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D.C. Memo: Mike check

This week from Washington, the Vice President goes to Rochester; 29 senators endorse the $50 billion Smith/Warren childcare plan and unemployment benefits for gig-workers are up (kind of).

Vice President Mike Pence
Vice President Mike Pence touring Mayo Clinic facilities supporting the coronavirus disease research and treatment on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

Welcome to this week’s edition of the D.C. Memo. This week from Washington, the Vice President goes to Rochester; 29 senators endorse the $50 billion Smith/Warren childcare plan and unemployment benefits for gig-workers are up (kind of). Let’s get on with this.

Pence visits Mayo

Vice President Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on Wednesday. Pence met with Gov. Tim Walz and spoke to medical workers handling the COVID-19 crisis. But contrary to Mayo Clinic policy, he didn’t wear a mask.

“Mayo Clinic had informed @VP of the masking policy prior to his arrival today,” the clinic said on Twitter during the visit. The tweet was later deleted, but when Mayo was asked for comment, the organization told reporters that they “shared the masking policy with the VP’s office” prior to his visit. Briana Bierschbach, political reporter at the Strib (and MinnPost alum!) said on Twitter that Pence was “the only person I’ve seen yet today without one.”

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Pence’s response was that the mask would inhibit his ability to look health care staff in the eye, the part of the face that N95 medical masks notably do not cover. “As vice president of the United States, I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus,” Pence told NBC. “Since I don’t have the coronavirus, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible healthcare personnel, and look them in the eye and say thank you.” (Karen Pence, Pence’s wife, told Fox and Friends that her husband didn’t know about the mask policy.)

SEIU Minnesota, the union that represents workers like technicians, clerks and janitors  at Mayo, noted their displeasure with the situation. “When Vice President Pence ignores the safety policy and refuses to wear a mask, he insults the hard work and sacrifice of all health care workers,” union president Jamie Gulley said in a statement. 

“Worse, he puts them, their patients, and their families at risk. As the union that represents thousands of workers at Mayo, we are deeply disappointed that Mayo failed to enforce their own policy.”

The DFL held a press call prior to the vice president’s visit that had varying levels of criticism for the Trump administration. On that call Rep. Dean Phillips said he believes the vice president is a ”civil man” who he believes has “the country’s best interest in mind,” but that Gov. Walz needed to take the opportunity to tell Pence the lack of testing supplies provided to Minnesota is unacceptable.

“We are ready to go with a massive testing program, but still cannot obtain federally promised support: swabs and vials in particular,” Phillips said. “I hope, in fact, I know, the governor will bring that up with the Vice President. I’m glad that he will hear it face to face from a wonderful state leader.”

COVID-19 could wipe out the child care industry in Minnesota

Without substantial monetary support, COVID-19 could wipe out childcare in Minnesota. Walker Orenstein and I have the story on what exactly the Legislature and Congress are doing about it. 

The Legislature recently allocated state grants, which are bound to run out. While the money was aimed at keeping enough capacity in the state to serve the children of essential workers, there was greater need than the Legislature budgeted for: about 6,000 providers applied, or roughly two-thirds of the providers in the state.

In Congress, there’s a $50 billion federal plan created by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Minnesota’s own Sen. Tina Smith. 

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Both have struggled to get the money in the latest COVID-19 bills, but this week, 29 other senators endorsed their plan in a letter to Senate leadership. The list includes every single Senate Democrat that ran for president this cycle: Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Amy Klobuchar; as well as Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who identifies as an independent, but caucuses with Democrats.   

Contract, freelance, and gig-worker unemployment benefits

Unemployment benefits for freelance workers, contract workers and gig workers in Minnesota are new. While the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development has already processed 10,000 applications since implementing the program on April 24, it still has a ways to go. DEED has just 300 employees managing all of the state’s unemployment claims: more than 530,000 since March 16. Read more at MinnPost.

A critical portion from DEED Commissioner Steve Grove:

“If you’ve applied and been denied, we realize that’s a confusing message for some,” but Grove clarified: It’s how the process works. If you’ve applied as a contract worker and the system has told you that you’ve been denied, according to him, that’s normal.

“As long as you have applied, we will get back to you,” he said. “You don’t have to reapply or apply again or update your application.”

Related: If you’re still waiting for your $1.200 CARES Act check, you might want to try this Los Angeles Times guide: IRS website hack for coronavirus stimulus checks: All caps

Omar bill would allow SNAP benefits to be used to buy groceries online

According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, more than 500,000 Minnesotans use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), benefits that can be used to purchase groceries. But SNAP benefits can’t be used online, even as more people use online grocery shopping to avoid potential coronavirus exposure while stay-at-home orders are in effect.

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s bill would change that. Her SNAP Online Purchasing Flexibility Act would require the Department of Agriculture to pilot an online purchasing program in every state.

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Read more from me at MinnPost.

JBS pork plant in Worthington

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump said he would invoke the Defense Production Act,  a Korean War-era law that allows the president to mobilize businesses deemed critical to national defense, to require meatpacking plants to continue operating. Days ago, Tyson Foods, the largest producer in the country, said millions of pounds of beef, pork and chicken could disappear from U.S. grocery stores as plants are shut down.

Minnesota leaders and members of Congress gathered in Worthington on Tuesday to discuss when a JBS pork plant, closed because of a significant COVID-19 outbreak, would open again. MinnPost’s Walker Orenstein has the story here.

“We have to get these plants open,” Rep. Collin Peterson, who chairs the agricultural committee in the house, said at the press conference. “And I was so pleased to hear the Secretary say this morning we’re going to do whatever you guys need and we’re going to get this thing done.” Peterson was referring to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue saying he’d like to see JBS open within two or three days.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn was also in attendance. One particularly interesting point from Walker’s story: Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a Republican who has repeatedly made and deffended white supremacist comments, was at the press conference.

In response to closures, pork processing plants like JBS have had to slaughter thousands of their livestock, because they can’t be managed without staff.

“When it comes to a city like Worthington, and you have a hot pocket like this, this is going to happen over the next 12 to 18 months,” Gov. Tim Walz said at the press conference. “If we put out the forest fire, there are going to be embers that flare up again. We can’t shut everything down when those embers flare up again.”

Today, Rep. Tom Emmer led a letter to the President (along with Hagedorn and three others) asking him to make changes to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), which provides aid for pork producers who are strained during the coronavirus epidemic.

Watch the money

Minnesota now has all the money from the CARES Act —$2.187 billion — in state accounts, according to MinnPost’s Peter Callaghan.

But who’s watching over how the rest of the money is distributed nationally, especially to corporations? So far, not really anyone.

“This is the most significant distribution of taxpayer dollars in human history Rep. Dean Phillips said on a call with other Midwest congressional Democrats today. “ And we as of yet do not have an operating oversight mechanism.”

Phillips was able to secure some transparency mechanisms in the CARES Act. But so far, they’ve been inoperational. “It’s time that we demand transparency,” Phillips said. “Billions, tens of billions have already been distributed. It is time to make that transparent to every American, where the money went. Who were the beneficiaries? And ensure that the dollars are being used as they were designed to.”

In a letter sent this week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar had similar questions. Klobuchar’s focus was on the distribution of small business loans funded by the CARES Act, many of which were distributed to big businesses, when they were meant for small ones. After the three hundred billion dollar fund was depleted and then replenished last week, Klobuchar led a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Small Business Administrator Jovita Carranza asking three questions:

  1. What measures are agencies taking to identify indicators of large companies abusing the program?
  2. Will the agencies commit to transparency measures?
  3. And will the agencies commit to taking action against companies who misuse the funds?

“We urge you to develop strong supervisory mechanisms to identify instances of unjust enrichment. This is not just a matter of rooting out fraud and abuse—the funding for this program, which we support, is necessarily finite,” the senators wrote. “Every loan that provides a windfall for an applicant who does not truly need it results in one fewer loan made to a struggling small business owner whose employees could be truly helped by this funding.”

Online conventions

The DFL convention will be completely online this year, following the news last week that the MN GOP convention will be doing the same.

From Torey Van Oot at the Strib:

Democrats attending the conventions endorse statewide candidates, select delegates for the national convention, consider resolutions and conduct other party business. Martin said endorsements will be conducted through an online balloting system. Endorsements in congressional and state legislative races have already moved to a virtual format.

By the numbers

  • 5,136: Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota, as of today. You can see day-by-day information on the number of cases here, with MinnPost’s daily COVID tracker.
  • $34,203: Rep. Ilhan Omar’s contribution to the DFL in April from her campaign account.
  • 30,000,000: The approximate number of unemployment claims filed in the last six weeks. The April unemployment rate is now around 14 percent. For comparison, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression peaked at around 25 percent.

A Republican in a sea of blue

Republican Lacy Johnson, who is running against Rep. Ilhan Omar, received his party’s endorsement at the district-level convention this week. Johnson has raised over a million dollars in a deep blue district looking to defeat Omar.

In other news

Quote of the week

“The extension of the shelter in place or frankly I would call it ‘forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights’ — that’s my opinion — and breaking people’s freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong,” TESLA CEO Elon Musk said in a call to shareholders.

What I’m reading

Hanna Trudo and Scott Bixby for Daily Beast: Why Have Women’s Groups Gone Dead Silent on Biden Sex-Assault Accusation?

The Daily Beast contacted ten top national pro-women organizations, including Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the National Organization for Women. Most did not provide a statement on the allegation that, in the 1990’s, Joe Biden sexaully assaulted Tara Reade, a former staffer.

“The thing about Reade story — and many like it — is that media decision-makers still operate under [the] illusion they control whether it’s a story,” said Ben Smith, the New York Time’s media critic. “Why not shortcut the handwringing, and ask Biden to open his personal papers to inspection, which is where this is headed anyway?”

Outlets like The Intercept and Business Insider have consistently broken the news on this story. On Monday, Business Insider reported that a former neighbor corroborates Reade’s account, saying Reade told them the details of the allegation in the 1990s.

That’s all for this week. Thanks for sticking around. Until next week, feel free to send tips, suggestions, and sound advice to: gschneider@minnpost.com. Follow at @gabemschneider. And don’t forget to become a MinnPost member.