Walz launches reelection campaign in divided Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Democratic Gov. Tim Walz launched his campaign for a second term Tuesday in an increasingly divided Minnesota, saying he made the tough calls necessary to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic and revive the economy.

“Peggy and I asked Minnesotans to come together and make a goal line stand, to fight COVID and protect the economy,” Walz, a former high school football coach, said on a YouTube video, as he stood on a football field with by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “The fight’s not over but we’ve got the ball back. We’re on offense, and we’re making progress.”

Walz said critics who tried to block his response to the pandemic are now trying to move Minnesota backward.

“Their dangerous views — discouraging vaccines and masking to help fight COVID — put politics ahead of science and put lives at risk,” Flanagan said.

The former congressman won office in 2018 on a theme of “One Minnesota,” a slogan he’s using again for 2022. But the fissures in Minnesotan politics have grown deeper since then, mostly disagreements over his management of the pandemic, as well as the unrest and spike in crime that followed the death of George Floyd.

In their announcement, Walz and Flanagan listed “taking the first steps towards police reform” as one of their main accomplishments and pledged to continue working toward improving police training and accountability while tackling crime and gun violence. They also said they would continue to lead on keeping children and families healthy and safe in the pandemic, grow the economy by investing in workers and small business, and give every child a world-class education as they work to rebuild a stronger Minnesota.

Walz enjoyed bipartisan success during his first legislative session, in 2019, despite a Legislature divided between a Republican-controlled Senate and a House with a Democratic majority. It wasn’t always pretty, but a budget surplus helped him work with all sides to agree in the end on a balanced budget that didn’t raise taxes or cut programs.

Then the pandemic hit in March 2020, and his relations soon frayed with Republicans who objected to his use of emergency executive powers to shut down businesses, schools and churches — and to mandate masks in public places — in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Then the streets of the Twin Cities erupted in May 2020 after Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer. Republicans attacked Walz for the slow response by law enforcement to the unrest that followed, which culminated in the burning of a police station before he sent in the National Guard to restore order.

Walz got little help from the November 2020 election. While Democrat Joe Biden won Minnesota by a comfortable margin, the Legislature remained divided between a narrowly Republican Senate and a House with an eroded Democratic majority. Fortunately for Walz, the state found itself flush with cash in the 2021 legislative session thanks to federal aid and a stronger-than-expected economy.

But bipartisan cooperation still isn’t coming easy, even though Walz has relinquished his emergency powers. Talks over allocating $250 million in bonuses for frontline workers have been deadlocked since summer. His proposals to add drought aid for farmers and regulatory relief for strained health care facilities to the mix for a special session have failed to gain traction with Senate Republicans, who are still threatening to use their powers to fire Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.

The early conventional wisdom is that the 2022 election in Minnesota will come down to the suburbs and certain larger cities in greater Minnesota that have been trending Democratic in recent elections, just as in 2020. While midterm elections tend to favor the party that’s out of power in the nation’s capital, one plus for Walz is that no Republican has won statewide office in Minnesota since Gov. Tim Pawlenty was reelected in 2006.

Among the more prominent GOP candidates, former state Sen. Scott Jensen, a family doctor, has become the early apparent frontrunner on a platform of skepticism about vaccines and pandemic restrictions.

“Rarely have we seen a more stark failure in leadership,” Jensen said in a statement criticizing Walz for closing businesses and locking down nursing homes during the pandemic, as well as for his handling of last year’s unrest and the rise in crime.

Former Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and state Sen. Michelle Benson are both stressing public safety and their roles in opposing Walz at the Legislature.

Gazelka issued a statement saying Walz “has consistently shown weakness and hesitation in the face of lawlessness and rising crime” while damaging the economy with his “overreach” on the pandemic.

“Tim Walz’s ‘One Minnesota’ mantra is not an appeal for unity; it is a cover for a coercive, one-size-fits-all approach to governing through more regulation and a bigger bite by government out of hard-working Minnesotans’ paychecks,” he said.

Benson said she continuously hears from Minnesotans who no longer feel safe in their communities, from law enforcement officers who don’t think he has their backs and from parents who worry about their children’s education. She called Walz’s “One Minnesota” vision “nothing but an empty promise.”