ST. PAUL, Minn. — As the state where George Floyd died with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck, Minnesota in 2020 has endured trauma in ways that were beyond Gov. Tim Walz’s imagination.
There is something else, however, that is entirely within his imagination: 2021 could easily be worse.
The criminal prosecutions of Derek Chauvin and other Minneapolis police officers fired in the aftermath of the Floyd killing are scheduled to begin in March. With the Twin Cities having endured multiple spasms of rioting this past summer and spring, how much is Walz worried about the possibility of further unrest around the trials?
“A lot,” Walz told POLITICO. “I think certainly if the verdict comes out a not guilty verdict on that, it will be challenging. And we need to not just think about it — which we’re doing — the physical security of it. It’s these conversations I’m in with Black leadership and trying to be out there.”
Walz’s comments came in an interview for “The Fifty,” a POLITICO series exploring the intersection between states, cities and national politics. Walz spoke at a time when he’s making local decisions with decidedly national resonance, given the reckoning on race and systemic inequality that followed Floyd’s killing. Minnesota is a state that has regarded itself as exceptional for its congeniality and healthy civic culture but now finds instead that it is vividly emblematic of the rancor and institutional failures across the country.
The governor’s reference to “trying to be out there” in “conversations” with critics is the essence of the Walz political style. The Democrat, a former teacher and member of Congress who won the governorship in 2018, believes he is a reasonable guy who, if he has a chance to sit down and chat with most folks, he can persuade them to be reasonable, too.
Is Walz living in a fantasy? Or, more generously, in the past? Even Gwen Walz, the governor’s wife and a high school English teacher, sometimes worries that he is, at least when it comes to dealing with his Republican adversaries. By most evidence, they are little interested in helping Walz carry out the cheerful “One Minnesota” vision he campaigned on.
“She’s a little more, ‘They mistake your kindness for weakness and don’t ever do that,” Walz said of his spouse’s views about the yearning for a collegial bipartisan center she believes is illusion. “But I also think — especially when you’re in an executive position — I still believe our system of checks and balances and compromise created a better, fairer system that worked, and I do not see this oscillation amongst extremes being a better way of governing.”
On the surface, Walz’s words seem like a perfectly sensible approach for sensible Minnesota — a place that in its own mythology is uncommonly peaceful and progressive, a culturally centered place in the center of the nation. What happened in 2020 is a collision between that pleasant myth and starkly unpleasant reality. In 2020, the state has been violent, not peaceful. It may still tilt progressive, but there are agitated voices, rising steadily in volume, on both the left and right.
This conflict between the self-conception of many Minnesotans and the actual facts of Minnesota life was the recurring theme of an hourlong conversation with the 56-year-old Walz. He’s not that great with Zoom, a staff aide warned. But the Minnesota governor’s residence on Summit Avenue — a few hundred yards down the street from where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived — has a spacious patio with plenty of room to distance. So an in-person interview it was, on a sunny but temperate late-summer day. While Walz talked in an unhurried way, his stocky black lab mix, Scout, sniffed and roamed with an impatient, proprietary air.
Extended excerpts of the interview are below. Highlights of Walz’s comments include:
— Walz said the eruption of protests, some of which turned violent, in the wake of Floyd’s May 25 death can be understood only in the context of yearslong animosities between minorities and the Minneapolis police: “The faith between the police and those they govern is broken and vice versa. Neither one trusts the other and that creates an untenable situation.”
— Walz believes polls saying Democratic nominee Joe Biden is up by as much as 7 points in Minnesota, but he warns that President Donald Trump is capable of closing the gap. He said the unrest in the Twin Cities likely exacerbates animosity in “Greater Minnesota” toward the state’s urban core — a tension that is now a central dynamic of the state’s politics. Walz, from the southern Minnesota town of Mankato, is the first governor in 40 years not to come from the Twin Cities metro area. In rural areas, he said, the economic and cultural grievance he finds is palpable: “The [2008-2009] recession did not bounce back as quickly in rural areas. I think they had people telling them that, ‘Hey, the people in the cities are getting over on you.’ … And the president tells them and again, ‘Hey, it’s these folks. Put the blame on these folks in the cities. It’s these folks that are taking away your life,’ and I think people are frustrated.”
— Minnesota’s self-perception of being racially progressive is sometimes a hurdle to honest discussion of systemic inequality: “I think there’s a racism we didn’t want to talk about. I heard a young woman, a mother, up in Duluth from Arkansas and she said, ‘The racism I’ve felt has been quieter but meaner.’ And that breaks my heart.” He quoted his lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan, the second Native American to be elected to statewide office in U.S. history, noting that “the Minnesota thing” to do when someone raises uncomfortable subjects is, “Well, let’s have pie and turn away from it.”
— The budget fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to shadow his entire term in office, and beyond. Walz noted a paradox in which both the coronavirus crisis and the Minneapolis protests have highlighted deep inequalities, especially in education, at precisely the moment when state resources are most scarce.
These excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
Finding the center
Has the “One Minnesota” theme that Walz ran on in 2018 been revealed by the George Floyd to be an unattainable idea?
That is one where I think I was ahead of where the curve was going. I could feel this brewing. … I’m a geographer, so I will forever curse the red-blue map people made back in 2000.
There is this idea that greater Minnesota is somehow different than the Twin Cities area, and my take was that we were obviously — both as a state and as a nation — stronger together. And so I knew that these tensions were there. I knew that we had to try to heal them, and I ran on that idea and think now more than ever, it’s apparent if we don’t do that, we’re going to get ripped apart. I am not Pollyannaish. There are differences, but this whole idea is that [if the state isn’t unified] we work against our own economic self-interest. The reason Minnesota’s economy is so strong is we have a very vibrant Fortune 500 [base] centered here, which we have to protect. We have a medical device industry that’s the envy of the world. We also are leading producers of pork and turkeys and so those things benefit all of us, and so I think as far as an agenda piece of this, that unifying us together, moving us to an economy that continues to diversify.
But one of the issues I really focused on was this education piece. … I’m a high school teacher, but I spent a lot of time with this, and the thing that was most troubling to me — and this is where the George Floyd stuff [comes in] — is the inequities that America has and kind of the systemic racisms. It’s just here, it’s just the absolute epitome. What that ends up causing is you have a state that ranks first in educational attainment in public schools if you’re white, last if you’re not.
Minnesota has a divided Legislature — the state Senate is Republican, and the House is Democratic. Walz said his first year of dealing with this split showed some progress.
We did something last year that was — again, and you shouldn’t get patted on the back for stuff you’re supposed to do, but — our Legislature did a budget and at that time, we were the only divided Legislature in the country. … The first time in 40 years a governor hadn’t issued a veto and we did that together and there was compromise and I didn’t get [everything I wanted] in education and some of those . The first governor in 20 years that didn’t raise taxes. A Democratic governor, we cut taxes, and those things were kind of working.
But Walz said the emergence of Covid-19 — which some initially predicted would transcend partisan divisions — has created a more polarized environment with GOP legislators fearing that Walz would use the crisis to amass power or shut down too much of the economy.
Now, Covid has just driven the wedge in this and it’s to me, it’s frustrating because I think there’s legitimate budget discussions to this, but we’re in this place right now … that we couldn’t get a budget done and we couldn’t get our bonding bill done until I give up what every other state governor has; the use of emergency powers to be able to procure PPE and those types of things. They laid down a gauntlet that said, “Unless you give these things up, we’re not doing any of the rest of this.”… I, for one, have said you need to be very careful about the use of those emergency powers, but the president and all 50 states have determined that this pandemic is an emergency. … So I keep asking, “What would you like?” And I think the reality of this is they simply don’t believe that we should be doing anything around Covid. There should be no limitations on restaurants. There should be no mask mandate and we shouldn’t be testing. I’m getting pushback from legislators who are afraid I’m just going to test so I can keep schools closed.
I’m a schoolteacher. I’ve got a 13-year-old sitting up there. Trust me, no one in Minnesota wants their kid out of their house and in school more than me, but that’s where we’re at. …
I don’t understand it from a political standpoint, but [the pandemic] played into that larger narrative that the other side is not only wrong; they’re bent on destroying something that’s important to you and I don’t know where that got into there. These are my relatives. The county where I grew up [in Nebraska] — and my mom still lives there on a farm — voted 93 percent for President Trump.
How has 2020 changed Minnesotans’ view of their state?
There’s — even if it’s at a low burn — anxiety still from George Floyd’s death, the fallout of that. And I think trying to understand how Minnesotans see this … there is a Minnesota exceptionalism that we espouse and we think we can back it up with some numbers, but hidden under that, which we all knew, were those achievements gaps, those racial gaps. Not that different than the rest of the country, but probably more exacerbated here. …
We’re at the point now and I was at the point before George Floyd, but now that sense of urgency is there. We can no longer avoid that and they are wanting systemic fundamental change and I think that’s what you’re hearing and obviously the horrificness and the lack of humanity that went into the murder of George Floyd was one thing, but I think what you need to recognize — Minnesotans, maybe even more so than other places, especially Black Minnesotans and those who care about this — that pent up desire, we pushed a lot of this under the rug too long, and I think this is what you’re getting. …
We envisioned ourselves as progressive, Scandinavian leaders and [yet] we left people behind and we left some communities of color behind, but I think [Trump] also capitalized that we had areas that were heavily dependent on industries that are going away, much like in Appalachia with the coal with some of the mining and the changes that are coming around.
The POLITICO interview took place on Aug. 31. Two days earlier, Minneapolis had more protests, and some late-night rioting in defiance of curfews, after a Black man died in a police incident. It was not immediately clear that he had died by suicide rather than from police shooting. As he had done previously, Walz activated National Guard units under his command. He described his style for keeping abreast of events amid so much tension and the constant prospect of more unrest.
I did not hear originally of the initial incident at 2 or so. It was the homicide, and the eventual suicide. But by about 5 in the afternoon or so, we started hearing a few things. The mayor of Minneapolis, Mayor [Jacob] Frey, contacted us a little before 7. So we’re checking … and I’m asking them what’s going on with this and then we all got together just shortly after 7. … What I learned from [the George Floyd protests in] May is how quickly these things can escalate. Social media helped spread that and the pain and the anger that was there mixes very quickly with lawlessness and those things and so we started immediately right then moving in our assets, the state patrol, and activation of the National Guard. …
They give me the assessment of how many they think they need based on what we think is coming and those things start to go and then we’re up all night and we were on Wednesday night getting the updates as that started to play out and then planning for Thursday. The same thing last night. I was down at the State Emergency Operation Center until roughly 10 or so last night when it seemed like we had that. But a lot of flow of information through my agencies. This is a really unique situation where cities are responsible — primary responsibility for that security — but we saw that no city could have handled what Minneapolis saw those last few days of May and so we kind of had to rethink how do these relationships work, how do we talk about these mutual aid agreements and what is the state’s role?
Those commanders — whether they’re the police commanders, the state patrol, or the National Guard — are making those [decisions] in the moment. They’re moving assets from street to street or whatever. It’s my responsibility if we’re going to activate more [National Guard]. … If we’re going to need more or if that communication is not happening. One of the things we saw in May is being able to communicate and what the states really can do and where there was a big gap was fire suppression and that ended up causing a lot of the problems. And so those were decisions where we had those assets on standby and then they call me and … I say, “Yes, let’s move them. Let’s activate them and move them.”
The budget and economy
How has the pandemic affected Minnesota finances?
Yeah, there’s a very real economic hit that we’re all seeing and obviously states can’t deficit spend. The good news was … we had a rainy-day fund that was proportionally as big as any state in the country. We still — even after Covid and even after our budget projections show about $4.7 billion deficit in the coming biennium. We still have AAA bond ratings. The fundamentals are still strong. One of the reasons is a fairly diversified economy, but it is going to make us think about how we make those investments, and I worry that these are the times when people turn to austerity and the very programs we need to close those gaps are going to take us investing.
How will he resolve this tension?
I think public-private partnerships that we’re really working on. I, as a public school teacher, believe [education] is foundational to our opportunities, but I also recognize that if we’re failing, we need to be thinking about that.
How long will political leaders in states and nationally be dealing with the long-term fallout of the pandemic?
That’s an interesting question. I can’t see it in — I would have to say during my lifetime you’ll still be thinking about what this meant and how it rearranged things. And again, I would argue, [he and leaders in both parties] had a pretty good working relationship — not Pollyannaish, again — in a very polarized environment. I was very proud to say we passed a bipartisan budget together. …[Since the pandemic], now, the narrative is every business that’s not functioning, that’s my fault that I closed them down. Now, I don’t turn around and say, “Well, projections would have showed this many people are dead so if I’d have listened to you, we would have got that many people killed.” I don’t think that’s helpful but that is a narrative. So I think the politics where the One Minnesota is going to be a little harder work. We still have that. I’m very fearful. I saw this as a member of Congress. The danger of that pure polarization. … That’s it, and I worry here that same thing.