Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Sunday used his former high school classroom to praise the state for nearing the end of its battle against COVID-19 while saying there is work to be done in health care, social justice and education as the state moves beyond the pandemic.
The DFL governor, as he did a year ago, delivered the annual state of the state speech [PDF] away from the normal setting, a crowded state House chambers. In 2020, it was from the governor’s residence in St. Paul. This year, it was from the classroom at Mankato West High School where he taught before entering politics.
In 2020, it was delivered with a warning that the state faced a season that will seem “like a winter we’ve never seen before.” A little less than a year later, the state is moving into its final phase of vaccination.
While buoyant, Walz also noted the pain of the last year with nearly 7,000 deaths, more sickened, the economy battered, and many workers stretched. Of the people who lost loved ones, Walz said: “Your grief is unimaginable. I know words can’t ease your pain. Time doesn’t erase it—it just changes it. May you find peace in the memories of the good times with your loved ones lost. All of Minnesota mourns with you.”
But most of the speech, delivered on Palm Sunday and the first day of Passover, was upbeat. “We’ve proven that we know our destinies are linked with those of our neighbors,” Walz said. “We’ve proven that we are willing to love and sacrifice for one another, through hardship and heartbreak. We’ve shown that a team, weary from loss with the odds stacked against us, can come together, dig deep, and persevere.
“Minnesota can and will emerge stronger from this crisis than ever before. The state of our state is strong, Minnesota. This is our goal-line stand. Get vaccinated. We’re coming back.”
‘Getting vaccinated is how we end this’
Walz taught geography in the classroom where he delivered the address. His wife taught English one floor above. “Throughout this year, when I have been asked what I am most looking forward to when the pandemic is over, I’ve answered, ‘Hearing the laughter of students in a lively school hallway,’” Walz said. “That day is here, Minnesota. Brighter days are here, and even more are coming. We are winning the fight against COVID-19.”
Walz mentioned the reopening of schools, the return of restaurants and bars and the Twins welcoming fans back to Target Field as evidence that the pandemic is ending.
But he warned that the work is not over. “We must remain vigilant,” he said. “The only way we will truly beat this virus is by continuing to socially distance, wear a mask, and get tested. Most importantly, Minnesotans need to get vaccinated.”
The timing of his decision to open vaccinations to everyone 16 and over in Minnesota coincided with the annual speech, one that is televised statewide. It also comes as Walz and the state’s public health establishment is moving from one campaign to another.
Within weeks, perhaps a month, all Minnesotans who want to be vaccinated will have the opportunity, and something that was recently in short supply could soon be in surplus. The state will then turn to a more-difficult effort: convincing those who haven’t taken the shot to do so. State Health officials estimate that 80 percent of state residents will need to have vaccine-provided immunity to quell the spread of the virus.
“We’re monitoring closely as COVID cases have started rising again, spurred by new variants of the virus,” he said. “Getting vaccinated will protect you and your loved ones. Getting vaccinated will get us back to the places we love and the people we miss. Getting vaccinated is how we end this pandemic.”
‘The worst of times brought out the best in people’
Walz told the story of how, in 1997, students from the high school volunteered to help fill sandbags to combat flooding in St. Peter. He used the anecdote to return to his theme: everyone in the state working together, something he often speaks about but that wasn’t always in evidence amid political disputes over shutdowns, masks and other executive orders during the last year.
“You took actions, large and small, to protect and support your neighbors,” he said. “You canceled travel plans. You donated food to food shelves. You missed proms, weddings, and graduations.”
“You sacrificed. You endured. And you saved lives,” he continued. “These selfless acts embody Minnesota’s dedication to community—and you proved once again that there’s nothing our state can’t do when we come together. This year has been hard. But the worst of times brought out the best in people.”
As he often does, the governor compared the state’s battle against COVID to football, relaying the story of the Mankato West team in 1999, when, as a defensive assistant, he urged his team to make a crucial goal-line stand amid a season that ended in a state championship.
But that season began with losses, not victories. And Walz said he didn’t think the team would have been as good at the end had it not struggled at the beginning. “It taught us grit, resilience, and the true meaning of teamwork,” Walz said. “That’s what Minnesotans have done this year. It isn’t giant acts of heroism that are defeating this pandemic—it is Minnesotans each doing the right thing to the best of their ability.
“In my State of the State speech last year, I said that Minnesota wouldn’t just survive this crisis, we would lead through it,” he said. “And with championship-worthy grit, resilience, and teamwork, that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
Walz spoke of Medtronic-built ventilators, 3M’s respirators, the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic’s COVID testing advances, and workers who kept plants open to provide food for the nation. “Minnesota was one of the safest states in the nation during the pandemic when comparing cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” he said. “And now our economy is booming back faster than we ever imagined. We haven’t just survived this crisis—we’ve centered our values and led through it.”
Promoting budget priorities, education reform
Walz ended the speech with the story of a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Mankato West in 1961.
“Dr. King was clear that the scourge of racism wasn’t limited to the South. He said clearly that ‘no section of our country can boast of clean hands.’ Walz said, tying that message to the crisis evoked by the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Our state was thrust into the international spotlight following the death of George Floyd. Our deep racial inequities were exposed for the world to see,” Walz said. “For many white Minnesotans, it was an awakening to a truth that Minnesotans of color have known all their lives.
“As many Minnesotans welcome getting back to normal, we must acknowledge this and recognize that for too many getting back to normal isn’t good enough,” he said. “It’s not good enough for a single mother who is working two jobs to keep food on the table. It’s not good enough for a student in a small town who has to do her homework at a local restaurant because she doesn’t have internet. And it’s not good enough for young Black men who live in fear of being stopped by police officers who have sworn an oath to protect them.”
On the eve of opening arguments in the trial of the police officer charged with killing Floyd, he asked Minnesotans to “make your voices heard.” But he also pleaded with people to “heed Dr. King’s advice that nonviolence is the only way to truly move hearts and create change.”
He also tied that call for racial and social justice to his budget proposal, one that has been rejected by the GOP-controlled Senate. “We must recognize that inequality isn’t limited to our criminal justice system,” Walz said. “While the wealthiest Minnesotans did well during the pandemic, our students, small businesses, and working families struggled to get by. That is why my proposed state budget aims to level the playing field by supporting working families, helping small businesses stay afloat, and ensuring students catch up on learning.”
He also used the speech to promote his education reform plan, Due North. “Inequality in our education system long predates the pandemic,” he said. “For far too long, the quality of a child’s education in Minnesota has been determined by their race or zip code. Children of color and children in Greater Minnesota face barriers to the opportunities they need to reach their full potential.
“Due North will help students recover from learning loss this year, starting with additional learning and tutoring this summer, while closing the opportunity gap and transforming our education system for years to come.”
GOP’s Gazelka: ‘President Trump deserves credit’
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, the highest-ranking elected Republican in the state, release a video statement before Walz’s speech was even delivered. Instead of responding to the governor, he instead offered the GOP’s own version of a state of the state speech.
“The word that I would use is hopeful,” Gazelka said about the state and its residents, mentioning some of the same accomplishments over the last year as Walz: the 80 percent percent of seniors vaccinated, the more than 1.5 million total shots delivered, the opening of vaccination to all those 16 and older.
“And who deserves credit?” Gazelka asked. “President Trump deserves credit” for creating Operation Warp Speed, which funded rapid vaccine development and manufacturing.
Gazelka also said he wants Walz to declare Minnesota’s state of emergency over and relinquish his emergency powers under state law. And he pitched Senate GOP bills to reopen all businesses and schools. “We’ve laid out the plan. But what does the governor say about when is the time? When is the time when kids can know for sure they can go to their graduation? When juniors and seniors can have prom? When they can actually dance together and not sit in chairs and do what you do at prom? People want to know when can they do the things that people call normal?”
And Gazelka repeated what he called the GOP benchmark that the state budget can be balanced and passed without the tax increases that are part of Walz’s budget proposal.
“We will get it done,” he said.