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Gov. Tim Walz on COVID-19, George Floyd, and whether there’ll ever be ‘One Minnesota’

A Q&A with the governor, 19 months into his term. 

Gov. Tim Walz
Gov. Tim Walz: “The number one message that Minnesotans want is, they want someone in the Legislature who is willing to work with me to find solutions. They still do.”
MinnPost file photo by Walker Orenstein

Two years ago, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz was campaigning for the office under a campaign banner of “One Minnesota.” The 12-year member of Congress from Mankato pitched himself as the candidate who knew both Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities, saying he could unite a state that was seen by many as divided by geography as much as party.

Now, 19 months into his term, the DFL governor is dealing simultaneously with two of the deepest crises in decades: the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of the homicide of George Floyd and the issues of race and policing it put a spotlight on.

MinnPost sat down with Walz Tuesday to ask about how he has responded to those crises, what might come next — and how they impact his One Minnesota campaign pledge. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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MinnPost: How long ago does March 13 feel to you?

Gov. Tim Walz: We were having this conversation, my wife and I, about thinking back to the first year. And we had to make a decision a year ago about Halloween, the candy at our residence, and thinking about how long ago that seems. At times it feels very long. And then other times it’s very short. I would tell you that I’m hopeful for in the future, that we’ve rethought how state government functions. And I think we’re simultaneously implementing some of those changes. Now, that seemed like a luxury, you know, seven months ago that I would have an agenda about more accountable government, the dashboards of what government’s doing. COVID-19 really has pushed us to do that.

MP: I’m going to take you back even further than that. Two years ago you were running on a “One Minnesota” campaign theme. Are we closer to that goal now than we were then?

TW: I’m more committed to it than I’ve ever been. I think what you’ve seen validates why that was our theme, both because if we didn’t get it right, what the consequences would be as well as what the positive future can look like if we do get that right. I don’t think we’re closer now, if you need to be candid. I do think we may be able to move quicker towards that because we’re having the really hard conversations that had to happen. I’m worried about the achievement gaps and racial differences. I’m worried about the geographic differences, this false narrative of a geographic division that is always fostered. “You just don’t know our way of life because you don’t live here” type of thing.

And I don’t think I could have ever anticipated it would take a killing of George Floyd and then the aftermath of that to spur that. But it did. … One Minnesota is our way out of this; it is the future. As I said, it doesn’t mean everybody agrees. But we work across lines of differences to improve lives. So it took some of these seismic shifts to get us talking and moving, and we have to keep working to that. As I said, after George Floyd died down there on 38th and Chicago, this very well, in my opinion, may be our last good chance to do it.

MP: One of the DFL senators who voted against extending your emergency powers said this week that he wishes that you were more regional in your COVID rules. He said, “Moorhead is not Minneapolis. And Twin Valley is not Twin Cities, and we shouldn’t be treated as such.”

TW: I think there’s some validity in that after six months. We’ve watched a couple of states, in particular Pennsylvania and Michigan, experiment with this, not to good success — a regional approach is what I mean — not to great success. But I think what you’re seeing is our Safe Schools start is being replicated in a lot of other states. … But you know, the public health people cautioned me against it. I would just candidly tell you, I have been continuously asking and adding into the conversation about a regional approach. Is it the best way? The data doesn’t support it, or didn’t support it is what I should say, as strongly early on. … That was always my goal, to figure out how we could weather this thing, to keep the most things open, the most normalcy in our lives, while still protecting Minnesotans. And I think the numbers seem to be supporting that move. But that regional approach … I would say that senator is probably not that far off of where I think the place to land probably is. And I’m trying to figure out how to actually make that work.

MP: How does a moderate Democrat lead a DFL Party that is moving its politics to the left and how does a rural Democrat lead a DFL Party that is moving its focus towards the cities? 

TW: I think certainly some of these are false constructs. I’ve said the Democratic Party has always been for workers, this idea that we have an economy that is not serving middle-class workers, is not providing a living wage is not ensuring their opportunity to have a home. We’ve always been there for that …. So I think the modern Democratic Party still stands on those values that I always believed in, this idea that access to health care, access to a good quality universal education, workplace safety, those types of things, that has not changed. And as far as what are considered social issues, I’ve always stood by individuals’ right to make a lot of their own decisions. I think those hold true. 

MP: You mentioned these more universal labor protection issues, health care issues, but what does the Minnesota DFL offer to a voter in the Range or in ag country right now, specifically? I mean, they’re asking for things and don’t feel like they’re getting them.

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TW: Under our administration more Local Government Aid was given than in more than 20 years, investments in their local schools, our commitment to rural infrastructure and a proposed transportation plan that was generational. Then I think about the capacity to expand opportunities, whether it be through broadband or some of the visions that the state has for transforming some of these economies in a way that allows the traditional way of life to thrive. I’m the chair of the Governors Biofuels Commission. I’ve advocated stronger for all that. And I see some folks today taking victory laps with the President. The president has gone and supported ethanol because he’s in trouble in Midwestern states. His policies have been horrific. And so I think when you actually look at it, you’ll see who’s delivering and who’s there. The Republican Party, what are they offering? What did they give? So the Republican Senate and the folks in the House stopped a bonding bill. How did that benefit Greater Minnesota? So I think what we have to do is tell our story a little bit more. …

MP: I was up on the Range last week and the sign at one house will say, “Save the Boundary Waters” and two houses down it’ll say “We Support Mining.” Can you do both? Or should they just feel that they’ve been abandoned as far as mining and as far as pipeline construction goes? 

TW: How would they define that? How were they abandoned on the pipeline?

MP: They want to build it. And they think your administration is preventing them from building it. True or false, that’s certainly the perception. And that’s the campaign issue.

TW: Is there any responsibility to tell that story though, rather than the perception? I mean, what is the media’s responsibility in that? I ask that because I think there’s a dangerous precedent in saying that they’ve been abandoned. Just to be clear in terms of local government aid to the Iron Range, higher than it has been in 20 years. As far as the law that asked me to permit on this, is there a specific example of what they disagree with?  I voted for them in Congress and I’ve voted against them in Congress. It’s on the merits.

You follow the law, you follow the science, you follow the process. Now you got a whole bunch of people telling them, ‘Well, the governor’s abandoning you.’ What would they like me to do? They told me with one breath that I had this massive overreach on COVID-19, but then they would say that I should just say this pipeline’s either going to be built or not built.

And what I tell the opponents and the proponents of the pipeline is that we need to follow that process. We need to do the best we can to execute that. If it shows that we should build this pipeline, it’s safer and it’s needed, it will be done. And many of those things were already started. Now as far as mining, markets dictate that, markets dictate a lot of what people are asking for. And no one, I don’t think, is asking us to build a mine that’s unsafe. So I do think you can do both. And what I would say from the building trades and the jobs, there’s a lot of projects that we’ve been advocating for, whether it’s in the bonding bill, building Southwest Light Rail, whether it’s a transportation plan that has the potential to create more jobs and more opportunity than you’d see in any other project.

I get it. There are the folks who want to try and divide. I would also note that the Iron Range and the quality of life that was developed up there was predicated on the right to collectively bargain and labor unions to be able to provide those benefits that equal the work they do. I don’t think you would see those protections with Republicans, with a Republican governor. In this last election, the question was asked of both of us, ‘Do you support a right to work state?’ And my opponent said, “Yes, I’d like to move Minnesota to right to work.” That would have a really detrimental effect. 

There are a lot of people with a lot of concerns. I think you can simultaneously be for moving fossil fuels safely and also have a transition of where you’re going to get out of that. I think northern Minnesota needs to understand that middle ground of trying to make sure that jobs, current economic growth, as well as long-term protections, doesn’t have to be detrimental to the economy. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

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MP: With schools and colleges restarting … what do you think Minnesotans can expect from schools and colleges over the coming weeks and months? And what did you learn from the start, in March and April and May, that will make this a better learning experience? 

TW:  I think the great partnership with local folks that we’ve always had, and with local leadership has been fantastic. I think the ability to use data and be data-driven and then mesh that with the real capacity to implement it has been very successful. I’m not going to take a victory lap at this point, but we have navigated in the middle of this, of putting the vast majority of our students in as good a position as we can to get a quality education. And I think we have created a system that’s flexible enough and nimble enough to continue to evolve and pivot when we’re falling short. And I will be the first to tell you there will be some students who are not getting that and we need to continue to do better. And all of that being done with keeping spread relatively low. As I tell people, and they tell me this all the time, “No kids die from this.” It’s the teachers too, keeping the teachers in the classroom and figuring out how to strike that proper balance.

MP: What do you see the gaps in access as being: Hardware, software, access to the internet and things like that? What are you doing to resolve that?

TW: We still have problems in the state, should have been tackled years ago, around broadband access. And the fact is that whether it’s in-person, hybrid or distance learning, what we’re learning in education is you have to tailor it to the individual student. And unfortunately, if we have situations where students should be in-person and they’re not able to, that creates some gaps that we’re going to have to figure out. And then of course we have that racial gap, especially in Black communities, Indigenous communities. I do think it’s very difficult for us to say that this situation helps that in any way. It’s too early to see some of the data around educational attainment, but I think it would be incredibly naive to not think that this has exacerbated that gap. And that’s what we’re focusing a lot of time and energy on to see if there are new ways that we can deliver that curriculum to them. …

And while it’s sometimes difficult to find an answer, I have to say, I very much appreciated the challenges that have been brought from community leaders, asking us to be better. And just candidly, especially around Black communities, that say we need to do better for their kids. And I think we do.

MP: We talked in January, before the session, and you said you were eager to campaign for DFL candidates, particularly in Greater Minnesota. At the time you said, “They want me, they do want me.” Do they still want you?

TW: Yes. … The number one message that Minnesotans want is, they want someone in the Legislature who is willing to work with me to find solutions. They still do. They call. I do my time in the evenings when I’m off to try and help them. And I still believe I have that message. Now just to be clear, from the president and the RNC all the way down, there’s this idea of driving a wedge between rural areas and urban areas. I get that. My goal has not changed. I come from a rural area and I see the value in both. And, your opening question about One Minnesota: Yeah, it may not be any closer, but the goal is still there and I’m still impassioned by it. 

MP: To ask it a different way. Do you still think you have that influence in those parts of the state that you maybe had two years ago?

TW: I think (Republicans) have gone out of their way to try and damage that. … I have more experience in agriculture probably than anybody but Al Quie who sat in this job. I’ve lived in those communities. I have delivered things both in Congress and as governor. … It is very bad for the Republican Party to have someone who can win, not only in the cities, but can win in Greater Minnesota. When they can get a candidate who can win Greater Minnesota and win the majority of votes in the Twin Cities, that’s a Republican candidate who will win a statewide race. They don’t have that right now. So the whole idea is, “Let’s just go to our base and divide ’em.” You know, and I think people around me knew, it was a challenge for me to straddle that line. And it’s one of the reasons I would argue I wasn’t endorsed by the DFL Party ‘cause I could not appeal as broadly in the Twin Cities at that time as I could in Greater Minnesota. I still think if you want to see a state that’s unified and one where we can find some middle ground on things, I think I bring that perspective. 

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MP: We’re seeing Republicans nationally and within the state running a pretty clear law and order campaign, claiming that Democrats are not for law and order. Two-part question: Do you think that works? And secondly, how do you respond to those sorts of campaigns?

TW: Well, I think it’s terrible politics. I can’t speak to it, but they must believe it works to their base. I don’t believe, and there’s no evidence to show this at this point in time, that it works with independents or it works with folks who are concerned about the systemic causes around crime … So I’m still of the belief that people care. They recognize that it’s not mutually exclusive to want security and also respect grievances that people have. And I don’t think they believe federal troops in their community is the fix for what ails us.

MP: I want to ask about what we now refer to as the civil unrest, the riots that sprang from some of the demonstrations. The underlying issues remain unresolved and may for some time. But I want you to look back to the end of May through the present time and tell me what you think you did right. And what you think you did wrong as a way of creating responses going forward.

TW: I was standing in my yard while a little band played out front on the afternoon of Memorial Day. I heard about this tape, started to see it, started to watch the reactions to it. And then seeing over a period of about 96 hours, how massively the world changed and how we view race relationships, how we viewed what the police had done there. … I just want to be very clear, I’ve said it a hundred times: I think the mayor of Minneapolis asked for support as quickly as he could. And I think we delivered as quickly as we could. I think what you saw was … our use and plans with our State Patrol, with the Minnesota National Guard of turning a volatile situation, probably on the scale of the Watts Riots, pretty much on its head within about that 12-hour, 24-hour period on Saturday. With that being said, something that I would do and we’re implementing now is we should have rehearsed for a scenario like this with our cities. We should have been rehearsing for years. I don’t think it’s good now just to say, “‘Well, who would have anticipated this would happen?” Maybe no one. But it still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying to be ready to respond. People don’t understand how complex it is to get people from all over the state … and to integrate them in with a local police department, that again was a catalyst for what happened down there. So there wasn’t any trust in most of the public. 

You have to have the faith leaders, you have to have the community leaders. And we were doing that on Saturday. When they planned for this type of thing at the RNC or Super Bowl, they had 18 months of preparation. We had zero preparation time. So with that, I think the response, and I think history will prove this, was unprecedented in numbers and sheer volume. We did it without getting anybody killed, losing any National Guard, police, citizens with the exception of the one person in I think it was the auto parts store. But I do think now what I will do differently is, is the rehearsals, the planning, who’s going in there.

And I think you’ve got to see, unfortunately, a month later when we saw the misinformation on the suicide, how quickly there was communication and the lead element in that was not the State Patrol that time, it was Minneapolis police backed by the State Patrol and National Guard. 

MP: This is maybe something you don’t want to imagine, but what if Donald Trump wins reelection, what if the Senate GOP retains control of the Senate? Is there any path forward for you with that election scenario?

TW: I’ve always said that I’m always willing to go back to the table. I … make the case of compromise being a noble goal. I still sit here as the only governor in their first, now two years, let alone one year who never issued a veto. I brought them back even though I think from a legal perspective I maybe didn’t have to, to try and honor that. And what I got was another commissioner being released. But I think if that is the case, I certainly will try and work with them. But I can also tell you, I will act as a firewall against bills that are hateful, openly ignorant of science and best practices and detrimental to Minnesota.

MP: Let me give you what for you is a more pleasant scenario: Biden wins and you take over the state Senate as a party. What happens in say January to May of next year?

TW: I think we can get things like a bonding bill done. I think we can craft a balanced budget that helps us move back to surpluses in a way that invests in things we need to. But I’m also not Pollyannaish to the point where the way this stuff’s going to work now is we’re going to oscillate from the extremes: Donald Trump and his brand of whatever that is, and then we’re going to oscillate over here and then people are going to get sick of that, and we’re going to oscillate back. I don’t think that brings long-term stability. If we’re going to get real movement on things like climate change or systemic racism, we’re going to have to buy-in from Republicans. And so my pledge is if that scenario plays out, I will still try to find … some places where we can compromise.

But I have to tell you, these actions that folks are taking in this campaign and the things they’re saying are going to have repercussions. I mean, they can’t continue to act this way. I get it that they’re frustrated with COVID-19. But trying to blame someone for that, and then hampering our ability to keep Minnesota safe. That’s not furthering that.

MP: Do you have to continue to suffer losing a commissioner a month for the rest of the year? Or is there something you can do about that?

TW: No, I’m not willing to lose anymore because it’s hurting Minnesotans. I heard a lot about this, that it is not a popular move they made because one thing is it looks petty and small, which it is. … We have empty space in the person that’s overseeing insurance companies and the well-being of consumers. How are we better that our workplace safety expert has been removed? None of those things make Minnesota better. So even if you’re a Republican, how do you take any pleasure in that? You didn’t get anything for that, you didn’t get a thing, you just make other people miserable. So I wish they would rethink that strategy.

MP: What do you miss most from pre-pandemic days? And when do you expect to be able to do whatever that is again?

TW: I wish I knew. I don’t want to believe that Mike Osterholm is right that we’re in the third inning. I’d like to think we’re closer to the sixth inning. That will be my hope. I miss just getting out there and I miss the traveling schedule that I think was probably unprecedented. And I miss the good-natured and authentic disagreements I had with people that I would find on the streets or at events we were at. And they were very respectful. They were, “Governor I disagree with you on this. Here’s what I think.” I missed that because now it manifests itself in, you know, a massive protest in front of my residence or the Capitol, or threats from all sides of things. I miss just being out, listening to people, watching them where they work, asking them what they think, sitting with those kids and reading a book.

And it’s my hope that sometime after the holidays, we get back to that. I have to plan that it’s not going to happen, but personally I’m pretty bullish on the vaccine program. I’m pretty bullish on the long-term ability to manage this thing if you do things right. I think we get through the holidays and we get that opportunity. I was on with (Department of Heath and Human Services) Secretary (Alex) Azar. I’m working hand in hand with the administration to make sure that when that vaccine is ready, we’re ready to administer it. I understand some of the complaints and I think there’s obviously a bit of politics in telling us it’ll be ready by November. But I also think it would be malpractice not to be prepared fully for it. When it’s approved and it’s safe and folks say go, we want to do it. I’ll get the first shot.