Minnesota governor hopefuls take small-town roots into big-time showdown

Two profile images of two political candidates.
MPR News will host the final governor’s race debate between Scott Jensen (left) and Tim Walz on Friday, where policy divides will take center stage. But the candidates have opened up about key elements of their past and what led them to this point.
MPR News Image | Photos by Kerem Yücel, MPR News and Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune via AP

At their roots, Tim Walz and Scott Jensen have a fair amount in common.

Both candidates for Minnesota governor grew up in rural towns, exposing them to the camaraderie and work ethic they say stuck with them. Both immersed themselves in high school sports to feed their competitive juices. And both lost a parent at a formative time in their lives.

Walz, the DFL incumbent, and Jensen, the GOP challenger, also have a fair amount that sets apart their respective climbs from small-town upbringings to the grand political stage of a governor’s race.

The “where they came from” details sometimes get crowded out in campaigns defined by attack ads and deep differences on issues. But they can be illuminating and help explain why political hopefuls see the world as they do.

MPR News will host the final governor’s race debate on Friday, where policy divides will take center stage. But the candidates have opened up about key elements of their past and what led them to this point.

Born in a small town

Jensen, 67, was raised in the southern Minnesota city of Sleepy Eye, just west of New Ulm. There were about 3,500 people living there when Jensen was a boy and the middle of five children. His mother, Lorraine, was a homemaker involved in church and PTA; his father, Carl, was a lawyer and later a politician.

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“I learned how to campaign and put signs up and meet people and respect people and ask him if we could put a poster up and things like that. It was a good experience,” Jensen said. “It was a very lively supper time for the Jensen household.”

Jensen described his dad, a Republican who served a combined 24 years in the Minnesota House and Senate, as a moderate.

Scott Jensen on his dad
A photo in a wood frame of a young man.
A photo of Scott Jensen as a young man.
Courtesy Image

Carl Jensen became a Tax Court judge but quit that post in 1986 to run again for the state Senate — as a DFLer, citing his alignment with that party on the Equal Rights Amendment and tax policy. He lost.

In 2016, Scott Jensen won election to the Minnesota Senate. His first day in 2017 was almost 50 years to the day when his father joined the chamber.


Walz, 58, is originally from West Point, Neb., but moved to tiny Butte in the state’s northeast corner in 1979. Back then, there were fewer than 600 residents and he was in a graduating high school class of 24. He had three siblings. Walz reminisces about having jobs branding cattle and stacking hay bales.

Walz said he learned the value of public involvement in making things work.

“Knowing all your neighbors. Very, very small school. It was one one building K through 12. And I do think I wouldn't change that for anything,” Walz said. “I think that connection and that community that you build really instills in you that importance.”

Walz’s mother, Darlene, managed the household and involved herself in community affairs while his father, James, was a public school administrator.

Politics were present, in part because of his Catholic mother’s affinity for President John F. Kennedy. Walz says he naturally adopted his parent’s Democratic political affiliation.

Tim Walz on always being a Democrat.

On the team

Walz ran track. He played basketball. And he was on the high school football team — first as a wide receiver and later as a defensive lineman after gaining size following a summer of Army training.

A photo of football players at practice.
Before politics, Tim Walz (left) worked as a teacher at Mankato West High School and served as an assistant coach for the football team.
Courtesy Photo

Walz would take his fondness for football beyond his own playing days. As a teacher at Mankato West High School, he was part of the coaching team, including for a squad that won a state title.

On playing football

Jensen was also on the basketball and football teams. On the gridiron, he started off as a center but had his sights set on being quarterback. He said his determination, not his size or skill, helped get him that chance.

Jensen said golf was his best sport and his team went to the state tournament his senior year.

He’s kept at golf and said he has six holes-in-one to his credit. The last was in 2020.

A man kneels down next to the cup on a golf green.
Scott Jensen poses after hitting a hole-in-one at Island View Golf Club in Waconia on Oct. 11, 2020.
Courtesy Photo

Loss in the family

Having a father who served in the Legislature meant a lot of time apart for Jensen and his dad. He forged a closer bond with his mother.

Jensen was in college when she fell terminally ill. He found himself adrift and his path of study shifted — from dentistry to seminary to medicine.

Jensen would also lose a brother to suicide. Bruce Jensen’s death impressed on Scott Jensen the weight of mental health struggles.

Reflecting on losing a parent

Walz said part of his decision to join the military in his teens was to please his father, a Korean War veteran. But Walz said he realized there was more his father’s urging.

“He knew he was sick and he knew it would be the G.I. Bill,” Walz recounts.

A photograph of an infant held by a father.
Tim Walz as an infant held by his father, James.
Courtesy Photo

It also reinforced his belief that the government could provide a vital safety net.

Walz also lost a brother to tragedy. Craig Walz was killed in 2016 as a strong storm hit the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness while he was on a family camping trip.

A bride in class

Election 2018 Governor Minnesota
Gwen Walz, her husband, then Gov.-elect Tim Walz, and Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan talk with reporters during a news conference at their transition offices in the Minnesota State Capitol in 2018.
Anthony Souffle | Star Tribune via AP file

Tim Walz met Gwen Whipple while both were young teachers in Alliance, Neb. 

Not long after they married 28 years ago, they moved to Mankato, Minn. where both held teaching jobs — him in geography, her in English. 

It’s the state where Gwen was raised. Some actually pegged her as the future politician in the family having been a debate and speech coach at Mankato West.

They have two children, Hope and Gus.


A photo of a young couple
Scott Jensen (right) poses with Mary Bonifas, who he met at University of Minnesota while studying medicine.
Courtesy Image

Scott Jensen met Mary Bonifas when he was a University of Minnesota student on the medical track. 

They were fellow chemistry students and he caught her eye as she held a beaker.

She went on to a career as a veterinarian.

They have three children: Christy, Matt and Jackie.

The political tug

Jensen operated on the periphery of politics before putting his own name on a ballot.

He promoted Republican candidate Cal Ludeman’s campaign for governor in 1986, put in time as chairman of the Carver County Republican Party and helped steer a state House member’s campaign. 

In the early 1990s, he ran for the Waconia School Board after playing a big role earlier in getting a school referendum passed. He served for a decade and was ready to leave politics behind. But by 2016, he was being recruited to run for an open state Senate seat. He told suitors he wasn’t interested, but agreed to meet with a state lawmaker to hear him out.

He recalled his discussion with Mary afterward, “I said, ‘Isn't that the craziest idea? I mean, the last thing I need to do is run for the Senate,’” Jensen said. “And she said, `Well, it's not the craziest idea.’ So I said ‘Are you endorsing the idea?’ She said, ‘No, she's I just understand why they asked you.’”

He ran, won and served a single term.

Scott Jensen on "politics being tedious and tawdry"

Walz aimed high in his first bid for elective office: Congress.

He pulled an upset win in 2006, knocking off Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht in a Minnesota 1st Congressional District race that wasn’t prominent on the radar.

Walz had been building toward that run since a 2004 campaign rally in Mankato during Republican President George W. Bush’s re-election bid. In his re-telling, Walz said he was chaperoning some students to the rally, some of whom caught the eye of security for having a sticker for Bush’s opponent, John Kerry.

Tim Walz on 2004 Bush rally in Mankato

Walz ended up becoming a precinct captain for Kerry, where he reported to Chris Schmitter. That young Democrat would later help Walz campaign for Congress and is now his governor’s office chief of staff.

Walz would serve in Congress for 12 years.

Eyes on governor’s office

Walz’s six terms in the U.S. House gave him the stature that seniority can bring. He worked his way up to becoming the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

That perch also meant when President Donald Trump was sworn in, Walz would be among a select group of federal lawmakers who would be part of a traditional post-inaugural meal in the Capitol.

Tim Walz on the inspiration to run for governor.

When Jensen left the Legislature in early 2021, he was quietly building toward a run for governor.

He was elevating his profile while speaking out against the way COVID-19 was handled.

But the notion of running for governor one day first crossed his mind much sooner than that – even though he wasn’t sold on the idea himself.

Jensen said it was a meeting at the Governor’s Residence hosted by then-DFL Gov. Mark Dayton that first got him thinking he might be interested in being governor one day.

Scott Jensen on his inspiration to run for governor.

What would surprise people?

Running for governor can put a person through the ringer. The relentless TV ads criticize decisions or character. So what might surprise people if they knew?

Reading list

Both candidates say they’re avid readers. Walz says he favors books about history or science fiction novels. Jensen also likes fiction, such as mystery and spy thrillers.

Walz

Tim Walz on his affinity for science fiction.

Jensen

Scott Jensen on his book preferences.

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