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One year in, Gov. Tim Walz talks bonding, breaking up DHS, and the perils of Minnesota exceptionalism

The governor answers 10 questions (more or less) on the one-year anniversary (more or less) of being sworn in as the 41st governor of Minnesota. 

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz: "I think there are some issues that we should have been able to find more common ground on. Insulin obviously is the one that comes to mind first."
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MinnPost: You’re one year in. You ready to quit yet?

Gov. Tim Walz: No. it’s a privilege to do the job. I learn something new every day. It is a big job, but I think the reason I ran in the first place was to help change the tone a little bit and bring folks together. So I, I feel like I’ve now been through one year, one cycle that I’m catching my sea legs pretty well.

MP: You spent 12 years in Congress, which is a legislative job, and one year as an executive. How do the two jobs compare?

TW: Well, I think that certainly the time in Congress was helpful, both from a policy knowledge perspective, but also I think being sensitive to the legislative branch and their coequal status, of wanting to make sure that I listen and hear them. The executive side of things, a lot more of the personnel side, the running of the agencies, that type of thing. That’s significantly different. A lot of times with legislating you are there working to try and find some solutions to things that are going forward and you’re not necessarily responsible for the day-to-day operations. I gotta make sure the snowplows are running. I have to make sure that things are happening. And those are constantly in flux. It’s never a hay-is-in-the-barn type of situation. So it is much more management, much more day-to-day leadership.

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MP: Similar question. You spent 17 years in the classroom and one year as governor. How do those two compare, and you can’t tell the school lunch supervisor story?

TW: You know, I think they’re very similar. I find myself — much like this (bonding) tour we’re doing — and I mentioned that as a teacher, working with students and teaching, you can’t just tell what the end is, you have to explain the logic behind it. And so I find myself — and I know they tell you not to do this in politics — taking the time to go back and explain how we came to a conclusion that we got at. And so I think it was very, very helpful. It may be naive to think that I’m going to bring people along and change their mind. But my message is aimed mainly at Minnesotans who are super busy. Like for example, this local jobs bill, what it amounts to, the capital investments. They hear bonding. Hell, that flies right over people’s heads. They don’t know necessarily what that means because they’re busy. I said this as a member of Congress it was hard to pay attention to what the bonding bill was. So we’re trying to personalize it more. And I think the lessons I learned from teaching was try and find new ways. And if you’re not getting your message through and if people aren’t, aren’t with it, you need to look at yourself and say, maybe my message is wrong or they simply aren’t hearing what I’m saying are they disagree with it. Not to jump to the conclusion — you do this in the classroom — well, most of my kids didn’t do well on a test, so obviously they just don’t get it or aren’t very bright. That’s absolutely false. It was how you were delivering it. So I think I’ve used that effectively to recognize that it’s my job to explain why we’re doing something and if, if people aren’t buying into that, don’t assume that there’s a problem with them.

Gov. Tim Walz, Commissioner Myron Frans, Minneapolis director of Public Works Robin Hutcheson, and sewer engineer Joe Klejwa finishing an underground tour of the storm tunnel system in northeast Minneapolis Friday.
Pool photo by Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune
Gov. Tim Walz, Commissioner Myron Frans, Minneapolis director of Public Works Robin Hutcheson, and sewer engineer Joe Klejwa finishing an underground tour of the storm tunnel system in northeast Minneapolis Friday.
MP: Was there something about the job that surprised you, that you hadn’t been prepared for? 

TW: Maybe just the constant flux, especially around personnel issues. I’ve managed larger groups, whether it was in the military or different thing. But I think personnel issues maybe were one of the things that surprised me a little bit. I shouldn’t have been … human resource people would tell you that’s their number one issue: maintaining and holding on to qualified people. But that part of it, you spend a lot of time doing that.

MP: So one year in — and you’re going to be judged on brevity — what’s your number one accomplishment?

TW: I would say moving a budget in a bipartisan manner.

MP: Were there times when you thought it was not going to happen?

TW: Yes. I remained really hopeful. But there was a couple of days where I was probably the most down about it and, and frustrated. But those were the days that I recognized, you know, that’s where I needed to step up and figure out a way to break the logjam. Because I do think … Minnesotans should expect that we get this stuff done. But I think there was a much greater chance — I think maybe the press would say this too — a much greater chance of greater deadlock and animosity than ended up. And that’s not simply because of me. That’s because of the other partners in this decided to make Minnesota work. But yes, there were a couple of days that I thought it was going to be difficult.

MP: So what were the disappointments then from that session and in the first year?

TW: I think there are some issues that we should have been able to find more common ground on. Insulin obviously is the one that comes to mind first. But I think between criminal justice reform and, you know, some common things around gun safety, those types of things. I’m a little disappointed that those kind of just deadlocked and didn’t go. And I say disappointment in a realistic standpoint that I guess, you’re not going to get everything. But I thought there were a couple of those things we should have been able to do.

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MP: Governors I think are expected — maybe because they want to be — to be the state’s number one cheerleader. And you’ve certainly been accused of that. But there is something I’ve noticed in this state is this devotion to Minnesota exceptionalism. And I’m wondering if that can sometimes be a hindrance to reform in criminal justice or other things. A lot of people seem to start with the point of view that Minnesota does everything best, so why would we want to change anything?

TW: That is a great question. And I think an astute observation. I am very proud … and in many ways we are exceptional because the outcomes show us that. But I think there is a little bit of resting on our laurels. At one point in time on criminal justice reform, I would tell you this, we probably were seen as a leader. Now we’re lagging behind. think there’s a tendency that we’re getting a little bit more complacent on that, where other states are moving on certain issues and we’re not quite there yet. In that regard, I was pretty glad to see that we actually did move out ahead on things like wage theft and worker protection this year. We kind of led the nation. But your premise is right. I do think there is a little bit of a tendency to believe that. And the thing for me is that I think that exceptionalism led us to be complacent in state government because we did deliver services probably better than anyone else and in some cases that’s not true anymore and we need to face that and address it.

MP: Well then we’ll segue right into this: Is DHS better off than it appears — or worse off than it appears?

TW: I think we’re still trying to find that out. I think it is what it is. It’s an agency that delivers incredibly important services, thousands of employees going every day and doing it very, very well and getting outcomes in terms of health outcomes and in children’s outcomes that are as good as any place in the country. But we did not have the processes in place to make sure that we’re following rules. Now some of those rules are complex and maybe archaic. But that’s no excuse for not doing them. And I think there was certainly — and it became very apparent — there’s friction between our folks who are key partners in this, like the counties and the tribal governments. So I think that’s the reason that I’m asking for and requested a deep dive. I want outside eyes of experts on this. I want Republican, Democratic legislators, business, nonprofits, to be part of this. And I think it goes without saying that there’s going to be a different looking DHS by the time we’re done. And the goal with that is, is not different looking for the sake of different looking. Different looking because the world has changed. These state agencies have remained stagnant over 30 years. World’s changed. Delivery of services changed. Needs have changed. Demographics have changed.

MP: Broken up?

TW: Potentially. I think again, the politically expedient thing people would see is to pull off direct care and treatment. Maybe pull that off. We’re looking at other states. This is another case, going back to your insightful question, most other states have gone through these growing pains. … As we started to look out, and we can provide examples of this, other states have gone through many of these exact same things. I think what we need to do is get better data before we start tearing it apart. But my guess is yes, in almost every other instance in every other state, dividing this has happened.

MP: I’m going to ask you two sort of political questions if you don’t mind. What will your role be in this campaign, both nationally and the state? You’re not on the ballot, but I assume you care.

TW: Yes. I care. I’m aggressively out there. I’ve made it known, I certainly am gratified we worked together in a bipartisan Legislature…. Folks have made the case where ‘you didn’t fulfill all those campaign promises.’ It wasn’t for lack of trying. I had a Senate that wasn’t really interested in that. So I’m working really hard on that. And then I think making the case nationally that this drama and this chaos and this confusion and this distrust has got to end. I obviously am supporting Sen. Klobuchar for president. I think she’s got a golden opportunity to make that case as an effective leader. And I’ll be out doing that. And I’ll go to any House district here in Minnesota, or Senate district, that folks want me and  make our case that we’re bringing policies that are making Minnesota stronger, more prosperous for all

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MP: Do they want you?

TW: They want me, they do want me.

MP: Looking nationally, especially, but this also is a state question: Is the Democratic Party moving too far left to win in 2020 or not far enough?

TW: I think the Democratic Party, and this is what I’m proud of, is diverse. And I think there is not a point on that political spectrum. I think our big tent needs to remain a big tent. I think the Republican Party has very clearly staked out a very narrow strip of folks. Demographics are not working in their favor. And we’ve got a broad, broad agenda. I, for one, don’t think that it is in any way a compromise of progressive values to be effective and get something done. And in a democracy that has, in our cases of divided government, you can be bold. Bold, bold ideas that go nowhere are ideas. Bold ideas that you don’t get everything at once, but you move the ball forward, is progress. I think it’s probably fairly clear where I fall maybe in that Democratic spectrum. But I don’t exclude. And I think there’s a place in there for all those voices. And I guess the electorate will decide because we do have a choice along that spectrum in our (presidential) candidates.

MP: And then to the last question, I’ll ask you to confirm the rumor that Scout is the next DHS inspector general.

TW: He might be good at it. The puppy’s growing along just fine. I have told (press secretary) Teddy (Tschann), this is my first dog since being really little. I’m a dog guy now. I’m kind of surprised by that. They put me onto this dog park thing, which is where my social interactions now work. I first meet the dogs like Georgia, that is a St. Bernard-poodle mix. Now I know Georgia’s owner, down at the dog park.