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

Whether it’s taxes, guns, immigration, education or the state budget, DFL candidate Tim Walz and GOP nominee Jeff Johnson offer starkly different views on where they want to lead the state if elected.

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

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.”

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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.

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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.”