While there won’t be a plan to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department on the ballots of city voters this fall, Republicans in the state hope to make the 2020 election a referendum on the issue in races across the state.
Since George Floyd was killed by MPD and protests and riots broke out in the Twin Cities over police violence toward Black Minnesotans, the GOP has condemned what it sees as growing lawlessness and anti-police fervor. In step with President Donald Trump’s national focus on “law and order” in the presidential race, the local party is now flooding mailboxes with campaign advertisements portraying all DFLers as supporters of defunding police departments — even though Democratic candidates say it’s a false claim.
From St. Cloud and Austin to Lakeville and Woodbury, Republicans hope to swing close legislative races by focusing on perceptions of violence and disorder in Minneapolis — and the pledge made by a majority of that city’s council to dismantle the police department. “I absolutely think law and order is going to be one of the top issues that we see moving forward here,” said state GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan. “Obviously in Minnesota, we have been ground zero for it.”
Roots of the campaign strategy
In the days after Floyd was killed, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, a Republican from East Gull Lake, struck a somber tone. On May 28, he said: “The pain from the death of George Floyd has permeated my heart and I am searching for understanding with prayer and reflection. A comprehensive investigation into the actions and policies that led to the death of George Floyd is necessary to gain a full understanding of how we can do better.
“We all deserve to feel safe in our communities and I trust the investigation will be the first step in bringing justice to George,” Gazelka continued. “The peaceful protests remind us that our free speech and assembly matter now more than ever. The violent riots, looting, and destruction have caused further division and pain.”
By the next day, however, when rioting and looting in south Minneapolis had destroyed dozens of businesses and a police precinct, Gazelka began to focus on the response of Gov. Tim Walz. He called it a “failure of leadership” that rests on Walz’s shoulders. The toppling of a statue of Christopher Columbus on the grounds of the Capitol was also used to illustrate what many Republican lawmakers saw as a surrendering of order to protestors.
Majority Leader @paulgazelka went to downtown Minneapolis to see the extensive damage after another night of pointless rioting. His message to all Minnesotans, this lawlessness won’t stand & we will NEVER defund our police. #mnleg pic.twitter.com/P1KUYKQb1Y
— Minnesota Senate Republicans (@mnsrc) August 27, 2020
Even as lawmakers debated and approved a package of police reform legislation, Gazelka and Republicans began to accuse DFLers of wanting to defund police.
Democratic lawmakers said they rejected the idea, but the accusation has spread to the election. In recent weeks, the state Republican party and the Senate Victory Fund, the campaign arm of the GOP Senate, have sent campaign mailers to residents of key political districts across the state.
In Senate District 14, which includes St. Cloud, Republican flyers proclaim DFL candidate Aric Putnam a friend to “radical extremists” who want to defund the police and “destroy the rule of law.” The district is a key target for Democrats, who hope to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Jerry Relph.
In Senate District 58, which includes Lakeville, campaign literature from the Senate Victory Fund says incumbent DFL Sen. Matt Little is “allied with radical politicians who want to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department.”
“Don’t defund the police & erode the rule of law,” the mailer says. Little is facing a challenge from Republican Zach Duckworth in another hotly contested Senate race.
The 2020 election will decide control of both the House and the Senate, though most of the attention is focused on the Senate, which Republicans currently control by a narrow 35-32 majority. The DFL controls the House by a 75-59 majority.
Do DFL candidates want to defund the police?
At the Legislature, Democrats say they have no plans to defund police departments. And in interviews and public statements, candidates in key swing districts have said the same.
DFL Senate candidate Putnam, a professor at St. John’s University who studies the history of social justice and the civil rights movement, said he would prefer to expand a “co-responder” program in St. Cloud that partners police officers with mental health professionals in the line of duty. “Instead of undermining the police or unfunding them, we’re helping them to restore trust between communities and the police force,” Putnam said.
While many social justice activists in Minneapolis have called to defund the police there, Putnam said St. Cloud is “not the same as it is in other cities,” even if it’s “not free of systemic racism.” He also said police departments can be reformed, in part through that building of trust. “It’s not policing itself that I think is the primary issue,” Putnam said. “It’s this larger question of racism and the militarization of police.”
As for the damage done to businesses, Putnam said “a lot of the unrest was not endemic to the protest, and it’s absolutely not cool.”
(Putnam noted one GOP mailer suggests he is trying to give “convicted felons the right to vote.” Felons in Minnesota can already vote if they are no longer incarcerated or on probation. Democrats have proposed legislation to allow people who are not incarcerated, but under supervision, the right to vote.)
Aleta Borrud, a DFL candidate challenging Republican Sen. Carla Nelson for the Senate District 26 seat in Rochester, said she supports legislation proposed by the People of Color and Indigenous caucus of state lawmakers, as well as measures developed through a state task force led by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Commissioner of the Minnesota Department Public Safety John Harrington. “I certainly do not support defunding the police,” Borrud said.
Borrud added she believes there is “wide agreement” that police aren’t always the best people to handle certain problems, such as working with people who are homeless or have a mental illness. “If we had our human needs fully funded then all of us would be safer and police would not be the ones needing to address these social situations,” she said.
Democratic officials, including Walz, accused Republicans of using scare tactics to divide the Twin Cities from other parts of the state. On Sunday, Walz’s political campaign committee released a statement saying “Minnesota Senate Republicans see the writing on the wall, and they’re doubling down on the politics of fear and division to catch a boost from the Trump campaign.”
“The last thing we need is more leaders who seek to divide us for their own political gain,” Walz said. “We cannot let Trumpism take over our state.”
Asked Friday about the campaign tactic of using law and order as a way to win votes in Greater Minnesota, Walz reacted with some anger. “I ran on this idea of one Minnesota because I think there’s a concerted effort to split us. I see it every time. I refuse to buy into that,” he said. “The idea that there is something different about our values and who we are and how we care about this state based on the population density of where we live is just despicable.”
“They’re going to try to make that case but I will continue to make the case that Minnesotans are stronger together,” Walz said.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, who represented suburban St. Louis Park, Golden Valley and Plymouth in the state Legislature, called the GOP law and order campaign one of “Distract, distract, distract, and divide, divide instead of figuring out how to work together.”
“There’s a narrative that the GOP, both at the national level and local level are trying to craft around women and the suburbs and being afraid,” she said. “I am a woman of color who lives in the suburbs and I can tell you that other suburban moms that I talk to care tremendously about the safety of our Black, Indigenous and people of color neighbors, our young people in particular and think that they should be safe.
“I think it is a message of fear and a real disappointing way to try to win an election.”
It’s possible the GOP strategy won’t be a winning one. Roughly 8 percent of those surveyed between Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 in a Reuters/Ipsos national poll released Wednesday listed crime as a top priority for the country. By contrast, 30 percent listed the economy or jobs and 16 percent said health care.
Republicans warn of spread of ‘lawlessness’
Republicans have defended the focus on looting and Minneapolis police policy.
Gene Dornink, a Republican challenging longtime incumbent DFL Sen. Dan Sparks in the Austin-area Senate District 27, said unrest in the Twin Cities has been all over the news and become “one of the top issues at the doors.”
While Sparks disavowed a campaign mailer sent by the GOP and said he would not defund or dismantle police in a recent Facebook post, Dornink said he believes Sparks would feel pressured to hew to the party line if top legislators ever brought a vote on the issue. “The DFL, especially Minneapolis-St. Paul is going in a different direction than we are in the rural areas on their police,” Dornink said, touting an endorsement from the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association.
Why are voters in his district worried about police changes in Minneapolis? “If Minneapolis is hurting I think we feel it down here because we care about those in law enforcement,” Dornink said.
Relph, the Republican Senator from St. Cloud, said he supported the police reform bills passed by the Legislature. He said he helped write the measures as a member of the Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee and objected to Democratic plans he viewed as wrongly taking away power from police — such as increased civilian control of departments.
Relph said residents of his district care deeply about any push to weaken police because they believe St. Cloud’s police are doing a good job and that other departments can follow suit. Relph noted that when a St. Cloud officer was shot in the hand by an 18-year old in June, the officer tried to tase the suspect but did not use his gun.
St. Cloud area residents are worried about efforts to defund police in Minneapolis because they are concerned about their safety when traveling to Minneapolis, and worry what they view as lawlessness emanating from the Twin Cities is “going to spread and infect cities that currently don’t have high crime rates,” he said. “I used to like to go down to Minneapolis,” Relph said. “I’m not very comfortable going there. I certainly want to see some changes to their police department, but cutting the number of police officers on the street is not the answer.”
As evidence of Democratic support for defunding the police at the Legislature, the GOP has also pointed to a proposal that would have created an Office of Community-Led Public Safety Coordination that by law would “promote and monitor alternatives to traditional policing models.” Democrats said the bill is not intended to defund police, but to focus on programs like adding social workers to respond alongside officers.
After returning from Washington, D.C. where she had attended Trump’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House, state GOP chair Carnahan said Trump has taken a strong position that Americans deserve protection of the police “to make sure there is order and that people feel safe and don’t have to feel worried” to go into downtown Minneapolis. And Carnahan rejected Democratic criticism that Trump has to take some ownership of what is happening in a country he has led for three-and-a-half years.
“What’s going on around the country is not, in my opinion, a reflection on the president’s leadership. It’s a reflection on the failed leaders we have in Democratically run cities like Minneapolis with Mayor Frey and Democratic governor like Gov. Tim Walz.”
She expected demonstrations to continue and that they would continue to include violence. “I don’t think this approach is something that’s going to win the left a lot of votes. I think it’s going to have the reverse effect,” she said.
“I think they are completely missing the approach of how to drive positive change and inclusivity in our country,” Carnahan continued. “You don’t do it by making people feel scared of leaving their homes of going into Metropolitan centers, of driving down a road and maybe having a freeway blocked for a protest. I wish these groups would stop and take a different approach. But I think it will backfire on them in many ways when it comes to the election results.”