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Year in Review: Five big political stories overlooked amid the pandemic

As much as COVID-19 and the homicide of George Floyd dominated government and politics in 2020, there were other stories that seemed important at the time — and will likely return to prominence after the pandemic is over.

The year 2020 will always be divided between its pre-COVID and post-COVID weeks.

For Minnesota state government, that dividing line came March 13, when Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency and made “recommendations” about large gatherings, hand washing and social distancing. On that day, there were 14 confirmed infections in Minnesota.

But as much as COVID-19 and the homicide of George Floyd dominated government and politics in 2020, there were other stories that seemed important at the time — and will likely return to prominence after the pandemic is over. Here are five.

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A five-year probation cap

Criminal justice reformers in Minnesota have often pointed to the fact that while the state has sentencing guidelines, it has a decentralized system that permits the length of probation to vary county by county and often by judge. That led to perhaps unintended results: Minnesota has some of the nation’s shortest average prison sentences while having some of the nation’s longest probationary periods.

Because significant civil rights — especially voting — and many economic opportunities are not available to convicted people who remain “on paper,” reformers wanted lawmakers to take on the issue. 

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell
They didn’t. Probation reform was mostly discarded in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

That moved the issue to the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission, where a new commissioner of corrections, Paul Schnell, and some new members appointed by Gov. Tim Walz proposed and ultimately passed a cap on most probationary periods for people convicted in Minnesota.

The cap could have been overturned by votes of both the state House and Senate, but even the Senate didn’t get that opportunity once the pandemic began and the list of must-do issues in the Legislature shrank dramatically. The new standards took effect in August, though they are not retroactive.

The assault on Walz’s commissioners

As with the U.S. Constitution, the Minnesota Constitution requires that high-ranking appointees of a chief executive be approved by the Senate. This check on executive power is meant to provide some oversight of commissioners. 

Unlike the U.S. system, however, where appointees can’t serve until confirmed, something that speeds up Senate review, Minnesota has no such requirement. That means that some appointees are never confirmed before leaving office, though they can be confirmed or not confirmed at any time during a governor’s term.

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By late summer, frustration among GOP lawmakers boiled over as a result of monthly extensions of Gov. Tim Walz’s state-of-emergency declaration; his use of executive orders; as well as political disagreements over decisions made by a pair of Walz commissioners. 

Commissioner Nancy Leppink
The Senate decided to respond by using the one lever it had: confirmation. First to go in a sudden strike in August was Labor Commissioner Nancy Leppink. The next month it was Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley.

Two quotes from those days illustrate the difference in how it was seen by partisans. First, from House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt on Twitter: “Looks like the Senate is executing a prisoner today.”

The second from a senior Walz staff member: “We’re fighting a pandemic and the Senate is playing ‘Battleship’ with our commissioners.” While the threat remained — and remains – no other commissioners were removed in 2020. 

Get REAL, ID?

There was a time when the biggest worry about air travel in America was that you wouldn’t have the correct identification to get on the plane. COVID replaced that worry with one that was closer to life and death.

A year ago, Minnesota licensing officials were racing to make up for lost time by urging residents to apply for new driver’s licenses that were issued only after applicants provided more extensive proof of their identity.

Known as REAL ID, the new cards were a recommendation of the 9-11 Commission, a response to the use of fake identification by the hijackers of the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon.

Gov. Tim Walz
Office of the Governor
Gov. Tim Walz helped open a REAL ID office at MSP in March.
Many deadlines had already come and gone for when the cards would be needed to board commercial airliners or enter federal facilities (though a passport would also be accepted). And Minnesota was one of the states that had resisted the 2005 federal law out of privacy concerns and fears that the documents needed — birth certificates, utility bills, tax returns, Social Security cards, credit card statements — would fall into the hands of identity thieves or be used for non-identification purposes by the government.

By the time Minnesota finally got on board, the latest deadline for REAL ID — Oct. 1, 2020 — was fast approaching. “We have 33 weeks between now and when REAL ID comes into force,” Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington told a legislative committee last February. “We are processing an enormous number of applications even as we speak. But we need to double or triple that volume if we are to make our deadline.”

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“If you are not in with your paperwork by June 1, I cannot guarantee you,” added Emma Corrie, the director of the state Driver and Vehicle Services division.  

So what happened? The pandemic happened. And the federal government put off the deadline to Oct. 1, 2021 — for now.

Presidential primary privacy

In February, PPP meant something completely different in Minnesota from what it would come to mean in April. Before it meant Payroll Protection Program, it represented a late-blooming crisis that threatened participation in the state’s first meaningful presidential preference primary in, well, ever.

First, the state Republicans and Democrats — often blaming their national party rules  — insisted that they get a list of voters who took part in their presidential primary. The reason was to make sure the other party wasn’t infiltrating their nomination process.

The Minneapolis Early Vote Center on Hennepin Avenue opened Friday morning.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
As early voting got under way for the March 3, 2020 election, complaints about voter privacy began to surface.
But a section of state law submitted by Republican lawmakers changed what the rules were supposed to be. Rather than the GOP getting the GOP voter list and the Democrats getting the Democrat voter list, the law now gave every party every list. Even the two new marijuana legalization parties — neither of which were even taking part in the primary — were to get the lists.

And there were no restrictions on how those lists could be used. Send fundraising letters? Sure. Create lists for political mailings? Yes. Harass voters who took part in the other party’s process? No party said they would do such a thing, but both suggested the other party might.

The DFL even feared that its list would be used to mine voters for the new marijuana parties, thus depriving DFL candidates of votes in close legislative elections.

So DFLers, along with DFL secretary of state, sought new legislation in February to limit use of the lists. Republicans weren’t interested and the bills died.

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So what happened? 

Turnout in the primary was good: 885,000 compared to 2016 precinct caucuses that drew around 320,000. While some voters said they didn’t take part because they didn’t want their party preferences known, they might also not have taken part in caucuses, which are party-run functions where voter lists were always gathered.

Were the lists used for nefarious purposes? Several legalization candidates were factors in close races during the general election, and some may well have been plants by Republican to siphon votes from DFL nominees. But there did not appear to be a lot of mail sent to likely DFL voters from marijuana candidates, who usually ran skimpy campaigns, belying the notion that the use of voter lists was widespread. 

That primary — along with nine other states including California and Texas — was among the last pre-pandemic primaries. March 3 was also the night that Joe Biden all but assured himself the nomination.

A would-be rent strike

In the early days of the pandemic, one of the prime concerns of policymakers was what it would do to housing stability. With layoffs increasing as restaurants, stores and many businesses shut down, enhanced unemployment benefits were just beginning.

One of Gov. Tim Walz’s first emergency orders was an eviction and foreclosure moratorium for most renters and homeowners. But even Walz stressed that the order didn’t mean rent wasn’t due, and he urged renters and owners to continue to pay and not let unpaid rent stack up to unpayable levels, which could lead to a rush of evictions once the moratorium was lifted.

While politicians at the state Capitol argued over how to help — looking primarily at using state or federal emergency funds to cover rent and mortgage payments for low-income people — a group of local government officials wasn’t waiting around. Twenty-three local officials — including majorities of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Richfield city councils — called on Walz to order rent forgiveness and mortgage forgiveness: essentially, a rent strike called and enforced by the government itself.

“I urge you to support the suspension of rent and mortgage payments, as well as enact a moratorium on commercial evictions, to mitigate the financial devastation families, residents, and local businesses, are facing across the state,” read the letter, which was written by Minneapolis Council Member Jeremiah Ellison.

South Minneapolis apartments
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Twenty-three local officials called on Gov. Tim Walz to order rent forgiveness and mortgage forgiveness.
Supporting the effort were DFL-supporting organizations such as the Service Employees International Union and TakeAction Minnesota.

But Walz administration officials had a problem. As they were trying to persuade GOP lawmakers to help with the rental assistance program, many were hearing from landlords and banks worried about the impact of a rent strike on their finances.

So Walz asked those at the core of the DFL coalition to back off, which they very reluctantly did. While it didn’t help get a legislative deal, Walz did keep a commitment to create a rental assistance program, using $100 million from the state’s CARES Act allocation to do so in July.