After turbulent first term, Walz casts himself a 'steady hand'

A man speaks in front of blue sky reflected in a building.
Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a press conference about at-home COVID-19 tests available for students to take home from school outside of Carver Elementary School in Maplewood, Minn., on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The January 2019 inauguration day when Tim Walz drove home his “One Minnesota” campaign theme seems like a lifetime ago.

“There’s no doubt about it, we face some tremendous challenges in coming years,” Walz told the audience after taking the oath as governor. “I’m not pollyannaish. Those of you who know me in here, I’m an optimist. But I also supervised the lunchroom for 20 years. So I’m a realist.”

Not even Walz could have foreseen how many challenges were ahead – from a nonstop battle with Republican lawmakers to a global pandemic to a racial reckoning that gained steam after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody.

“You don’t know what’s coming, you know,” Walz said recently when asked how his term compared to what he expected. “You need to be prepared for those types of things. It doesn’t do any good to wish these things wouldn’t happen. You have to try and solve them.”

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As his campaign for re-election nears an end, polls suggest the outcome will be far closer than his double-digit 2018 victory. An incumbent Minnesota governor seeking a new term hasn’t lost since 1990, but the state hasn’t had this many years of uninterrupted Democratic leadership either – now at 12.

Walz, a six-term congressman before winning his current office, has a more substantial record to defend in this race.

Early budget skirmishes

When he took office, Walz inherited a modest surplus. In his opening budget, he pushed to boost education funding and recommended a mix of tax increases and extensions to pay for other programs. 

That first year, he also sought a big hike in the gas tax to invigorate road construction.

“This is not a choice between having a gas tax or not. It’s a choice between living in a state with the best and safest transportation system in the country or living in a state with crumbling roads and bridges that risk our safety and keep away businesses,” Walz said as he announced the plan.

The tax plan went nowhere amid stiff opposition from Republicans. House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt derided it by co-opting the governor’s slogan.

“This is not ‘One Minnesota,’” Daudt said. “This is ‘One Expensive Minnesota.’” 

Even with its demise, voters were reminded of the proposal when prices at the pump shot up this summer.

Early on, Walz and lawmakers did speed through a fix to a flawed vehicle registration system. But they frequently collided over policy differences and the budget. It required an overtime session to yield more aid for schools and the first income tax rate cut in nearly 20 years. Both sides left the bargaining table with some wins and left behind priorities to fight over later.

“There’s a sense in a very chaotic and unpredictable world that normalcy to how we go about our democracy is important,” Walz said after agreeing to the compromise deal.

COVID-19 hits

The first-year skirmishes would pale in comparison to the way COVID-19 upended daily life early in 2020 and the difficult choices Walz presided over for many months to come.

Classrooms emptied. Restaurants closed. Houses of worship and entertainment venues shuttered. And people were instructed to stay home if possible.

Restrictions expected to last weeks stretched on longer, and frustration mounted over the governor’s expansive use of executive authority.

Walz preached patience in the name of public health and pledged the limits would gradually loosen.

“It’s not like a light switch, because again, trust me, if you’re the governor of Minnesota, shutting down your businesses is probably the last thing in the entire world you would ever want to do.”

He bet big on an expansion of testing – a moonshot he called it. That panned out.

A woman speaking at a podium.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks at a press conference as Gov. Tim Walz looks on inside the Department of Public Safety in St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News, Pool

But Walz faced criticism over COVID-19 death rates in long-term care facilities. He encountered resistance to calls for people to voluntarily wear masks and hostility when he eventually imposed a mask mandate.

“Not wearing a mask is not a sign of rebellion,” he said at the time. “It’s just hurting your neighbor and so I get it that people are frustrated with the shutdown, but the way to protest that is just to yell at me or do whatever. But not wearing the mask makes it worse.”  

And critics mocked his administration’s decision to use millions from a federal coronavirus fund to buy a warehouse to serve as a makeshift morgue if the worst-case scenarios became reality. Walz defended it later, saying the significant deaths predicted in models were mitigated by precautions people took. The building was eventually sold after only getting used to store medical supplies.

“At that point in time when I had to make that decision, that was the right decision. Here’s what I’m hoping, and I will tell people this, I am hoping that that building never sees someone in it,” Walz said. “And if they want to complain to me about that, that is a far better situation than having people stacked in U-Hauls. I can guarantee you that.”  

George Floyd is murdered and Minneapolis erupts

As if COVID wasn’t challenging enough, May 25, 2020 produced another test of leadership.

That was the day George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, and a video of Chauvin with his knee on Floyd’s neck was played and replayed on screens around the world. 

Floyd’s death triggered days and nights of mass protests, some of which devolved into looting and destruction. 

Governor Tim Walz looks on from behind a group people speaking
Governor Tim Walz looks on from behind a group of speakers talking to the crowd of thousands of protesters in front of the governor’s residence on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minn. June 1, 2020.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News.

Days into the unrest, Walz sent in state troopers and thousands of National Guard soldiers, but not quickly enough to stop the burning of a police precinct and many businesses. 

“I spoke this evening to George Floyd’s siblings, quite extensively. I understand that rage, we’ve talked about it, we understand what has to happen,” Walz said in pleading for calm. “What’s going on out there right now is not that. The wanton destruction — and specifically of ethnic businesses that took generations to build — are being torn down.” 

Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey publicly disagreed over who should have taken charge.

The ensuing destruction prompted legislative hearings and later fed into campaign ads against Walz.

“I think we saw Governor Walz freeze,” Republican challenger Scott Jensen said. “He froze when it came time to putting the National Guard on the streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul during the riots. He froze when it came time to protect the Third Precinct [police] building.”

It’s a theme Jensen returned to often in the campaign.

At the Capitol in the weeks and months following Floyd’s murder, Walz and lawmakers wrestled over police accountability. Some changes were made. 

But Chauvin’s criminal trial put the region on alert again. During that trial, came another unthinkable tragedy: A fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center. It reopened wounds and set off new protests. This time, Walz activated the Guard quickly, which drew uproar on the political left as protesters were met with tear gas and other pushbacks.

Pandemic drags on

Meanwhile, COVID complications lingered. New variants kept the pressure on the health care system.

“We must remain vigilant,” Walz said about one year into the COVID ordeal. “The only way we’ll truly beat this virus is by continuing to social distance, wear a mask and get tested and, of course, most importantly, Minnesotans need to get vaccinated.”

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, left, and Gov. Tim Walz
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, left, and Gov. Tim Walz, right, receive their Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

After some early hiccups, the vaccination campaign hit a stride. Walz got his own jab alongside former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The duo would reconvene in the fall for booster shots.

Still, deep divides persisted. And satisfying initial demand for vaccines turned into nudging skeptics to get shots, including through incentives and workplace rules.

Pawlenty’s cooperation in the vaccine campaign was hardly indicative of his party’s mood toward Walz.

Seeking a second term

By 2022, a crowded field of GOP candidates emerged to take on Walz – seven contenders overall. Jensen outlasted them all to win the party nomination. That’s put him at the forefront of critiquing Walz on rising crime, nagging inflation, sliding student test scores and more recently an unrivaled meal-fraud investigation case that continues to unfold.

Capitol clashes – the closest to a constant in the Walz term – carried through to the end. Walz and the Legislature deadlocked this year on how to dispense with a record-breaking surplus. A batch of $500 million in pandemic bonuses did pass, but broader tax cuts and another infusion of money for schools faltered.

During a recent interview where Walz reflected on the arc of his term, he described himself as a “steady hand in pretty unsteady times.”

“I want to serve,” he said. “I believe we’ve done a good job with that. I think I’ve surrounded myself with good people. But I remind people, this isn’t about me. It’s about the job. It’s about the people of Minnesota.”