What had been a civil and often friendly working relationship between DFL Gov. Tim Walz and the Republican leaders of the House and Senate has frayed at a time when they might need it most.
The state is in the midst of dual crises that have required a strong governmental reaction but also contributed to political and personal discord. The combination of personal and economic stress created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial tensions illuminated by the homicide of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has ratcheted up the rhetoric and the political temperature at the statehouse.
Having an election five months in the distance with control of the Legislature — and redistricting — at stake only adds to the strain.
How we got here
Even before the Floyd murder, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka had lost patience with Walz’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the administration’s approach to restarting social and economic life in Minnesota.
Days after Floyd’s death, which Gazelka condemned, the GOP leader also offered pointed criticism of the governor’s handling of the civic unrest that followed the killing. “Everywhere along the way, it’s been excuses and finger-pointing at someone else,” Gazelka said of Walz, citing the hundreds of buildings damaged and the hundreds of millions of dollars of damage caused by arson and looting.
Walz mostly deflected the critiques on his approach to the pandemic, once suggesting it was easy to comment from the sidelines. But he has appeared increasingly hurt by criticisms about his response to the Floyd killing, especially with regard to the delays by state police and national guard to combat street violence in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
More recently, the governor has increased the rhetorical pressure on GOP legislators, especially those in the Senate. In a press conference on June 12, Walz and a group of DFL officeholders and appointees ridiculed the Senate policing package.
“Yes, I am insulted with the bills that the Republicans have brought forward,” said Rep. Rena Moran, the St. Paul DFLer who is chair of the Legislature’s People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus.
On Thursday, Walz criticized the “weak sauce” legislation on police accountability the Senate passed earlier in the week and Gazelka’s determination to finish the Legislature’s special session by the end of day Friday. “The image of us and the Senate walking away from systemic change on Juneteenth adds to the legacy of what the rest of the world is looking at here,” Walz said. “It is unacceptable: the business-as-usual and the weak sauce legislation to get out of town and pretend like you’ve made change ends now.”
Democrats took up a package of bills later Thursday that would make sweeping changes to policing, including altering use-of-force laws, banning chokeholds, neck restraints and “warrior”-style training programs, providing mental health and autism training for officers, and allowing police departments to require officers live within the city or county they serve. The bills would also give people convicted of felonies the right to vote when they are on parole or probation, and end cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors. The House passed the bills early Friday morning.
Walz said there is little room for compromise on that package. “It is not pejorative to talk about political differences,” Walz had said when asked if the measures would fail in the GOP-controlled state Senate and instead become an issue for the November election. “I have tried hard to build coalitions. That’s the governor’s job. But I don’t think you can compromise when it becomes a value issue. The fact of the matter is the Senate is trying to pass weak things that don’t fundamentally change that.”
And yet Walz said he continues to speak with GOP leaders of the House and Senate, Gazelka and Minority Leader Kurt Daudt. “Legislating is really, really hard work. In this moment it is super hard work,” he said. “I will compromise until it comes to our values.”
In responding to Walz’s comments, Gazelka said the assertion that the Senate has done nothing on criminal justice reform “frankly shocked me” since the chamber had passed five bills while, at that point, the House hadn’t passed any.
The Senate Republican package of police reforms includes a ban on most chokeholds and neck restraints; a requirement for law enforcement to report use-of-force data to the state; a demand that the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board rewrite policy on use of deadly force; and the establishment of a duty to intervene when officers see another officer using unjustified force.
Gazelka also said there is also other work to be done by the Legislature, including a billion-dollar-plus construction package; some tax relief for farmers and small businesses; and getting federal CARES Act money to cities, counties and townships. Lawmakers should work to pass what they can agree on and then continue to work outside of session on other issues, he said. And because Walz must convene a session each time he extends a state of emergency, the Legislature is likely to be in session in the middle of each month for the rest of the year.
‘Frayed but not broken’
Thirteen months ago, Gazelka stood with Walz and House Speaker Melissa Hortman to announce a two-year budget deal. Three months ago, he and the other three legislative leaders stood with the governor to support his early actions to battle the coronavirus. And they were in agreement in condemning the murder of Floyd.
But Gazelka admitted that what had been a civil relationship with Walz has weakened. He cited the stress of those crises and the fact that a year ago, the Legislature was on equal footing with the governor, something that ended when Walz assumed emergency powers in response to the coronavirus pandemic and could legislate by executive order.
Gazelka listed other reasons for increased tension, too: the effect of the lockdown “where everyone’s been bottled up so much”; the emotions sparked by the death of Floyd and the unrest that followed; the upcoming election.
“All of those things make it more difficult,” he said. “I do think the connection to the governor is frayed but it’s not broken. It’s our desire to work together. I believe it’s his desire to work together. It’s just that when there are statements that are inaccurate, that paint us in a light that is untrue, I’m gonna push back on that.”
Reflecting tensions among lawmakers
The tensions between Walz and Gazelka are also reflective of tensions between their two parties, a dynamic starkly displayed during the Tuesday night debate over the Senate policing package.
At one point, the lead sponsor of the GOP package, Sen. Warren Limmer, said he was unhappy with the tone of the debate from DFL members. “Minnesota is hurting and quite honestly I think the Minnesota Senate is hurting,” the Maple Grove Republican said. “The way we’ve treated each other today I’ve never seen before in the number of years I’ve been here.”
That prompted a response from Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who is one of five members of the POCI Caucus in the Senate. “So if somehow today things got a little tough and a little heated, a little testy, people got a little offended — that’s how I feel almost each and every day Sen. Limmer,” Hayden said. “So if people are a little offended here today, if they feel like the Senate is broken and we’re not as collegial as we should be, and that we’re passionate, that this group of legislators here my allies and the People of Color and Indigenous caucus are finally saying, ‘You know what, we’re tired, we’re exhausted.’”
One thing Walz and Gazelka agreed upon Thursday was the role Hortman could play. The Brooklyn Park DFLer is not reluctant to take shots at her political opponents, but she leaves much of the partisan warfare to Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, giving her more room to find compromise with Senate Republicans.
“The speaker and I have a good working relationship,” Gazelka said. “I understand that she’s a liberal, and she understands that I’m a conservative and we’re both pragmatic.”
On Thursday, Walz also pointed to Hortman as the person who can bring people back to the table and to ask for new ways of doing things.
For her part, Hortman said that “the artificial deadline” to end the special session that Gazelka set is making resolution more difficult. But she also said the House and Senate are “this close” to resolving a bonding package and giving the Senate GOP some of what it wants on tax relief. “There’s no reason we can’t wrap this up very, very soon,” she said. “But everyone has to bring a spirit of wanting to get things done and a willingness to compromise.”
“I’ve said to my colleagues, we’re very good at fighting,” Hortman continued. “But we’re also very good at getting things done when we decide we want to do that. On criminal justice reform, on police accountability, (on) systemic change, we’re gonna fight like hell for the things we value. But we also have to find that space to work together and get things done in the areas where we can and should.”
Walker Orenstein contributed to this report.