A room full of men and women in suits, fatigues and decorated veteran caps is listening to Tim Walz. This is the United Veterans Legislative Council meeting in St. Paul. Walz is giving more than a legislative update. He's making a stump speech.
"Our veterans who have served honorably come each and every year to beg to their own elected officials for the table scraps that are left over in a budget to try and get by has simply ended. The time for that is over," Walz says.
Walz has been getting a lot of attention from the press for statements like this. He's a veteran. He's also the highest ranking enlisted man to serve in Congress. Both of these are forces behind his policy interests and his political muscle.
He views veteran's affairs as a unifying issue. When asked about specific accomplishments thus far, he points to the $13.6 billion increase in veteran's health care approved by the House.
Freshman legislators customarily are limited to two committee seats. Walz's first were Agriculture and Transportation. He convinced House leadership to add him to Veterans Affairs. All three are pivotal in this session's Congress and have relevance in Minnesota.
“I think I'm speaking with the voice of southern Minnesota. I think there's a clarity of kind of that pragmatic populous, and it doesn't tend to be overly partisan.”Rep. Tim Walz
The Farm Bill is up for re-authorization, the Transportation Bill is also under consideration, and veterans are up in arms over the Walter Reed scandal. Walz entered Congress with no political experience, but he says that's worked to his advantage.
"I think I'm speaking with the voice of southern Minnesota," Walz explains. "I think there's a clarity of kind of that pragmatic populous, and it doesn't tend to be overly partisan. I don't check my DFL credentials but I also don't check the ability to use common sense and listen to the other side. And I think what's happened is in Washington, it really feels different."
That doesn't mean Walz walked into politics alone. He's used political insiders to his advantage. He hired Kerry Greeley as his campaign manager. She was a high level staffer for John Kerry's presidential campaign. The Minnesota Monitor Web site reports Greeley is credited with Walz's win.
Reporter Aaron Blake writes for the D.C. newspaper "The Hill." He says since Walz's election the Democratic Party has pushed Walz and other veterans as the public face for its new approach to the War in Iraq.
Blake says that's given Walz more attention than most freshman legislators. That could be both good and bad. He says some Republicans already call him "Washington Walz."
"When you kind of start to make yourself a national figure you risk the other side saying you're not paying attention to your constituency," Blake says. "And so when Tim Walz is on Hard Ball with Chris Matthews, there might be some people in Rochester who say he's doing this for his party, he's not doing it for his constituents."
But Winona State University political science professor Darrell Downs says Walz has balanced national attention with local appearances. He's holding a series of farm bill hearings in the district, and he makes regular appearances at local grocery stores on Saturday mornings. Downs says the district appreciates the attention, especially compared with his predecessor, Republican Gil Gutknecht. Downs says the sticking point will be results.
"If he's legitimately able to claim that troops in Iraq are better off as a result of his and other democratic efforts it will be a great success for Tim Walz. But it remains to be seen whether that's going to happen. And of course, there are already three republican candidates already gambling on Representative Walz's failure," he says.
Downs says Walz risks overreaching. Walz says he's just good at multi-tasking.