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DFL's Walz eyes path from nation's capital to state Capitol

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Walz comes out to give a victory speech while supporters cheer.
Minnesota DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz comes out to give a victory speech for the primary election in August.
Tom Baker for MPR News file

Democratic Rep. Tim Walz went to Washington in 2007 in a freshman class that also featured Minnesota's Michele Bachmann and Keith Ellison.

Walz lacked the trailblazing status of DFLer Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, or the cable TV pull that quickly made Bachmann a provocative star on the right and future presidential candidate.

That was just fine with Walz. He still remembers a freshman orientation where the paths for prominence in Congress were laid out: be an attention-grabbing partisan or a subject-matter expert out to make deals.  

"I heard someone tell me very early on that the national media is for your ego, and the local media is for your constituents," Walz said in an interview with MPR News this month about his initial lay-low tendencies.

Walz is attempting to be the first sitting member of Congress to win Minnesota's governor's mansion in 40 years. In his race against Republican Jeff Johnson, a county commissioner, the 12-year congressional record of Walz and the thousands of votes he's taken are open to scrutiny.

Walz has a handful of laws to his name and played a significant role in shaping others.

He has spent considerably more time in the minority in Congress — the past eight years — than in the majority — the first four.

He's the lead Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where cooperation is more common than partisan bickering.

"In the minority, I found myself being very effective because the Republicans needed someone at times," Walz said. "There isn't still a piece of veterans legislation that is not sent back to me, even by the majority."

Breaking ranks

U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York said her fellow Democrat garners respect because of his almost quarter century of military service.

Tim Walz makes his way to the State Office Building with Peggy Flanagan.
DFL candidate for governor Tim Walz makes his way from the state Capitol building to the State Office Building with his running mate Peggy Flanagan before a press conference on Aug. 15, 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News file

"When you have someone who can speak from personal experience in the subject matter they're dealing with, that carries a lot of weight," Rice said. "Tim's service also helps to get someone to see things in a different way than maybe they would normally."

But Rice said Walz also goes out of his way to break down barriers. She notes how he's been part of the morning congressional running club down around Washington's famed monuments. Walz prods his colleagues from both parties to join in.

"He does not look at things through a purely political lens like a lot of people do. That's what makes him unique," Rice said. "It's so tempting to get caught up in the political garbage that goes on. And he just doesn't."

Walz said his willingness to work across the political aisle would be an asset if he becomes governor.

Walz has broken with the prevailing Democratic position 39 times in the current session of Congress, or 7.4 percent of the total votes. That's according to a vote tracker kept by ProPublica. Among all House members, it's about average. But Walz bucked his party less than three others in the state's House delegation (Peterson, Paulsen and Ellison).

Republican nominee Jeff Johnson dings Walz as having missed too many votes as he campaigns for higher office. And Johnson argues Walz isn't as bipartisan as he says.

"I mean you were with Nancy Pelosi and Keith Ellison over 90 percent of the time. I think it is 94 percent," Johnson said during a recent debate with Walz. "This suggestion you are one of the most bipartisan people there, the bar is pretty low unfortunately in Congress right now."

The remark didn't go unanswered.

Rep. Tim Walz held a town hall meeting in Rochester.
Minnesota 1st District U.S. Rep. Tim Walz answers questions at a town hall meeting at Rochester Community and Technical College on Feb. 23, 2017.
Jerry Olson for MPR News 2017

"Would you have voted with Nancy Pelosi to improve veterans suicide care? Would you have voted with Nancy Pelosi to improve the GI Bill with me? Would you have voted on many of those things all of you agree with? That's what's wrong with our system — about finding a voting record in Congress. "

A Democrat in Trump country

Walz said voters in southern Minnesota know best. They have re-elected him to the swing district five times, including a 2016 election where those same voters chose Republican Donald Trump for president by a 15 percentage point margin.

Walz lists as his top accomplishment a 2015 suicide prevention act that stepped up mental health programs in the VA.

But Walz has extended beyond the veterans niche. He had measures included in previous farm bills and was on the farm bill conference committee this year, although that legislation has stalled just weeks before the election.

Earlier in his tenure, Walz was heavily involved in closing a loophole that permitted members of Congress and other government officials to make stock moves using nonpublic information.

Former Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., said Walz stuck his neck out by signing onto his bill to eliminate the perceived perk.

Congressman Tim Walz
Tim Walz in "his" booth at the Wagon Wheel Cafe in downtown Mankato, Minn., around the corner from his campaign office.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

"A new member of Congress could have said 'Why would I want to upset the status quo, why would I want to rock the boat?'" Baird said.

The bill languished for years. When Baird left Congress after 2010, Walz assumed a lead role in the push. Exposure from a "60 Minutes" investigation helped dislodge the bill and it was signed into law in 2012.

Walz said it didn't endear him to colleagues.

"I did get this blowback when people would say, 'Walz, yeah he wants to do this STOCK Act thing because he's poor and doesn't have any stock, he's a school teacher' type of thing. And they say it half jokingly but it doesn't jokingly," Walz said. "They were making the point that this guy doesn't get it."

Baird said it proves Walz has the right compass.

"Tim is not going to knuckle under," Baird said. "He's not going to be a pushover."

If Walz wins, he'll be the first in Minnesota to jump straight from Congress to governor since 1978. Another congressman from southern Minnesota, Republican Al Quie, was the last and served one rocky term before opting against a second-term bid.

Quie, 95, supports Johnson in this year's race. He still talks fondly of his time in Washington and with acknowledgment that the move to St. Paul wasn't easy.

"The harder job was governor," Quie said this month. "There's only one of us."