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When it comes to the Minnesota governor’s race, voters can’t say they don’t have a real choice

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Jeff Johnson being interviewed during President Trump's Duluth rally in October.

Tim Walz and Jeff Johnson probably don’t have to tell voters how different they are from one another.

But they often do anyway.

In most of their debates and joint appearances, both preface many answers with variations on that theme.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Walz said early in a KSTP-TV debate on Oct. 21. “There are two competing philosophies. What you’re gonna see tonight is two different visions of Minnesota, one that tells you what we can’t do and one that tells you what to fear. The other one that tells you what we do we do together and how to grow.”

At the same event, Johnson closed his remarks with a similar theme: “While Tim and I get along, we just have dramatically different views of where to go from here,” Johnson said, listing taxes, health care, immigration and accountability in state government as examples of how they take starkly different positions.

“We need a fundamental change in the status quo,” he said.

You can’t argue that there isn’t a clear choice to succeed two-term DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. While Walz might be considered closer to the center of the DFL, he does take positions closer to the progressive wing of the party, and Johnson has accused Walz of doing so in order to win the DFL primary and asked earlier in the campaign (“… which positions are you going to take as governor?”).

Walz responds by saying he considers being able to change his mind as a virtue, not a vice. “I think you want a leader who is able to adapt to changing situations,” Walz told an audience at an Oct. 9 debate in Willmar. “We’re never going to find solutions if we can’t bring people over to see things from a different way. You’ll never change the system if you yourself can’t change.”

Nowhere is that tendency more obvious than on the issue of gun safety. Walz, born into a Nebraska farm family and lifelong hunter, had gotten high grades from the NRA for much of his time in Congress. That grade was changed to an “F” as Walz began supporting enhanced background checks for gun purchases, red flag warnings to prevent potentially dangerous people from getting guns and bans on bump stocks that modify a semi-automatic weapon to fire like an automatic weapon.

Johnson, by contrast, says he doesn’t favor any changes to gun laws and said earlier in the campaign that American society needs to look at itself rather than gun laws. Sometime in the 1990s, “something happened to at least a few of the young men and boys in our society and now (school violence) is becoming more and more prevalent,” he said during a joint MPR interview at the state fair.

He cited family breakdown, mental health issues, pop culture and school discipline changes as potential reasons and said society needs to have difficult conversations to address the issue. “We never talk about those things because the answer is always, let’s ban bump stocks, maybe that will prevent the next school shooting and it won’t,” Johnson said.

But guns is far from the only issue on which the two disagree. Walz has said he thinks a gas tax increase will be necessary to resolve road and transit infrastructure gaps; Johnson says he doesn’t favor any increases in overall taxing levels. Johnson wants a hiatus in the state’s acceptance of refugees fleeing political strife or warfare, Walz does not. Walz supports so-called separation ordinances and laws that keeps local law enforcement from questioning the immigration status of people they come in contact with while Johnson says such policies equate to sanctuary state status that will attract more undocumented immigrants to the state.

State budget? Walz talks of gaps in funding for schools and social services and Johnson thinks the state spends too much and too carelessly. Education? Johnson favors more school choice including vouchers for low-income parents to pay for alternatives to public schools, Walz opposes vouchers.

The path to November

Earlier this year, Walz survived a difficult primary, a contest that might have once looked like an easy one. After failing to claim the DFL endorsement, he had to face off against an energized state Rep. Erin Murphy. Then both saw their plans — and perhaps their arithmetic — get disrupted by the late entry into the DFL race by state Attorney General Lori Swanson.

This time it was Walz’s come-from-behind story. After trailing in all of the public polls, he won a relatively easy victory in August.

Tim Walz, shown with his daughter, Hope
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Tim Walz, shown with his daughter, Hope, during this summer's Twin Cities Pride Parade.
Johnson’s path to the general election was far more surprising. At one point, he was thought to be so far behind former Gov. Tim Pawlenty that a pre-primary poll by NBC News and Marist College didn’t even include him in its test of possible general election matchups against all three DFLers. But Johnson won to become the GOP nominee for the second straight election.

As they face Tuesday’s election, Johnson might be buoyed by the state’s history: Minnesota doesn’t tend to elect the same party for three-consecutive terms to the highest office. Walz, who has led in every public poll, could benefit from a different piece of history: that the president’s party does poorly in the first mid-term after his election. Yet while Johnson generally supports President Trump’s policies and Walz opposes much of it, the president has not been a prominent character in either campaign.

Walz: ‘I will govern with partners’

Walz didn’t give up a safe seat in Congress, exactly. His southern Minnesota congressional district had elected Republicans before he won in 2006 and his margin was narrow in 2016, when Trump easily carried the district. But he says he wanted the different challenge of being governor.

“It was becoming increasingly clear to me that dealing with the difficult issues of health care and education that we were becoming more paralyzed, that the politics were becoming more partisan,” he said in an interview this week. “It seemed that Minnesota was still holding onto the belief that we could work together.”

Tim Walz

Age: 54
Birthplace/Hometown: West Point, Nebraska/Mankato
Education: Chadron State College, Minnesota State University-Mankato
Elected offices: U.S. House (2007-present)
Family: Wife Gwen Walz, daughter Hope, son Gus
Lieutenant Governor candidate: State Rep. Peggy Flanagan, St. Louis Park

Because he is a Democrat from farm country — an increasingly rare commodity — Walz said he thinks he is positioned to work with different sides of issues. He was actually criticized by some activists before the DFL convention for being too willing to compromise. Walz said he was stricken by the accusation — that what he thinks of as a virtue was considered by some as a vice.

“I was convinced as I was then, and am more so now, that they were going to end up in the place where I’m at: that uniting this state around One Minnesota, not compromising your progressive values but with an idea that taking that message to a broader audience, was going to be what it would take,” he said. Party activists and those especially invested in issues “were falling into camps that were pretty rigid. But there was an opportunity to bridge that.”

Yet Walz agrees with critics of the DFL who say it hasn’t embraced a sense of urgency on issues of social justice and economic justice. That it was too often too timid. “Activists play an important role,” he said. “They continue to push the envelope on things they care about. But the capacity to govern is going to require someone who can build a broader coalition.”

Walz has been criticized by Johnson for overpromising, for saying yes to every interest group that seeks more spending and more government intervention. Whether in reaction to that or not, Walz has been much less specific about spending and taxation, preferring to say he would bring people in and discuss issues before committing. That tendency caused some embarrassment last month, when he refused to say what amount the state minimum wage should be, even while his campaign website said he favored $15 an hour.

“I’ve said that I will govern with partners. I would say I need to bring them in and find ways that will work for all of us,” Walz said. “How does a partner come in, how does a legislator come in, how do businesses come in if they’re already being told that this is exactly what is going to happen?

“Jeff has told us exactly what he is going to do on taxes: he’s not going to do anything,” Walz said. “If a bridge falls down he’s gonna take it out of human services, he’s gonna take it out of education. That doesn’t open up any space at all to have real foundational changes to fixing our political system is broken and why our budget is broken.”

Walz’s core campaign theme is to appeal to what many consider a Minnesota tradition of less divisive politics. “In a time that feels more divisive — and especially this week — fearful, hateful, angry and violent, there is still a core belief that we can make this work, that there is some middle ground to get this done,” Walz said. “What the president is doing this week is proof positive that we’ve got to do something different.”

Johnson: ‘We are not serving people’

Like Walz, Johnson is spending the final days of the 2018 campaign engaged in retail politics, including a caravan with other candidates to make as many visits as possible. Between stops, Johnson spoke about the motivation for spending months and months on the road to try again to win the governorship.

“It’s the same reason I would have given four years ago. I truly see an attitude in government right now where we are not serving people,” Johnson said. “Maybe that sounds a little corny but that’s what government is supposed to be doing. But there is a level of arrogance in government right now that’s just wrong, and I want to change it.”

Like Walz, Johnson said he is troubled by the hostile atmosphere around politics and says there is blame on both sides. But he said he has a style of leadership that is different than others. “I firmly believe you’re not going to accomplish things that are lasting if you haven’t formed relationships on both sides of the aisle,” Johnson said. “You simply have to. That’s something I have been able to do. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to fight about things sometimes, you are. Some things are worth fighting about. But it doesn’t have to become personal and if we can avoid that there is a lot that can be accomplished.”

Jeff Johnson

Age: 51
Birthplace/Hometown: Detroit Lakes/Plymouth
Education: Concordia College, Georgetown Law School
Elected offices: Minnesota House (2001-2007) Hennepin County Commission District 7 (2009 to present)
Family: Wife Sondi Johnson, sons Thor and Rolf
Lieutenant governor candidate: Donna Bergstrom, Duluth

Part of Johnson’s criticism — what he sees as Walz taking more moderate stances for the general election after winning the DFL primary — stems from what he considers cynical politics. His general election campaign doesn’t look much different from his campaign against Pawlenty, except perhaps with fewer references to his support for Trump.

“It’s what annoys people more about politicians, when you run to the right or the left to win your primary and then try to change your positions and make the general public think you stand for something different than what you just stood for,” he said. One of the lessons he learned from his run four years ago was focusing too much general election energy on independent and unaffiliated voters, assuming his GOP base would be there for him on election day.

“That wasn’t about changing what I was saying. It was about where are you traveling, how are you directing your TV ads, how are you directing your social media,” he said. “We were directing all of our attention to independents, and it worked. But we assumed that Republicans would get out and vote and we were wrong. You have to focus on both.”

Johnson agrees that Minnesotans have a more-accepting view of government but that trust is being tested. “I think there is more trust in government than in many states and part of that is we’ve had a long history of ‘good government.’ People define that differently but most people believe that historically government has been pretty competent,” Johnson said. “But that is changing and the perception I’m hearing out there is no longer that we have good government.”

Johnson said paying high taxes make residents more demanding of their government. “While I believe that they are entirely too high, I think most Minnesotans realize we’re never going to be a low-tax state but they want their money to be spent wisely,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to be No. 1. I don’t want to be number 47 either,” he said of state-by-state ranking of taxation. “But maybe 12 or 10 would be more reasonable.”


Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/02/2018 - 05:44 pm.

    Blame on both sides? Seriously Mr. Johnson?

    No one has a bullhorn as large as the POTUS.

  2. Submitted by John Webster on 11/02/2018 - 05:49 pm.

    I pay far more attention to political news than most people do, but I have no idea exactly what either Jeff Johnson or Tim Walz support regarding taxes and spending. Johnson says Minnesota is overtaxed, but he has provided no details for where he proposes to cut spending if the state budget is to be balanced as required by the state Constitution. Walz advocates major new spending programs, but he won’t say how they’ll be paid for, i.e. which taxes will be raised and on whom.

    The news media has done a poor job of forcing these candidates to speak the truth about they will propose if elected. Voters are just left with general impressions about what these guys will do. I’ve never been a professional journalist, but I could do a far better job of smoking them out on what they really believe.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 11/03/2018 - 11:49 am.

      Well … Walz has said he wants to raise the gas tax to pay for a greater portion of road maintenance. That’s a clear and risky commitment. And he seems to support continuing the investment in pre-k, etc.

      But on the whole I agree with you that the news media’s coverage has not been particularly helpful. I think they have largely abetted Johnson’s racist immigration gambit by reporting it exactly as his campaign wanted it reported. They should have offered proper context and analysis to show it for what it is.

  3. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/02/2018 - 08:43 pm.

    Johnson is right on most of these issues. More gun control laws won’t stop gun violence. It’s a mental health issue. We also don’t need any more refugees. Did we not learn anything from the terror attack in St Cloud or the 10s of millions lost to Somali in that daycare scam they were running? It’s time we make our communities and state safe by removing illegals and these refugees who have no intention of assimilating. It will also save us a lot of money as we currently hand out free cash , cars etc like candy to these refugees.

    As for spending, we need to cut it. As do all states and the federal govt. Taxes are way too high in this state as it is so let’s cut the spending and lower the taxes for once.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/05/2018 - 07:18 am.

      Jeff Johnson wants to expand the role of government in the private economy.

      Currently, big government does not interfere if two private parties choose to enter into a contract wherein the employees of one party pay union agency fees. Jeff Johnson has advocated right to work for less legislation would deny private parties this liberty, by inserting big government between private parties.

      If you love liberty, as I do, vote against Jeff Johnson and his big government plans. Tell Johnson that you don’t need big government to make decisions for you.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/06/2018 - 01:07 pm.

        Right to work is technically less govt. if you compare Johnson to Walz, there’s no comparison. Walz wants massively more govt than Johnson. Cherry picking one little issue doesn’t make your case.

  4. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 11/02/2018 - 08:58 pm.

    “Walz supports so-called separation ordinances ”


    Are we reading the first, latest twist on language leftists are foisting on America?

    It’s so-called Sanctuary cities . As in leftist controllex cities that have publicly declared their intention to twart US law.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/03/2018 - 05:59 am.

    That we don’t have a choice is a common and effective Republican theme. It’s gone out of fashion nationally, but it’s interesting to see it’s still alive on the local level.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 11/03/2018 - 08:56 am.

    Johnson opposes all changes to gun laws. Let me suggest several that reasonable people should consider. First, why can people on terrorist watch lists, particularly those who are not even US citizens, allowed to possess guns? We don’t even let them fly? Second, the guy in Las Vegas was able to shoot 509 people because he used bump stocks to make his weapon behave as though it was fully automatic. Republicans said they would ban them but “forgot.” Third, in some states, family members are able to flag people with mental health and violence issues, so they temporarily lose their access to guns. Johnson, if you claim to be pro-family and focused on mental health, how can you not support that.

    Reason – you are owned by the NRA and Trump. You will do exactly what they tell you to do, even in a mass shooting in Minnesota results from your indifference. Frankly, that is equally true for all Republicans these days. Even an Eric Paulsen who claims to be moderate votes with Trump 98% of the time. Remember when people were afraid that Catholic politicians would take direction from the Pope? Never happened. But Republicans are willing to worship guns and Trump, instruments of death and chaos.

    Walz is willing to defy the gun lobby, Trump and even other Democrats who think he should be more of a flamethrower. Instead he is a guy with a solid Minnesota values who will his best for all Minnesotans, even Republicans. Contrary to what Republicans say, Democrats believe that hard work and ethical business practices should result in success, but success does not relieve people of the responsibility of paying taxes.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/04/2018 - 04:48 pm.

      Joel, I’m going to counter your arguments. First off, reasonable people don’t advocate that the government restrict the rights of people (especially one group of people). That’s an unreasonable position from the get go. Restricting rights makes them privileges.

      1. The terror watch list is irrelevant. If they are a US citizen and not in prison, they have the right to own guns, period. The 2nd Amendment doesn’t allow for restrictions (read the definition of infringed).
      2. Bump stocks are garbage. He could have done the same thing with any number of ordinary items — the belt loop on his jeans, a rubber band etc. One could easily argue that the bump stock actually saved lives. Had he taken his time he could have killed a lot more by being more accurate. He was spraying bullets everywhere and many of them never came close to the crowd due to the bump stock.
      3. This one really irks me. No one has the right to take away my guns or your guns unless we’ve committed a (serious) crime. Do you not see how this would be abused? An angry ex wife/mad relative etc could report you and you’d have to prove you weren’t a threat to get your guns back (assuming LE didn’t just destroy or sell them). False claims run rampant in our society so making it easier for them to be used to take away our guns is beyond reasonable and just outright absurd.

      All this nonsense about anyone worshipping guns is just propaganda and left wing talking points. No one worships guns. People have the right to own them. They own them for a variety of reasons – self defense, hunting, sport shooting, collecting etc.

      Guns aren’t a problem in MN or the US. If you remove suicides from the gun death totals, we have very low gun death rates overall. And most of what would be left are criminals using guns obtained illegally. We have thousands of gun laws on the books in this nation and yet they haven’t stopped all the violence… because laws will never stop it all. More laws will only impede law abiding citizens owning guns to defend themselves.

      Walz is just another gun grabber playing on your fears to get elected.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/05/2018 - 09:58 am.

        “First off, reasonable people don’t advocate that the government restrict the rights of people (especially one group of people).”

        And yet, conservatives have taken away the liberty of business owners to agree that employees pay agency fees for the purposes of contract maintenance and negotiation. And they’d love to do that here in MN, too. Big Gubmint they call it.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/05/2018 - 12:03 pm.

          Liberties are not rights. Ultimately, if you don’t like the working conditions you can find a new job. It would be nice if govt just minded it’s own business and stayed very limited but that never happens.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/05/2018 - 10:25 pm.

        Again, your claims about guns are completely false. No country in the world has anywhere near the number of guns and the amount of gun violence tha U.S. does.

  7. Submitted by Richard Mensing on 11/03/2018 - 07:20 pm.

    Because I am a Democrat, an obligatory “vote for Tim Walz” because I do think he is clearly the superior choice for governor. But objectively I think Walz has a lot of political skill and is a unique talent. He’s just really, really good at retail politics. I think he will take the task of unifying this state seriously. I would not be surprised if he asked Johnson to serve in his administration.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/04/2018 - 05:43 am.

    When we talk about lower voter turnout, I don’t think we pay enough attention to more or less active campaigns to suppress voting. Negative advertising is one example. It’s intended to discourage non base voting and is remarkably effective. More substantively we see the theme presented here. “The candidates are the same.”, we are told, “it doesn’t make a difference who you vote for.” it is widely claimed. This view kind of went out of fashion after the 2000 presidential election when we elected a president who took us to an unnecessary war while wrecking the economy. But I guess enough time has passed such that some of our politicians think they can make that argument again even in the most improbable and unlikely circumstances. Yes, it makes a difference. Yes, Walz and Johnson are tremendously different politicians. Yes, it makes a huge difference to the future of our state which candidate prevails. Let’s not give in to the hidden agenda of politicians whose interest it is in to claim otherwise.

  9. Submitted by Tim Smith on 11/05/2018 - 08:49 am.

    I really don’t understand Walz’s single payor proposal. Our largest employers (where most under 65 are insured) are in self funded health plans, meaning they are regulated by the federal gov’t under ERISA. The State can’t regulate them and tell them to disband their plans. So it seems his proposal would take those with individual coverage and those covered by small employers and put them all in Minesota Care whether they are happy with what they have or not. Good luck too getting Mayo, Allina and all the big delivery systems to take a pay cut, not happening.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/06/2018 - 11:54 am.

      I think the single-payor is more of a long-term goal. Walz knows very well its not happening anytime soon, in part because of the reasons you mention.

  10. Submitted by Greg Smith on 11/05/2018 - 06:45 pm.

    No more Dayton, that is a huge with. No matter who sits on the governors mansion next

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