled and turned to her left, awaiting the next question.
She did not see that from her other side, Quam’s hand was sliding low across the table toward her.
It all happened in about a second.
Quam’s left hand passed over a notebook and behind Mahlberg’s plastic drinking cup.
It made a little detour around her elbow and shot up toward the microphone she still held at chest level.
And then he yanked the mic straight up from Mahlberg’s fist, like Excalibur from the Arthurian stone, and made it his again.
“Thank you!” he said.
A stir went through the audience. Mahlberg whipped her head around and stared at her empty hand. “Oh,” said the moderator. “I see a rebuttal is required.”
Quam was more pithy as he launched into his second effort to explain his opposition to inflation formulas. “I want to fund success, not failure,” he said. “The formula builds in funding failure.”
Mahlberg listened to this in silence, like everyone else in the library.
“I was really just kind of in a state of shock,” she later told The Washington Post. “I just wanted to make sure I kept my composure.”
She doesn’t recall feeling any anger or embarrassment. “Just disappointment,” she said. “How would anyone feel being on the receiving end of that disrespectful behavior? Disappointment, for my current representative.”
When Quam finished speaking, he leaned across the table again and offered the microphone back. Mahlberg looked at it briefly but did not take it. When he continued to hold it out, she looked away from him.
An amplified clunk shot through the library a moment later. Mahlberg spun back around to see that Quam had just lobbed the microphone toward her. The moderator laughed nervously as Mahlberg regarded the device, laying inert behind her name placard.
She picked it up, eventually, and answered the next question. She passed it back to Quam, and he to her, and the debate concluded without further incident.
Mahlberg said she didn’t speak to her opponent afterward. She was surprised to discover the next day that she and Quam had been converted from the city of Rochester’s public video feed into GIFs and YouTube videos, symbols in a national debate over the behavior of men in power.
“The physical embodiment of the cocky, white male legislator,” one tweeter put it.
Quam didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Post, but apologized in a statement to a Rochester newspaper, the Post-Bulletin.
“I respect Jamie and my actions at last night’s forum did not reflect that,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, my nerves got the best of me with our timed responses and I was not as graceful as I should have been while we shared the microphone. My sincere apologies to Jamie and I look forward to continuing a positive campaign.”
Mahlberg said she had never noticed any aggression from Quam before the debate and declined to speculate on what provoked him in that moment.
And while some Democratic groups are now spreading the video and fundraising off it, the candidate said she has no plans to do so herself.
“I’m ultimately focused on my campaign,” she told The Post as she headed in to teach her first class of the morning. “We have 27 days until the election.”