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How the GOP made emergency public safety funding a wedge issue for DFL legislators

GOP Senate Majority leader Paul Gazelka has forced DFLers to vote on providing money the governor has requested — at the same time the party’s base has argued the funds will enable over-policing.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
In having the Senate act, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka succeeded in putting DFLers into a political box.
Legend has it that there was a time when the odd-numbered year of legislative sessions was less partisan than even-year sessions. With the previous election finally over and the next one off in the distance, lawmakers could focus less on partisan politics and more on policy.

Such memories are perhaps rose-colored — and might have never been applicable in a redistricting year like this one. But even if there ever was any truth to the rumor, any given day of the 2021 Minnesota legislative session has offered plenty of proof that the notion of post-election-session comity has long since stopped being a thing.

Just a week after a Brooklyn Center police officer killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop for expired license tabs, the state Senate passed a bill to provide emergency cash to Gov. Tim Walz. The $9 million was meant to pay the costs to bring law enforcement help from surrounding states and to cover extra costs for the state patrol securing government sites in Brooklyn Center, Minneapolis and St. Paul.

On first appearance, it could have been seen as an act of bipartisan cooperation, with Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka responding quickly to DFLer Walz’s request for emergency aid. But if bipartisanship was the goal, why was Gazelka alone at the doorway to the Senate chambers? Where was House Speaker Melissa Hortman? Where were the two minority leaders of the Legislature: DFL Sen. Susan Kent and GOP Rep. Kurt Daudt? And where was Walz?

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Hortman, at least, was left in the dark, unaware that Gazelka was moving forward alone. “Over the weekend and this morning, I worked to obtain specific information about the exact size of the emergency funding that the Walz Administration needs, and the Governor and I discussed the urgent need for reform legislation,” the Brooklyn Park DFLer said in a statement after Gazelka announced the move. “Before those conversations could conclude, the Senate Majority Leader decided to go forward with the approximate numbers we had received on Friday.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
“I will continue to work with the Governor and the Senate Majority Leader to provide emergency funding that is needed to ensure public safety,” Hortman continued, but as of Wednesday, she had not brought the bill to the House floor.

On Monday, in response to criticism from within the DFL, Walz said the money is needed to protect people and buildings, but that he continues to push for further police accountability measures this session. “We have to have that change,” he said. “We can’t continue to live like this. Systemic and fundamental change must happen and it begins with systemic and fundamental public safety reforms.”

Boxing in the DFL

In having the Senate act, Gazelka succeeded in putting DFLers into a political box, forcing them to find a way to both provide the money their governor was requesting while responding to criticism from the party’s urban base that the money would only further over-policing. And voting against the money became an instant litmus test by some on the left flank of the DFL coalition.

“I am voting NO on this bill. More police?” tweeted Duluth DFL Sen. Jen McEwen. “The human rights abuses, military occupation, tear gas, rubber bullets, unlawful detentions, from [law enforcement] just this week have reinforced that more [law enforcement] is the problem, not the solution. More money? After this past week? I don’t think so.”

State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray
State Sen. Patricia Torres Ray
During floor debate, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said she had received numerous emails from her constituents asking questions about the money and urging her to oppose it. “Right now, they are experiencing a lot of trauma,” she said. “We have a lot of military presence in the streets and people are traumatized.” 

Sen. Scott Dibble offered an amendment to require the money to be spent in ways that abide by existing state patrol procedural justice standards, that police treat demonstrators with dignity and respect, that they use de-escalation tactics and respect the First Amendment.

Gazelka urged opposition to the amendment, saying the governor asked for the money quickly and that issues of police accountability could be discussed later. 

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Even after that amendment failed on a party-line vote, voting no was not an easy choice for some DFL senators. Public safety had been a potent 2020 campaign theme in the Twin Cities suburbs and Greater Minnesota, where GOP candidates promised to keep their districts safe from rioters and arsonists. It could have made the difference between a DFL majority and a GOP majority.

It passed 48-19, a margin similar to that on an earlier motion to suspend Senate rules to allow the bill to be voted on immediately. Twelve DFLers voted yes, all from suburban and Greater Minnesota districts — places like Cottage Grove, Eagan, Apple Valley, North Mankato, St. Cloud, Audubon and Maplewood.

Not a single member whose districts touched Minneapolis or St Paul voted yes.

As though signaling the difficulty he’d put the DFL in with the bill, Gazelka said: “We want to get this to the House and then it will be up to them to try to find a way to move it as quickly as possible.” 

Condemning the National Guard eviction 

As if the appropriation to the state patrol and the national guard wasn’t enough to show the differences between the GOP and the DFL on public safety — as well as the differences among DFLers — Gazelka took another step. He placed a resolution on the Senate floor to both thank the National Guard and condemn the jettisoning of a guard unit from the St. Paul Labor Center by officials who appeared to taunt and jeer the guard as it left

State Sen. Jeff Howe
That left DFLers in the Senate to choose between voting yes to support the Guard while also condemning labor officials or voting no and appearing not to support the Guard.

“You name a profession, we have guard members who work in that profession,” said Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, who sponsored the resolution. “They’re us. The way those guard members were treated was disgusting. They were taunted and jeered.”

The resolution called for the removal of the labor leaders who took part.

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Walz condemned the behavior of the labor officials on Twitter (and was criticized by some in his own party for doing so), as did St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter on Monday evening:  

“As we renounce officers who escalate and inflict bodily harm on black and brown bodies, peaceful protestors and members of the press,” Carter said, “so too must we renounce those who thrown sticks and stones at police and hurl unprovoked insults at the teachers, plumbers and electricians who stand forward as members of the National Guard every time we call for their help.”

But DFL senators were loath to vote for a resolution that did so, especially one that called for the firing of union officials. Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, tried to amend the resolution to remove the call for firing.

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State Sen. Nick Frentz
“I think they were disrespectful, and I’m prepared to vote yes on your resolution,” Frentz said. But the people who kicked the guard out of the labor hall are concerned about police abuses and are asking to be listened to, he said. 

The amendment failed.

More than one DFL member saw the measures as an attempt to collect votes that would be used in campaign literature in 2022, when all 67 Senate seats will be on the ballot again. “I don’t think this is about supporting law enforcement or our armed forces,” said Sen. Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina. “It’s really about making a wedge issue to divide our country further, and our state.”

Kent said the resolution was an example of political posturing and cited Gazelka’s request for a recorded roll call vote as evidence that it is about using no votes against DFL senators in future elections. Frentz, it should be noted, also asked for a roll call on his amendment, something that could be used later as proof of a pro-union vote for those, like him, who ultimately voted yes on the resolution.

Despite the failure of the DFL amendment that would have made it more palatable, the resolution passed 42-23, with many DFLers voting for it, including eight Democrats hailing from suburban and Greater Minnesota hometowns.