As often happens in their appearances together, Gov.-Elect Tim Walz deferred to his running mate, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan, to set the tone for a public meeting.
Flanagan, who in January will become lieutenant governor and the first Native American to hold statewide office in Minnesota, told those who packed a room in north Minneapolis last week why they were there: “We want to make sure … that the folks directly affected by policy should have a seat at the table,” she said. “It’s time for you all to pull up your chairs because we have work to do, and we need to hear from you.”
The 90-minute meeting was part of a statewide listening tour by Walz and Flanagan, and one of two sessions held in the Twin Cities. The new governor’s staff claims the tour covered 2,100 miles, and was reminiscent of the campaign-end bus tours that office seekers of both parties often think is necessary (even if they tend to exhaust the staff — and sometimes campaign buses — if not the candidates themselves).
But the tour is also reminiscent of state campaigns that, in an effort to demonstrate a politician’s concern for the entire state, spend more time talking about rural concerns than urban issues. And so, over five days Walz and Flanagan (either together or solo) hosted sessions in Mankato, Rochester, Luverne, La Crescent, Marshall, Granite Falls, Moorhead, Fergus Falls, Crookston, Hallock, Welch, Winona, Red Lake, Bemidji, Hibbing, St. Cloud, Foley, Silver Bay, Grand Portage and Duluth.
This is similar turf covered by the pair over more than a year of campaigning, and it is unlikely they heard much in those five days that they hadn’t heard in the previous 12 months. Instead, the tour was aimed at illustrating that Walz’s campaign theme, “One Minnesota,” wasn’t just a campaign theme — that he is wide open to ideas and budget priorities, that he won’t lead from the top down.
Concerns about equity and economic opportunity
The issues Walz and Flanagan did hear about were varied. At the Red Lake Nation, Walz was asked about his support for treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. In Bemidji, he was prodded to state his position on mining, saying he supported projects if “the science is there, if the environmental impact statements are there, if the permitting process is there, and we have protections in place.”
In his hometown of Mankato, Walz was told that the state government was too big and that its agencies were insensitive to and unresponsive to the people it regulates. And in most places, he restated his support for education and training as a tool to lift people out of poverty.
At the meeting in north Minneapolis, the issues of equity and social justice were brought home by two things visible from the meeting room at the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center on Plymouth Avenue. One is the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct, which was the site of an occupation to protest the shooting death of Jamar Clark in November 2015. The other was a sidewalk press conference, at which Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey condemned several decorations on a Christmas tree set up at the Fourth Precinct headquarters that he called racist. Frey attended part of the listening session after his press conference.
What followed was a meeting at which a microphone was passed around to allow people to make a pitch for an issue, for funding, or — in at least one case — for a job.
One of those pitches came from Theartrice “T” Williams, a former school board member and prison ombudsman who wanted Walz to reinstitute a program that independently looks at inmate complaints and concerns.
Another came from John Thompson, who asked that programs meant to help people of color be crafted with the help of people of color. “I’ve been a black man for so long I considered myself a professional at it,” Thompson said to some laughter. “I, for one, know that a roomful of white men and women can’t fix the problems that exist in my community. Only the people who live in the community, like myself, a professional black man who lives in the community” know what is needed, he said. Thompson also asked Walz and Flanagan to do something about gun violence in communities of color.
“My community is allergic to bullets,” he said. “My community is allergic to bullets from black-on-black crime to bullets coming out of police officer’s guns. My community is allergic to the judicial system.” Thompson said people in the black community voted for Walz and Flanagan because they thought the ticket was “the antibiotic” to these problems facing the community.
Alfred Babington-Johnson said that while the funding for equity and economic development programs that Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature passed in recent years hasn’t met its potential. “Regrettably, after a good start, that program — at least with many of the agencies — got sidetracked, hoodwinked, hornswoggled,” he said. “What I would hope is that you and your administration would take a look at the package that came forward and the execution.”
Tess Montgomery, a staff member with Appetite for Change, which promotes urban agriculture and “bringing communities together around food,” wanted work to eliminate food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, where unhealthy fast food often overwhelms healthier options. She also pushed for a goal already endorsed by Walz: a paid family leave program for new parents.
And Michael Chaney asked for help transforming north Minneapolis land adjacent to the Mississippi River into something more beneficial to residents. “Instead of 40 acres and a mule, we want 48 acres and a school,” said Chaney, the founder of Project Sweetie Pie, an urban agriculture nonprofit.
‘I’ll have to live with the decisions we make together’
At the same time that Walz’s listening tour raised expectations of an open administration and an equitable hiring strategy (a table outside the meeting room offered a list of commissioner jobs and their mission statements), Walz admitted that he might not always meet those expectations.
After Chaney spoke, Walz said: “It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a lot of villages to raise a governor.” But a bit later he admitted that he “will fail you at times.”
“But it’s not going to be because I will not stand in front of you and ask,” Walz said. “I’ll have to live with the decisions that we make together. But you know and I know if I have the privilege of having this job for four years or however many years it is, if those statistics and those things you just said haven’t changed, I have failed you and I failed at this job.”
“We can fall into the cynicism that the current state of governance at the federal level kind of brings that over on us,” Walz concluded. “Or we can choose to do what Minnesota’s always done and rise above that and be the beacon for the rest of the country We have work to do. We are not Pollyannaish. We do not think it will happen overnight. We do feel a sense of urgency, and this room gives me the hope that we can get this done.”