Malcolm next? GOP senators threaten another commissioner’s job

A woman speaks at a podium.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks during a press conference where officials urged the public to take steps to combat the spread of COVID-19 in November 2020.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

In leading the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has been one of the most visible commissioners in state government over the past year and a half. Many Republicans have been regular critics of the Gov. Tim Walz administration’s handling of that response, however, which they contend has infringed on personal freedoms.

During a rally against vaccine and mask mandates over the weekend at the Minnesota Capitol, Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who had been a supporter of the commissioner, told the crowd that firing Malcolm is now an option.

“I’m not defending her anymore,” Abeler said. “It seems the only language the governor understands is the removal of another commissioner.”

Abeler, who chairs a key senate human services reform committee, describes Malcolm as a friend and said it saddens him to call for her ouster. But Abeler wants Minnesotans to decide for themselves whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

He said he opposes mandates or any heavy-handed efforts to get people to comply and that he believes Malcolm and the administration have failed to tell people the whole story. 

“They had been behind encouraging, cajoling these employer mandates, the college mandates strongly, saying that the vaccines are safe and effective,” Abeler said in an interview. “But there are huge safety issues, which no one is talking about, and people should have the right to know that. That’s my simple request.”

Abeler claimed during his speech that more than 200 Minnesotans have died from the vaccine, but that number is hard to confirm.  

Abeler got the number from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, a database of "information on unverified reports of adverse events (illnesses, health problems and/or symptoms) following immunization with U.S.-licensed vaccines." The system is designed to detect problems with vaccines, but it clearly states that just because a death or other health problem is listed, it cannot necessarily be attributed to the vaccine. 

In some of the Minnesota cases, the deaths reported were likely from other causes but just happened to have occurred within 60 days of the person being vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the Health Department reports more than 7,800 Minnesotans have died because of COVID-19.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said Abeler is putting people at risk by spreading false claims about vaccines. She strongly believes that the vaccines are safe and effective. Kent also strongly believes that Jan Malcolm should remain as Health Commissioner.

“She and her team lead one of the most highly regarded public health systems in the country,” Kent said. “And it’s because of her expert guidance and dedication to keeping our Minnesotans safe that undoubtedly many, many lives were saved over the past year and a half.”  

If Abeler and other Senate Republicans follow through with the Malcolm threat, it would be the fourth Walz commissioner forced out. If the Senate votes not to confirm a governor’s cabinet appointment, that person is immediately out of a job. They previously rejected Nancy Leppink of the Department of Labor and Industry and Steve Kelley of Commerce. Laura Bishop resigned in July from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ahead of a planned vote on her confirmation.

A vote on Malcolm could come soon. A special session is expected in mid-September for lawmakers to act on bonus pay for front-line workers. Walz said recently he wants a deal going into any special session that his commissioners will be safe. 

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, said Senate Republicans see their confirmation power as a powerful weapon to use against  Walz. And, Jacobs said, they see what they refer to as medical freedom as a strong message for the 2022 campaign, even though the political gain is yet to be seen.

“Clearly the opposition to vaccines, the mandates on masks, plays well with the diehard Republican supporters,” Jacobs said. “But polls show that most Americans do support some of these steps.” 

MPR News reporter David Montgomery contributed to this story.

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