For a governor who over four years got relatively little national exposure — at least not the kind he sought — it’s been a stark turn.
In his first term that attention was usually tied to a crisis — George Floyd’s murder and the resulting upheaval or fallout from COVID-19.
But since his re-election last November, Walz is nearing the number of cable TV news appearances he did in all of his first term, according to his office. And he’s using them to contrast his agenda in Minnesota to what’s happening in other states with Republican governors.
The latest move expected to garner notice beyond Minnesota came Wednesday when Walz staged a Little Free Library in his office lobby and stocked it with books facing bans or restrictions in school libraries in other states.
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“This isn't to pick a fight with someone,” Walz said when asked about his motivation. “This is just to make it very clear to Americans that there is a vast number of people who disagree with these policies that are meant to hurt and marginalize communities.”
But some are starting to wonder: What’s Walz up to?
There is no apparent lane for Walz to run for another office — if that’s what he ultimately wants.
Democratic President Joe Biden has said he intends to run again in 2024, and the state’s two Senators are Democrats, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar planning a third-term bid next year. His term as governor runs through early 2027.
U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, a fellow Democrat, said regardless of the goal, there’s a payoff.
“I have no idea what's at play,” Phillips said last week. “But I do like the fact that people like Governor Walz and other people of decency, moderation, pragmatism are finding some platform, because there's been a void of that. I think it's healthy for our country to start recognizing people like him.”
Walz has a luxury he didn’t have before: Democrats lead all levels of state government. Previously bottled-up bills are passing swiftly. His ideas aren’t being immediately discarded or falling to gridlock, as he told a rally this week.
“Here’s the new day: You might have noticed things are getting done around here recently,” Walz said as he promoted a paid-leave proposal long stuck in the Legislature and noted that it’s just one “wish-list” item that will get done this spring. “That list is a to-do list and we’re checking it off.”
Already this year, Walz has signed 18 bills. Notable ones protect abortion access, shift state energy policy, provide universal access to school meals and automatically restore voting rights to previously-incarcerated people.
Republican strategist Amy Koch, a former Senate majority leader, said it’s easy to see why Walz is getting national attention. He’s signing major bills, represents a purplish heartland state and has politically rural roots.
“The risk is that he oversteps and he sort of like loses that greater Minnesota cred to sort of the far further-left agenda,” Koch said.
But, she added, so far Walz has seemed to manage debates over identity and values without alienating the political center.
“I think he speaks about it in a way that people, they get it, right? He speaks about it in sort of a softer, friendlier, ‘let's all get along’ sort of way,” Koch said.
You don’t have to look far for states moving in opposite directions. Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota are all in solid Republican control and advancing conservative social and fiscal policies, including abortion bans and restrictions on gender affirming care.
Iowa’s governor campaigned for Walz's GOP opponent last fall, South Dakota’s isn’t shy about recruiting Minnesota businesses and North Dakota’s has threatened to sue over the newly enacted carbon-free climate policy.
“It’s true, I’m in a tough neighborhood,” Walz observed during a live event hosted in February by Politico, a Washington D.C-based publication.
Walz recently traveled to Florida for an Aspen Institute panel discussion on clean energy. Before departing Minnesota, he signed an executive order protecting access to transgender care and said he’d be talking about it while on the road.
“It's one thing to not be a bully,” Walz said. “It's another to be anti-bullying."
Within a week, he landed on the PBS NewsHour and CNN’s morning program. He also attracted criticism from Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
“In Minnesota, the governor, Tim Walz, just signed an executive order that forces state agencies to ensure gender-affirming care for minors,” Carlson said before going on to rip the action and comments from Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan during the signing ceremony.
Walz is sure to further inflame the political right with his Little Free Library showcase. The red schoolhouse library contains titles from Toni Morrison, George Orwell and Harper Lee along with other authors who have had their works pulled from shelves elsewhere.
For now, the library will be in place through March, which is reading month. But Walz said the run could be extended.
He said he’ll let those with other political viewpoints add their books as they wish. He said people should be able to pick what they read rather than have a government entity dictate what’s available.
“We're going to make very clear in Minnesota: For every book you banned in Iowa and Florida, we'll put 10 of them out in Minnesota,” Walz said as he announced the book display. “The idea of creativity and challenging young minds is absolutely the pinnacle. And what we do is to try and inspire growth and try and inspire knowledge.”