ST. PAUL — The year 2020 has tested state governors, often forcing the elected officials to chart a path for the state's coronavirus response and recovery.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz stood at the helm as the state opted for some of the toughest mitigation measures in the region and then in May as the police killing of George Floyd spurred calls for racial equity locally and around the world.
The first-term Democratic governor's decisions have altered the lives of Minnesotans at levels big and small over the last nine months. And they've been met with fierce opposition from struggling business owners, Republican lawmakers and fed-up Minnesotans.
Walz spoke with Forum News Service on Friday, Dec. 4, for a wide-ranging interview spanning several issues, including his response to the pandemic, how Minnesota has fared compared to its neighbors and equity in state government. He opened up about things he would've done differently, what keeps him up at night and what he hopes his legacy will be coming out of the pandemic. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Forum News Service: So I don't need to tell you, Governor, that the state has been through quite a bit this year — the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, political polarization, the election — what has been your approach to leading through this year?
Gov. Tim Walz: Yeah, I oftentimes have people come up and ask and say, you know, “I bet you didn't sign up for this.” I think you do these jobs, not with the idea that you're going to get to pick what the issue is of the time. We're responsive, and then you apply leadership principles to each of those situations.
I think one of the things I would say is that certainly my philosophy on this from a leadership perspective is to surround myself with incredibly competent people. And I think what's shown in this is the depth of the expertise that we have both around us and that we went out to find in building coalitions. I've always believed that this is about trying to get people to have a shared purpose and direction, motivate them to get to that, and then build that team around it. What we've seen is whether it was, because it's unimaginable that he would have had to build the most robust virus testing team that, you know, had ever been done.
And each state was left to do that, it was really a blank slate. And I think the good news there was to all the assets that Minnesota possessed both inside and outside government were there.
So my approach has been for our team to follow the data, follow the science. But you've seen us, especially around COVID, is to have a realistic understanding of what can you do? What can you do to help people understand why you're doing it? We put a premium on transparency, on data, and then for me, this worked well as a teacher, spending the extra time necessary to help folks in a very stressful situation for them and their families who are super busy, not having access to see some of the things that I see being able to put that into a format that they're able to see and then make some decisions from that.
FNS: How do you decide who's at the table helping inform you about these decisions and what are you asking of them?
TW: Yes, great question. And I think it goes back to, again, probably something I'm most proud of — and I think it's a theory that works — is how we constructed this team to make sure that the voices that were impacted by it were there. If you went back to that transition team and the folks that helped pick the candidates that then went in front of these selection committees and they got to me, I obviously knew people in my life as a member of Congress and as a teacher … but that would never have gone far enough.
So one of the things I pride myself on is that many of my commissioners, I had never met before. I had heard of them, I knew of their work, but they were selected based on the merit of what they can do by the people that were impacted, meaning if you were going to choose someone in housing, the housing advocates needed to be the ones that were most comfortable with that person. Same thing with health and so forth. And I think that was the best way to try and find that.
I think elected officials don't understand that elected officials many times are the least qualified people to hold those positions in those agencies.
FNS: I know you've talked quite a bit about wanting to make the state more equitable. Do you have any sort of examples of how the state has grown in that way, how the state has become more equitable?
TW: I got asked this question and it's, you know, kind of an ancillary part of this is you talk about “One Minnesota” and are we closer to that?
I wouldn't necessarily say that (we meet) that measure today, but if you look at the underlying structures that we're changing, we will eventually get there. And I would say the empowerment of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, their ability and they were instrumental in helping the state in a bipartisan manner pass a (police) reform package. I think, again, I'm very cautious making the case because I think in many cases it does. It certainly appears superficial, in some cases, it is superficial talking about the hires that you make and making sure people in positions of power who are entitled to make those decisions, understand their communities. We have searched deep on that but I would hope that it goes deeper than that, that they have been empowered. Those leaders have been empowered to bring their lived experiences to the decision making that will eventually make that difference. But I think right now we need to be measured by results.
And I think there's little doubt that we have not closed our achievement gap in education. I think we are making structural changes to get there, but COVID exacerbated those and they still exist. And I think folks will tell you that you don't need to look that much further than that day and in late May when George Floyd died that we've got work to do.
But I do think the structural changes are happening. I think the conversation, the package that passed Legislature, not being the end and I don't want to put that out, the fact that we did that. It is a credit to the Legislature to move a fairly comprehensive package around police reform. So I think there are examples there but I do want to be very clear, this work is generational. You have to change the format.
I would like to say one more example and this is where you need to verify with them, I think this degree of consultation with the 11 Indigenous tribes in Minnesota is a way that they're starting to get more equity. And again, that's not new. We're always going to be really getting to the point about a true relationship with our tribal nations ... the expectation, consultation and representation are absolutely ironclad that we meet that expectation.
FNS: I have a lot of readers who’ve expressed frustration about casinos being allowed to remain open while restaurants might not be open in their communities. Can you talk about tribal sovereignty and the way you've worked with tribal leaders and perhaps other business leaders?
TW: Yeah, this issue about mitigation efforts around COVID and the pandemic … I think it's critically important that there wasn't a ton there, we ended up going to go back and looking at 1918, looking at other examples of where mitigations were used, (during) cholera but what and I think we were trying to and I think we have done that, as the information changed, I've often said this when I was in my congressional office, when the facts dispute the ideology you change the ideology. And I think we tried to continue to do that.
The one right now that is challenging is the bars and restaurants.
This whole idea that the casinos get to do what they want to do and they're benefitting, l want to be very clear, the state's responsibilities are treaty rights obligations, whether it is the federal government's responsibility to pay for education, health care. Those are not communities that hit the lottery. They traded that for the land that was theirs and that expectation that we would fulfill that. And the idea of sovereignty is, these tribes are not like a county, they have both a federally protected and the courts have upheld this, they have a status of nation-status.
They have health officials and they work directly with Jan Malcolm and health commissioners, but the tribal chairwoman is not going to be in a meeting without me being there. The expectation is that those are government-to-government relationships. And you would not send in a governor to speak with someone in another state without speaking with the governor.
It just goes back to that understanding — they have worked closely as partners to use best practices, both learning from us and us now working together to see what did you do? … But it's not my right nor do I have the capacity to tell them.
I think there is a real deep misunderstanding about the legal and moral responsibility you have to sovereign nations.
FNS: Turning a little bit to just the states around us, Minnesota has been sort of an island in implementing stricter measures than we've seen in the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin. At the end of this, is there any way to recoup damages from those states after they didn't take steps that could have helped residents there or residents in Minnesota?
TW: Well, this is a fascinating question. I think, you know, it's incredible that this damage of the red state, blue state, the damage that I mean, it's almost incomprehensible to me that you would have a president of the United States that decided to choose during this pandemic to talk about how different states were doing things and just send out tweets to Gov. Whitmer, Northam and myself, to say liberate Virginia and Michigan and Minnesota. That caused immense problems.
And so that part has been incredibly, incredibly frustrating. I think there's data that show if we had the death rate per hundred thousand of South Dakota, we would not have 3,700, I would have over 7,200 Minnesotans dead. So, you know, we're not going to be able to recoup. There have been studies that came out in October that show the Sturgis rally cost the nation about $12 billion. That was early on.
MORE MINNESOTA POLITICS: Read more from Dana Ferguson in St. Paul
That has a ripple effect. I just think it's unfortunate that we did not have a more national, centralized structure. Imagine trying to fight World War II, that each state decided how they were going to do it. When we decided we weren't going to listen to the Pentagon, that we would make our own decisions about, you know, what we were going to land on June 6 or not. That's insane.
And I think that principle applies here. So certainly I’m disappointed it became ideological. I don't understand it. I don't understand, especially around masking and some of the basic principles. And I think what we've always known is, this was not a choice between the economy and health, the two go hand-in-hand. And so now, of course, whether it be death rates or the number of cases, they have soared way past where we're at. And their economic recovery has shown to be no stronger, in many cases weaker than what we have.
So, no, and I'm trying to maintain relationships, you know, with every governor. I will be candid and say it's pretty strained with South Dakota because it appears like there was a very aggressive proactive take to go at other governors for the decisions they made and mock those decisions I have never seen that before, I've never seen it anywhere else. And I'm not quite sure what to make of it, but it has had a negative consequence, there's no doubt about that.
FNS: I know that you have worked with other Midwestern governors to come up with policies or ideas that have worked and can work across the region. Were Govs. (Doug) Burgum (North Dakota) or (Kristi) Noem (South Dakota) asked to join some of those conversations?
TW: Yeah, I think the group that really, you know, we spend a lot of time and in fact, I facilitated a discussion this afternoon that Speaker Pelosi will be on with some of us. But that's been obviously Gov. Evers, it was Gov. Whitmer, Gov. Pritzker, Gov. Beshear, Gov. Holcomb, Gov. DeWine, kind of the Great Lakes governors and we did early on ask, and I will say this, my relationship and communication with Gov. Burgum I very much value, I consider him a friend.
He, in many ways, he was ahead of the nation in certain things. But I think the politics made it difficult for him. I don't want to speak for him, to be able to implement. And I think he ran into that problem so many of us had is that the science and the mandate we put out has to match with compliance of your citizens. And that became pretty difficult.
I will just be candid, we have virtually no communication with South Dakota. And I really hate that because I served with Gov. Noem. I considered her a friend. We worked on many things together, and in fact, we often partnered on ag issues and certain things. We did a lot and we partnered together on ethanol, biofuels. But I will say, since the start of the pandemic, that has changed pretty dramatically.
The president's approach to this and, you know, the division of politics made it so incredibly difficult for these folks to govern.
FNS: What would Minnesota look like if we took the path that South Dakota or North Dakota did, or if you had a Republican Legislature that could block the peacetime emergency?
TW: I think that's the thing that you often in this thing you get asked to prove a negative. And what I say is when I'm putting my proposals forward, they are proposals made with health care folks, with the best folks in that field, you know, being part of the suggestions to it. I think it's very clear that, again, it's hard to do apples to apples.
Just to be clear, Minnesota's population, if you take the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin, which is a very similar population. But the difference is, is none of those states have an urban core of about 3 million like we do. And so we look in some cases like New Jersey or other places like that. With that being said, I often hear, you know, well, if we'd have kept open, these businesses would've been thriving so any businesses that closed, Gov. Walz is responsible for.
Actually, the data shows the states that took that road, they're not in any better position. Wisconsin's unemployment rate will actually go as far as the total economic output that we will probably get a better decision. But here's the one that I do think matches and it pretty hard. This is a 2+2=4 kind of thing, is that you can measure by the decisions you make in one of the things that every statistic the Kaiser Foundation and other looks at is deaths per 100,000. If I had mirrored South Dakota, as we said, instead of having right now 3,700 deaths, which is horrific in itself, we would be closer to 7,200 deaths. And the thing that we could not yet know is would that have been exacerbated further? Because the population we have here, that would have overwhelmed the hospitals sooner rather than later.
And the unknown in this that I think is unconscionable, that people aren't feeling the responsibility for, we don't know what the long-term damage of these infections are going to be. And the idea that you would not try and prevent as many as you could until we got to a safe place with the vaccine is pretty irresponsible.
Here in Minnesota, certainly, we’re not perfect in our response, we continue to try and learn, but the fact is six weeks ago we were 21st in infection rates while Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin were 1, 2, 3 and 5 and now we’re there with them.
If your neighbor’s house is on fire, and they choose not to put it out, those flames lead to you and that’s what happened.
FNS: Governor, are there things that you would do differently, knowing what you know now about the virus and about pandemic response?
TW: Yeah, God forbid, if this ever happened again, I do think there are things that we certainly would have done differently. I said I think we would have done more on masks and enforced that earlier. I think that could have made a difference.
I think being strategic around the lockdown, I think we would have still gone with a pretty robust lockdown, but we would not have done it all the way out or tried to, I think in the lockdown, what we learned is things like retail, especially smaller retail if done right, poses little risk.
And then I think there needs to be a way to figure out how you do education. But we've done pretty well on medicine, know the strength there. But we now have a strategic stockpile of personal protective equipment because every government state in the nation was told they had this thing. So we didn't have it. We're not going to make that mistake again. We have our own here and I think I would try to figure out a way out of no matter what happens we have got to keep children in school and safe as a top priority. And we did not. And to figure out how to do that early on. I think we're getting closer now.
So I think that sort of things retrospectively looking at what about this and that and then just candidly, I wrack my brain daily and I'm trying again around the vaccine because I want the vaccine to be totally nonpartisan. I want Republican legislators for the first time since March to stand with me on something on COVID and say, The governor's with us and we're with the governor, no daylight between us. This is a gameplan on rolling out the vaccine and this is how we're going to do it.
I can try and I think we're going to get even harder to try and do that. But I have to tell you, I'm all for the things I can do. But at every move, President Trump made it very difficult for us to do that.
Working together is one thing, but I was never going to accept their premise that this was not a real thing and that we should just let everything go back to normal. So their complaint is, “the governor doesn't listen to us.” I'm not going to listen to you on something that goes against all the data, goes against all of the best practices. And just that the Legislature doesn't have the same responsibility I do with the executive in this. Each and every one of those decisions is going to impact lives, and I have to be responsible for that.
So I will acknowledge that in a history of two years, we've done some pretty good things in a bipartisan split government. And then this thing got blown apart because it became ideological.
I'm still daily getting letters from Republican legislators who say, “This is outrageous,” holding everything up. And on the same day, I get letters from their hospital that says, “Oh, for God’s sakes, do not listen to them on this. We are overwhelmed, we have no bed space.”
And that's the type of thing going on. But I do acknowledge and I hope you see this and I'm going to do the thing that you're not supposed to do in politics. I've been telling you how to set the bar really high and ask us to try and get there. I want the vaccine rollout to be a bipartisan endeavor so that when the constituents of Republican legislators wonder, is this vaccine safe? Is it a fair distribution? Are they doing all they can to get it to us? I want them to say, “Well, I don't know if I believe Gov. Walz, but I believe Sen. So-and-so and he told me that's what we need to do.”
That reduces the chances. And in all fairness, there are Republican legislators now who have taken to telling their folks, “Wear the mask, it works.” So that part of retroactively looking back and going forward, lessons learned is something I'll continue to try to do.
FNS: What has the impact been to the state of having this pandemic become such a politically polarizing issue?
TW: Yeah, well, again, not to cry over spilled milk but I appreciate you asking the question because a lot of times this gets into two sides that he said this and he said that and no, there are not two sides. All the available evidence shows that you can reduce the spread of COVID-19 in an effective manner by wearing a mask.
And it would be one thing if they said, “I don’t want to wear a mask so I’m not going to do it,” but they actively promoted not doing it, they actively mocked me when I said, “Do not gather in large numbers.” And you have leadership, elected leadership, sending out pictures of large crowds gathering at a President Trump rally and acting like they're sticking it to the libs or sticking it to the governor. My concern when I see that picture is, oh, my God, the nurses eventually here — 14-21 days down the line — this is going to come. So I, again, and I think you go back and look, I have a track record that I'm proud of, being bipartisan, of not interjecting. You don't hear me say, “Republicans didn't do this, Republicans didn't do that.” I don't do that very often. But on this one, they actively undermined public health guidance to the detriment of our response.
And for that, I am deeply disappointed, quite candidly, very angry. And when I hear them say,”The governor doesn’t work with us,” that's not true. They have to approve every single expenditure because we set that up, we did it together. This whole idea that you get to blame me for the businesses, but don't have to take any responsibility for the deaths or overcrowding at the hospital that, simply, has made it very difficult to get things done.
So I believe, candidly, that starting with the president and starting with the polarization of this public health issue, that directly contributed — because it certainly isn't the intelligence or the innovation of the American people or the, you know, the resiliency of us — we have done this worse than any other nation. You can't explain that because we have more money, more technology and we've done hard things before. The only thing that explains this is we were not unified in our approach to attack this and it has caused countless deaths and anguish that's out there. And again, there'll be an accounting of this and I'm frustrated by it. That's why I think we need to pivot on this and we need to go on how we move to the next phase, which is continuing to stop the spread and moving towards the vaccination process.
FNS: Have you seen any change of heart or change of tone from Minnesota Republicans around pandemic response?
TW: Yes, they have. There are legislators who stood up over these past couple weeks and said, “Hey, this polarization around masks, it doesn't help us, just help us out and wear the mask.”
I hate it that they seem to get a lot of hell about that but I think I do think that there's a change, I do think there's a desire. And the conversation we had about the relief package and then that kind of segwaying into the vaccine plan … that has been the best conversation, I think in a bipartisan candid respectful way of everybody all the way around that we've had in quite some time, and I think, again, people did not recognize Democratic legislators, Republican legislators, me as governor and others. Our ability to work together over the last couple of years has been the outlier in the country. It really has. And that's something I'm very proud of.
FNS: Governor, what do you hope your legacy will be in the way that you govern this year?
TW: I would just hope that people said, “He did what's right, he didn't do what was easy, he did it for the right reasons.” As I said, time and time again, and I recognize this, it's not politically popular to tell people hard things. It's just like with your children. It doesn't make you the good parent when you say, “Eat the broccoli,” it's better to buy the PS5 or whatever.
But in this case, I hope people say that he followed the science. He was compassionate, that every Minnesotan mattered, and that he made the best decisions possible at the time. And then I think one thing that's important to me is that I took responsibility for the decisions that were on but that I was very clear that the things that were right because of Minnesotans, because of innovative leaders, because of partnerships.
FNS: Governor, what keeps you up at night?
TW: I'm worried about what's happening with our children. I'm trying to think of ways to how do we get them caught back up? How do we make sure that this experience for them while it will be a defining part of their life is a positive, that they're in the moment, that they overcome the challenges?
I certainly would never want any generation to have to live through WWII or the Depression. I think many of us, the lessons we saw that came out of this, the sense that built the legacy of who this country is, who we are as a people, I would hope we start to find some of that. I'm not naive, there was not unanimous support around plans in 1918, support around that pandemic, that there were a lot of similarities with what's happened now, but I think it's probably worse. That keeps me up and I worry that we don't use this as an opportunity, especially in the middle of all this.
With the issue on George Floyd and confronting an honest history that has incredible contributions to the human race and that sense of pride that came out of this great state, but that human things where we failed and there's no shame in that. The shame comes if we don't address it.
And I think it keeps me up because the love that we have for this state, the uniqueness of it, the things that drew me here, that made this place so special. Those things are all still there. But we don't get to just tell them that rosy history that fits us.
I'm concerned when I see people falling into camps, seeing people saying we have to protect our way of life against the other. Who's the other? The other is your neighbor, they're us, and so I am concerned and it keeps me up and it also keeps me up in a way of planning and thinking about what can come out of this, the world is going to look different. Certain industries are not going to come back the same way. But certain things are OK.
And I do think that sense of just how precious some of the things we have that COVID has exposed, that George Floyd has exposed, that we have the opportunity to make it a little better because this is a special place. As I looked across the country, and this state, as I saw it, I thought this is the way it should be. They value children, they value education, science, business, all of those things. So I want to make sure that what's happened this year, that we're defined by how we respond to it, not by this year alone.
Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email firstname.lastname@example.org