Gwen Walz and close advisers had it all mapped out: Promote a PBS documentary about rigorous college coursework for prison inmates — a concept they want to replicate in Minnesota — and let the first lady step out as a leader on criminal justice issues.
Walz and governor’s office staff helped choreograph the plan last May, according to interviews and recently released documents. It involved sneak peeks of the film for state decision makers months ahead of its airing on public television and panel discussions she would take part in to underscore key themes.
A four-page briefing memo prepared by the governor’s office said an objective was to “create awareness about the first lady’s standing on the issue of criminal justice reform and the policy work she is involved in in the administration.”
Not all went according to plan, and instead the event revealed the risks associated with the first lady taking a prominent role in a high-profile policy area.
By multiple accounts, panels that coincided with screening clips from the documentary turned tense when the moderator pressed participants about race before a restless audience. Later, a top aide to DFL Gov. Tim Walz sought to make sure a video made of the forum didn’t get circulated.
The footage wound up being deleted by the event’s public television station hosts, who acknowledged trying “to smooth out ruffled feathers” and who also delivered an apology to the first lady over the questions posed.
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In interviews with MPR News, officials at Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) firmly defended how the matter was handled. After initially taking a similar posture, the Walz administration now expresses regret for an “overreaction” on its part.
What happened around that May evening is just a glimpse at the role Gwen Walz has built up inside her husband’s administration, particularly in the area of corrections.
Unlike previous first ladies, Walz has an office in the Capitol, just steps down the hall from her husband’s corner suite.
She tours state prisons, has held regular calls with leading Corrections Department officials on strategic planning, chairs a task force on recidivism and helped recruit an assistant commissioner working to install a new college curriculum behind prison walls.
“I think it’s a crucial conversation to have,” Walz said in an interview. She added, “I’m convinced that people are looking for ways to address all kinds of different issues within corrections and within criminal justice.”
It’s common for first ladies here and in other states to embrace an advocacy portfolio. Past projects have centered around literacy, military family support and child protection.
Susan Carlson, wife of former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, remembers other first ladies advising her to “stay away from downer issues. I think implicit in that was controversial.”
Walz is grabbing a politically hot iron with her attention to issues in criminal justice.
Carlson championed efforts to address fetal alcohol syndrome and said Walz is on the right track with her focus.
“Anything you can do through the correctional system that will prevent that coming back is going to save their lives but also save the state a lot of money,” Carlson said. “So I applaud her efforts in that. I think that’s great.”
A seed planted
Gwen Walz, a veteran teacher, gravitated toward corrections matters while Tim Walz was serving in Congress.
In 2012, she was introduced to the Bard Prison Initiative through another congressional spouse. The program is aimed at tackling recidivism by steering inmates toward college courses and degrees.
Walz visited the program’s proving ground, a state prison in eastern New York. She immediately felt a tug and got involved to the point of mentoring participants.
“I don’t have a title. I don’t receive any compensation. I was learning and working and collaborating,” she said. “I was getting to know students in the program, and I was having an opportunity to sort of help them further think about sharing this program that has between a 2 and 3 percent recidivism rate with the rest of the country.”
A film company associated with documentary maker Ken Burns had also taken intense interest. It ultimately produced “College Behind Bars.” The four-part film follows incarcerated men and women who were in the Bard program and were primed for success after their eventual release.
It’s the type of system that Walz and new assistant commissioner Daniel Karpowitz, who has also worked for Bard, want brought to Minnesota.
Karpowitz came aboard at corrections in late spring. He reports both to his agency leadership and to top levels of the governor’s office. In the early going, Karpowitz split his time between Minnesota and New York, internal agency documents show.
A key task is to draw up a plan for what a similar program would look like here, how it would be paid for and how fast it could be implemented. The first lady is already holding informal discussions with lawmakers about the Legislature’s role in advancing such an initiative.
House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee Chair Carlos Mariani is planning to meet with Walz soon. Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said he’s eager to explore the proposal and is glad Walz is putting heft behind it.
“I think it’s pretty courageous because of the past thinking around this issue, which has really been ‘Keep these people out of sight, out of mind. It’s not who we are,’” Mariani said.
That’s also what made a series of events to highlight the documentary a big deal.
‘It’s a race issue’
With the Legislature moving into crunch time in May, Gwen Walz appeared solo on TPT’s “Almanac” to talk about the documentary’s rollout. She did other interviews arranged with newspaper and television reporters selected by the governor’s office.
But a vital component was the screening of extended clips and an accompanying conversation before a large audience at the TPT headquarters in St. Paul.
There was a VIP reception and a pair of panels. One featured the filmmakers and Bard alumnus; the other was designed to zoom in on what’s happening in Minnesota. First lady Walz was on stage for the latter conversation.
Under bright lights in a television studio with sound and camera professionals on hand, those present said the discussions gave participants a chance to tout the film due to air on PBS and promote the education program.
Some of the questions moderator Toussaint Morrison intended to ask circulated days ahead of time within the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office. According to an email, they included: “What galvanized you to take up an interest and proactive stance on the prison system? Could BPI be part of the prison systems in Minnesota?”
But Morrison, picked by TPT for the job, didn’t stick to that script. The discussion careened into an uncomfortable area: racial disparities in criminal justice.
Morrison told MPR News that he felt compelled to ask the panels about race after clips the audience saw included mostly inmates who are racial minorities.
He said the first lady opened her remarks by talking about incarceration as “an education issue. She said this is a money issue. This is a geography issue and left it at that.”
“A lot of people began to clap. I was kind of confused because I thought she was going to say ‘This is a race issue,’” Morrison said. “However, she left it at that and people clapped. And then somebody from the audience said, ‘it’s a race issue.’”
Morrison said others in the studio chimed in as well.
“And then I turned to Gwen and said ‘What do have to say to that, Gwen?’ And then she said she was implying race,” he said.
The discussion shifted away from race, but Morrison brought it back there.
“I said, ‘can we talk about prison and education without talking about race?’ And then the panel just goes silent and, again, and I'm just like — and again softballs — and now the audience is a little razzed up because they're not, nobody's answering the questions.”
Walz said she wanted the audience to hear more personal accounts of the Bard participants. She was taken aback.
“I think everybody was super, super surprised at kind of the approach,” she said.
Walz said the direction the discussions went left many people, herself included, feeling unsatisfied.
“I don’t know that we had any true, valuable conversation,” she said.
Nikki Bentley was in the audience. She leads a Corrections Department task force on female offenders and was appointed by former Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy. She said the panelists seemed unprepared to talk about an obvious topic, and it came off as awkward and adversarial.
“I was disappointed in the panel. I was disappointed in the clips. I would have loved to have seen them talk more about race,” Bentley said. “I was really surprised that any discussion about the criminal justice system now in this day or in any day is not focusing on race.”
She voiced similar thoughts in a lengthy email she sent to peers and agency officials the next day. In it, she applauded the moderator’s tenacious questions. Her feedback was forwarded to senior department leaders and the governor’s office.
Walz is adamant the conversation about race is important and one she’s ready to be part of.
“As I say in almost every speech that I give, I’m going to acknowledge who I am: I’m a middle-aged white woman with privilege — with white privilege. And I am on a journey learning what that is about. And I need all of Minnesota to help me and help one another have this conversation.”
At a breakfast reception the day following the screening, hosted by Gov. Walz and the first lady, the tenor of the panel discussions still reverberated, and concerns from the governor’s office focused on the video shot at the event.
TPT President and CEO Jim Pagliarini said he was approached by a panelist upset over how the prior night went. Pagliarini also said he spoke that day with Kristin Beckmann, deputy chief of staff for Walz, about concerns she had on behalf of the first lady.
“They said, ‘Is it taped?’ They are concerned about the tape and distribution of it,” Pagliarini said. “I said, ‘Let me check’ with no intent to delete it or do anything else with it.”
Sarah Walker was deputy corrections commissioner at the time. She was also on the panel and knew it hadn’t gone well.
“The next day I show up in my office and mid-morning I receive a call from the deputy chief of staff,” Walker recalled recently. “And she calls me and says, ‘Hey, I’ve been called and told to light up TPT because people are really mad at how the panel went.’”
Walker said she knew it was taped. Beckmann said she doesn’t remember the phone call. Later that day, Walker said she got another call from Beckmann.
“It’s taken care of,” she said in recounting the conversation. “We talked to TPT. The TPT president has now apologized and agreed to destroy all of the videotapes that were made of the event.”
Beckmann said there were no prior plans to tape the event, which she didn’t personally attend. She said that led to her queries of station officials and others tied to event.
“Because we didn’t agree to tape it and there was no plan to use it going forward, I think we all just agreed it didn’t need to be around anymore,” Beckmann said.
Pagliarini said by the time he spoke with his staff, the tape was already gone. An email to Beckmann reflects the apology, which he asked be delivered to Walz. He denies the decision was made as the result of any pressure from the Walz administration.
“This is really pretty standard practice. This was never intended for broadcast,” Pagliarini said, adding that it was a promotional event and not associated with the station’s public affairs programming.
“I think that there is validity in their concern that our moderator, our employee, he pursued a line of questioning that made people uncomfortable,” Pagliarini said. “I mean this is kind of a tempest in a teapot.”
Donna Saul Millen, managing director of events and engagement at TPT, said she was involved in the decision to dump the video. She said she didn’t anticipate future use and thought it would just take up space.
It was erased the day after the forum, she said. Saul Millen also spoke with Beckmann.
“In that conversation, she asked what we were going to do and I told her it was already deleted,” Saul Millen said. “So there was nothing for us to do.”
Months later, Saul Millen wrote in an email about what led to the deletion.
“The short answer ... the first lady’s office made the request and we didn’t have plans to use it (at least not at that time),” she wrote, using ellipses for effect. “The obvious answer … it was an easy way to smooth out ruffled feathers.”
Saul Millen said she only “vaguely” recalls writing that message in late July.
Three officials from TPT said it isn’t unusual for the station to delete footage from such an event, but none offered a specific example of when it happened previously.
Days after MPR News spoke with Beckmann this month, she issued a statement. It reiterated frustrations over the discussion’s focus and said “it did not do justice to the event’s topic of education in prison.”
But Beckmann concluded that it was a mistake for the governor’s office to press TPT on the tape. “We made an emotional decision at that time, and we realize in hindsight that it was an overreaction,” she wrote. “We regret the decision.”
The “College Behind Bars” documentary is still set to air on PBS stations in late November.
Raw feelings about what transpired in the spring are still there.
Walker, who abruptly resigned her position this summer and was the subject of a short-circuited investigation, said she felt as though others on her team held her responsible for not doing more to deflect attention from Walz during uncomfortable moments on the panel.
“I honestly felt like they were unhappy with me,” Walker said. “That somehow I should have protected her better from those sort of comments or questions.”
She added that race should have been addressed head-on and doesn’t blame the moderator for raising an issue central to criminal justice these days.
Morrison, who is black, said he feels hung out to dry and is upset he’s been singled out for criticism within TPT and outside of the station for asking tough questions.
“If I had done that bad a job, don’t you think I would ask them to delete the footage? So on that note it hurts that my abilities are called into question,” Morrison said. “But it also hurts that the denial is there. It hurts that TPT is going out of their way to protect a white person.”
Gwen Walz said the focus moving forward should be on the goal of reducing recidivism by better preparing inmates for reentry into society, not a forum that went sideways.
“We weren’t able to have the conversation in the way that I had hoped,” she said.
“Is this still a crucial issue, an issue we have to grapple with in Minnesota, an issue that I’m going to help support in every possible way that I can? Absolutely,” Walz said. “I do not give up easily.”
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly stated who appointed Nikki Bentley to a Corrections Department task force.