The primary difference between traditional couples counseling and what went on last week between Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, leader of the Minnesota Senate GOP, is that couples counseling doesn’t usually play out in front of the press and public.
That might also explain why the former is sometimes successful and why the latter may not be.
Walz and Gazelka — respectively the highest-ranking elected DFLer and Republican in state government (though DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman might take exception) — spent the weeks before yet-another special session exchanging open letters with increasing levels of vitriol. Then, last Friday, they held an in-person session that led both to soften their rhetoric, a little.
It wasn’t always this way. Both politicians cited better time after Friday’s heart-to-heart, referring to what both consider the highlight of their short-but-stormy relationship: the May 2019 agreement between Walz, Gazelka and Hortman to snatch a budget deal from the jaws of a government shutdown.
But that was before COVID-19, before Walz’s declaration of a peacetime emergency, before the five extensions of that emergency, before the three Senate votes to rescind that emergency, before the homicide of George Floyd, before the riots and looting that were intertwined with the protests, before a statue of Christopher Columbus was toppled on the Capitol campus and — perhaps most importantly — before the full-flower of the 2020 election campaign.
Now, what had been a surprisingly good relationship between the two men has soured, with Gazelka ratcheting up his criticism of the DFL governor and Walz getting increasingly frustrated.
The animosity was revealed most conspicuously in the fight over emergency powers. While the GOP went along in the first month or two, Republicans have since been arguing that the emergency is over, even if the pandemic is still around, and that the state has the resources it needs to meet any surge in cases. For his part, Walz points out that President Donald Trump and all 50 governors have ongoing states of emergency that give them the power to issue executive orders to restrict the economy, secure supplies, provide testing and contact tracing and even order that people wear masks inside public places.
The argument has gone on for months, but it manifested itself again in late August with the start of what might be called the Battle of the Open Letters.
On August 28, Gazelka sent a letter to Walz and posted it on Twitter [PDF]. In it he asked the governor to set up guidelines to determine when the emergency is over. “We have flattened the curve, no Minnesotan has been denied necessary medical treatment, and, thankfully, our hospitals have not needed to use their surge capacity,” Gazelka wrote, “There is no longer an emergency.”
On Wednesday, Walz responded — or, at least his office responded — with the proverbial strongly worded letter. “At the same time that you claim the legislature is not involved enough in the process, you neglect to attend many of these critical informational and decision-making meetings,” it stated.
“The Governor wants to work together across party lines to protect the health of Minnesotans, but you make that difficult when you choose not to attend critically important meetings focused on our state’s pandemic response efforts.”
The letter [PDF] also specifically addressed Gazelka’s comment on there was no longer an emergency: “Although President Trump and the Governor do not agree on much, even the President agrees that we remain in a state of emergency.”
But here’s the crushing thing about the letter that might be lost on normal Minnesotans: It didn’t come from Walz but rather from his chief of state, Chris Schmitter.
In government, there are protocols that elected officials really care about (even if most people don’t). Top people meet and correspond with top people; seconds-in-command deal with seconds-in-command, agency commissioners deal with legislative committee chairs.
It was a slight that did not go unnoticed. “Since I addressed my original letter to you, our elected state leader, it’s telling that you delegated responsibility of a response to someone else,” Gazelka wrote Friday [PDF]. Many of the meetings Gazelka missed, he said, did not involve Walz but his staff and commissioners. As such, Gazelka sent his staff.
“Which brings me to the original — and yet to be answered — question of my August 28 letter: What criteria will be used in determining when the COVID-19 peacetime emergency declaration will be rescinded?” Gazelka wrote. “Minnesotans expect our meeting today to focus on your answer to that question and not on my attendance record at staff briefings after you have taken unilateral actions. While I’m focused on getting our kids back into school safely and keeping order in our streets, you’re focused on my attendance record at your staff briefings.”
That was the set-up for a closed-door meeting at the state Capitol Friday, a relatively rare occurrence under pandemic social distancing.
After about 40 minutes, Gazelka emerged from the meeting in a better mood than his pre-meeting letter might have predicted. “I will say that it was productive,” Gazelka said of the meeting. “The emergency powers have definitely brought a divide between us.”
In the meeting, the two tried to examine what led to the divide and how they might work better together, he said. “The working relationship between myself and the governor is absolutely still salvageable,” Gazelka said. But the letters they exchanged “should have told him that things aren’t well but the conversation today was still productive.”
Walz came out after the majority leader, for his own gaggle with reporters. “It was a great conversation,” he said of the chat. “It’s a relationship that I value. It has become a little bit heated, obviously we’re in an election year. But this meeting was to reinforce that mutual respect we have for one another.”
Hortman said Friday she has a good working relationship with both, also citing the good old days of the 2019 budget deal. She cited the open letter exchange as evidence that social media allows people to say things about other people that they would never say in person.
“In this line of work, we’re doing difficult things with directly opposite ideologies and it’s natural for there to be some tension,” Hortman said. “But I think they’re both trying to do what is best for Minnesota, coming from the perspectives that they’re coming from.”
Threat to commissioners looms
So does any of this matter? The Minnesota Legislature is set to, once again, meet in special session on Friday with the same agenda as in the August session — and the same meager odds of getting any of it done.
A multi-billion-dollar bonding package, a suite of tax cuts, a backfilling of the budget for state prisons and the state patrol. All are unfinished business from the 2020 regular session that escaped legislative agreement in June, in July and in August special sessions.
And even if there was agreement, state budget office officials say it might not be prudent to make changes to state’s finances while a trip to the bond market is still fresh. This “quiet time” doesn’t expire until Sept. 19, and Walz and lawmakers say they could come to an agreement in principle this week on legislation but not pass bills into law until later in the month.
Hortman said it might also be possible to pass bills with a delayed implementation date outside the quiet time period. Either way, she said she thinks the state will end September with a bonding bill, a small tax package and some small spending increases for agencies pressed by the pandemic, such as corrections and the state patrol.
That could be a big deal because past agreements have been scuttled by a familiar conflict: the governor’s emergency powers.
So why meet at all?
Gov. Tim Walz has disputed that he is required by state emergency powers law to convene the Legislature each time he extends his declaration of peacetime emergency by 30 days, which is set to happen at the end of this week. But he has done so to give lawmakers a chance to overrule his emergency declaration (knowing that with the House controlled by fellow DFLers, it won’t)
So far, the GOP-controlled Senate has voted to rescind the emergency declaration three times; the DFL-controlled House, which supports the governor, has blocked it three times.
Friday will make it four.
But Gazelka and his Senate majority are not as powerless as Republicans sometimes suggest. During the August special session, the Senate voted to not-confirm one of Walz’s commissioners, and after a series of committee grillings of a few more Walz appointees, there remains a threat that more agency heads will be not-confirmed.
Such a move isn’t just an expression of opinion. It removes the appointee from their job, as was the case with Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink in August. The primary target this time around could be Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelly.
When asked about it Friday, Gazelka said he would not name specific commissioners and that a decision had not yet been made about how or whether to proceed. Walz said he will try to talk Gazelka out of it, and the governor was scheduled to meet again with legislative leaders on Wednesday morning.
“We briefly discussed it. We know it’s there. I think it’s for the next conversation,” Walz said Friday. “I asked, ‘What do we need to do to make sure we’re able to get these folks confirmed.’ They need to do their job. I need them in the middle of all of this and that uncertainty is not helpful.”
Hortman, a bystander in the confirmation process, which is a Senate duty, said the vote to not-confirm Leppink angered her because of its personal impact on the former commissioner and because she was fired for doing her job, which is to protect workers. But she acknowledges that both parties have used the weapon, with two GOP commissioners and two DFL commissioners losing their jobs over the last several decades.
“It’s four women but the score is 2-to-2. Can we stop doing this to individual human beings because we disagree with each other about politics?” Hortman said.