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Walz calls to close education, health care gaps in inaugural address

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Governor Tim Walz delivers his inaugural address.
Governor Tim Walz delivers his inaugural address Monday inside the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Tim Walz took the oath of office Monday to become Minnesota's 41st governor, calling for a united state where everyone — regardless of "zip code" — has access to affordable health care and quality education.

The DFLer stressed similar themes on the campaign trail, but his inauguration at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul officially marks the end of the grueling campaign and transition and the official start of his administration.

Walz nearly finished his cabinet picks last week, putting the final players in place ahead of the legislative session, which convenes on Tuesday. 

This year, Walz must find agreement with the only divided Legislature in the nation on a $48 billion, two-year state budget.

"One Minnesota is in our blood. It is born of our shared values. It is sewn into the fabric of our communities. It is driven by the collective good, fueled by our innovation," Walz told the crowd packed into the theater. "No matter how daunting the challenge; no matter how dark the times; Minnesota has always risen up — by coming together. "

Walz, 54, was sworn in alongside his lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan, as well as Secretary of State Steve Simon, State Auditor Julie Blaha and Attorney General Keith Ellison, all Democrats.

A Nebraska native who served 24 years in the Army National Guard, Walz was elected in 2006 to represent southern Minnesota in Congress. He chose to run for governor instead of re-election to congress last year. He didn't get the DFL endorsement but won the party nomination in the primary.

He is the first Democrat in state history to be elected governor to follow another Democrat who served 8 years. Former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who was in attendance on Monday, returns to private life today as Walz is sworn in.

Walz touched on all parts of his background in his inaugural address, but the former history teacher and coach emphasized his time in the classroom the most. A procession of teachers led the inauguration, and Walz and his wife Gwen entered from different side of the stage to shake their hands.

Minnesota constitutional officers prepare for their inauguration.
Attorney General Keith Ellison, left, Secretary of State Steve Simon, State Auditor Julie Blaha, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Gov. Tim Walz stand on the stage of the Fitzgerald Theater Monday for their inauguration into office.
Evan Frost | MPR News

His roadmap to "One Minnesota" will rely heavily on closing education gaps and disparities in the state, he said.

"Minnesotans, let's recognize some simple truths: Education is the great equalizer of society. Education unleashes untapped potential. Education conjures the magic of promising beginnings and the grace of second chances," Walz said, surrounded by his former students and teachers he worked with over the years. "Putting a young child on a yellow bus to pre-kindergarten in St. Cloud can prevent him from riding a prison bus to Stillwater."

He also hit on the issue of rising costs of health care, a major theme on the campaign trail this fall. 

He said his administration will work to "figure out how to deliver health care more effectively, more affordably and with better results." 

"But we won't stop there," he added. "We will invest in our cutting-edge research institutions and partner with our state's dynamic health industry to ensure the cure for the world's most devastating diseases comes right through Minnesota."

In his address, Walz also took aim at Republican President Donald Trump, saying his own administration would not normalize division that feels "rampant" across the nation.

"I will not normalize policies that are not normal — ones that undermine our decency and respect," he said. "If Washington won't lead, Minnesota will."

Walz was sworn on what's known as the "Senate Bible," a relic more than 150 years old held by the Minnesota Historical Society that was rescued from a fire that burned down one of the original Minnesota Capitol buildings in 1881.

Flanagan, 39, took the oath on an 1854 Ojibwe Bible provided by the Minnesota Historical Society. She is a former executive director of the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota and a former Minneapolis school board member.

A member of the White Earth Band, her swearing-in is historic, becoming the first Native American woman elected to statewide executive office in Minnesota.

"I am an Ojibwe woman. I am a mother. I am a Minnesotan. This is the lens through which I see the world, and the lens through which I will do my work as lieutenant governor," she said. "That Ojibwe Bible is complicated, our history is complicated, our state is complicated. The issues facing us are complicated. Try as we might, they can't be whittled down to a hashtag. They need nuance."

Flanagan wore moccasins and a ribbon dress that Native women wear to keep them grounded in their connection to the earth and as givers of life.

The inauguration, punctuated by drum circles by the Hoka Hey Drum Group, had heavy tribal representation as well as civil rights luminaries such as Josie Johnson.

Simon, 49, took the oath the serve his second term as Minnesota secretary of state. 

He's a lawyer and a former state representative from St. Louis Park. He has focused during his four years in the secretary of state's office on elections, making it easier for people to vote and election security. He wants to continue that work, restoring voting rights for felons and installing automatic voter registration in Minnesota.

When it comes to election issues, Simon said Monday that Minnesotans want the state to be "less passive, and more aggressive."

But Blaha and Ellison are new to their respective roles. Blaha is a former math teacher and secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. 

The 2018 campaign was her first run for public office. She's taking over from fellow DFLer Rebecca Otto, who served three terms as auditor and didn't run for re-election last year, opting instead for a campaign for governor, which proved unsuccessful.

The auditor's office has served as a springboard for candidates who later run for governor, but Blaha has said she is not interested in running for higher office.

"We will be there for the public, the unbiased, thorough auditor of $20 billion spent at the local level each year," Blaha said. "You will be able to trust our work."

Ellison, 55, is a former state representative and member of Congress from Minneapolis. He opted to run for Attorney general last year after three term incumbent DFLer Lori Swanson said she wouldn't seek reelection and instead launched an unsuccessful run for governor.

Ellison had arguably the toughest campaign of any of the people on state Monday, after a former girlfriend accused him of physical and emotional abuse during their relationship. 

Ellison denied the allegations and voters sided with him. He defeated his Republican opponent Doug Wardlow and became the first Muslim to be elected statewide in Minnesota.

He says he will focus on prescription drug prices and housing costs as Attorney General and continue the consumer focus Lori Swanson and other DFL attorneys general have had over the years. He has also said he will oppose the trump Administration when he believes it is in the interest of Minnesotans.

"Minnesotans deserve an attorney general's office where they can count on fair treatment and equal justice," Ellison said. "And they won't just come to us, we will come to them."

Former Republican Gov. Al Quie attended the inauguration, as well as U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Angie Craig. Top legislative leaders were also in attendance.

The inauguration will be followed by a public reception in the Minnesota Capitol rotunda Monday afternoon, and Walz and his administration have trips planned to Duluth, Mankato, Minneapolis and Moorhead in the coming days.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.