A referendum on Rep. Tim Walz

Listening to Walz
Barbara and David Heim of St. Charles listen as Rep. Tim Walz (D- Minn) talks about the economy. The Heims say they feel very well represented by Walz.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

It's Saturday morning at Mike's Food Center in St. Charles. Democratic Congressman Tim Walz holds court in front of a display of baked beans and ketchup. Ten or so shoppers form a circle around him, nodding their heads.

"Get together and compromise. Make it work. Even those who are staunchly opposed to drilling are saying if takes a little compromise on that to get them to compromise to move toward investment in renewals, do it," Walz tells the group.

One woman chimes in, "That sounds really good."

Walz talks fast. In 2006 he beat another fast talker by six percentage points. That was auctioneer and Republican Congressman Gil Gutknecht. Gutknecht had served the district for 12 years, and in 2006 most political scientists said the district was too conservative for Walz. They said a tidal wave of anti-Republican sentiment was the only way he'd get into office.

Cindy Schiebel
Cindy Schiebel of St. Charles, Minn. shops for meat at Mike's Food Center in St. Charles. She says her concerns about the economy will influence who she decides to vote for this fall.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

This year, Republicans will essentially have a referendum on that claim. But they'll also have to face Walz's record in the district.

"I think my highlights are probably more for veterans have been done in decades, and I consider, and I think a lot of people would consider, that I've been at the forefront of that," he said.

Walz is a veteran himself. He's a retired Command Sergeant Major in the National Guard. He voted to increase funding for veterans health care and education opportunities.

"We've shown that the input from citizens matters in government," he said. "I think with the Farm Bill, and the 14 hearings and the legislation that was written (out) of that, was actually given to me by people out here."

The 2008 Farm Bill increased nutrition funding and increased incentives for farmers to sustainably manage their land. But it did not reduce farm subsidies.

"I think Walz has done everything right for a first term incumbent," said Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. She says Walz is a little to the left of the district's voters, but he's made an effort to connect with people, and he has used his committee assignments to the district's advantage.

"He's gotten money from the appropriations process, highway funding and water projects in the 1st District," said Pearson. "I think he's been particularly active in getting FEMA assistance to the 1st District. With the Veterans Affairs Committee he's introduced several pieces of legislation, and then brought Speaker Pelosi to Minneapolis for a meeting back in April."

Rep. Tim Walz
First term Democratic Congressman Tim Walz represents the 1st Congressional District. Walz is a school teacher from Mankato and an Army National Guard veteran.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

But Pearson says Walz's close association with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, is a weak spot with Republican voters. His Republican opponents say the Democratic Congress, including Walz, has allowed the economy to dip and fuel prices to spike.

Walz lays those failures at another set of feet.

"These are President Bush's policies," said Walz. "They said we will give tax cuts to a very small group at the top; we will deregulate the economy, and everything will work out. Well, we have the housing crisis, we have the Enron crisis that collapsed, and we start to see Americans real wages decrease and nothing to give them price relief," Walz said.

As for energy, Walz says he is a coal, nuclear and ethanol supporter. He again points to Bush for blocking what Congress has tried to do to help fuel prices and the economy.

Pointing the finger may not matter in this election. At Mike's Food Center David and Barabara Heim are already happy with Walz. They don't blame Walz for rising fuel or food costs.

"I don't expect they'll ever get much lower," David Heim said.

"Until we get into the alternatives," Barbara Heim added.

David Heim explains that he and his wife are supporters of ethanol and wind power in part because those support the state's economy.

Further away from the Walz crowd, Cindy Schiebel is shopping for hot dogs. She waves a package of hot dogs. "All beef hot dogs costing me $5.50 seems kind of silly," she said.

Schiebel didn't want to reveal who she had previously voted for, or who she might vote for. But she says she worries the recession could become a depression, and she thinks Congress has to be accountable.

"I think that we all have some role in fixing the problem. And so I certainly think the people we elected as officials, Congressman, President, whoever it may be we're putting it in their hands," she said.

Schiebel and voters like her could decide whether Walz's approach fits the district, or if someone more conservative might have a better solution.