There was a murmur through the crowd as Minnesota Rep. Duane Quam, a Republican from Byron, reached across the table and grasped the microphone currently in the hand of his opponent, Democrat Jamie Mahlberg.
Quam and Mahlberg are competing for the vote of District 25A, a southeastern Minnesota district that has voted solidly red for years. Quam twice trounced his Democratic opposition and once ran unopposed. Mahlberg, a psychology professor at Rochester Community and Technical College, is a first-time candidate.
Seconds beforehand, Mahlberg had been giving her take on how the state funds education. Quam -- a three-time incumbent and a grown man besides -- had already said his piece disparaging the current per-pupil funding formula, and Mahlberg was defending it as an important sustainable source of education dollars. Not exactly hair-raising stuff.
But that, according to videos from the candidates’ debate, was when Quam reached over, grabbed the mic and pulled it from her hands.
“Oh,” the moderator said. “I see a rebuttal is required.”
Quam launched into his impromptu response. The current education funding system was funding failure, he said, and “what we need to do is fund success.”
“And I want to fund success, not failure. And the formula builds in funding failure,” he finished.
Upon completing his somewhat slapdash rebuttal, he tipped his hand and held the microphone limply out to Mahlberg. She kept her hands tightly folded and her eyes forward, refusing to take it. There was a moment of awkward silence when Quam shook the microphone, as if he were trying to tempt a horse with a flaccid old carrot.
When she still didn’t take it, he lobbed it underhand so it landed in front of her with an amplified thud.
The debate continued.
Quam didn’t respond immediately to interview requests, but told the Post Bulletin that he respects Mahlberg, and that his “actions at [Monday’s] forum did not reflect that.”
“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,” he told the paper over Facebook messenger. “My sincere apologies to Jamie and I look forward to continuing a positive campaign.”
Mahlberg herself has heard no such apology. Not directly, anyway. She says she’s ultimately “disappointed” to be on the receiving end of what she calls “disrespectful behavior,” especially from someone who’s technically her current representative.
Neither candidate acknowledged the national context that swirled around the debate that night, but it’s hard to ignore in a moment when a loud, red-faced, defensive Brett Kavanaugh has been named to the United States Supreme Court, while a composed Christine Blasey Ford -- hailed even by Kavanaugh’s supporters for her poise and believability -- has had her testimony that Kavanaugh assaulted her while they were in high school tossed aside.
Most women know what it’s like to have to keep a straight face, to bring double the level of professionalism required to an occasion, while a male counterpart loses his cool. Most women know that betraying any hint of weakness, fear, or anger in response to outright bullying will reflect worse on her than the outburst itself will on him.
And so the debate continues.