Walz’s surprising but important ally in COVID fight: Republican lawmakers

By: - March 30, 2020 5:42 am

Photo courtesy of Minnesota History Center.

Rush Limbaugh questioned the credentials and expertise of federal health officials Friday, even suggesting they are part of “the deep state” of government bureaucrats — which red-hatted partisans of President Donald Trump say is intent on undermining the 45th president.

Limbaugh’s comments follow a broader pattern among some Republican elected officials and talking heads of minimizing the threat of COVID-19 and accusing the media and Democratic public officials of exaggerating the danger so as to damage the economy and Trump’s reelection chances. 

Minnesota’s elected Republicans have taken a much different path, however.  

Republicans in the Legislature here voted nearly unanimously Thursday for a package of measures aimed at curbing the spread of the pandemic in Minnesota, which has recorded more than 500 cases and at least nine fatalities as of Sunday. They have also been broadly supportive of the emergency measures taken Gov. Tim Walz, the Mankato Democrat elected in 2018.

“The culture of Minnesota is more solution oriented than it is in Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who has been a consistent voice on social media urging Minnesotans to follow social distancing rules. “In Minnesota, we’re all in the same boat. If the boat is sinking, it makes sense to keep it afloat. Whereas in Washington half the people are running around the boat poking more holes in it.”

The Minnesota Business Partnership, which represents the state’s largest companies like 3M and Target and typically backs Republicans and their policies, has also been supportive of Walz’s policies, including the stay-at-home order that went into effect Friday night.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington

The bipartisan consensus could be a crucial ingredient to an effective Minnesota response. Despite Americans’ robust skepticism of politicians, people often take cues from elected officials, which means Republican officeholders should be able to persuade at least some of the rank-and-file that the emergency measures are necessary.

In a letter to her constituents, state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the Finance Committee, wrote that Minnesota “is doing well at containing the virus, and we have not yet seen an explosion of cases like other areas have. But that does not mean it’s time to return to normal; one of the reasons for our success is the measures that have been put in place over the past few weeks.”

The bipartisan comity also allows Walz to act quickly and decisively on controversial decisions — like putting much of the economy in a deep freeze — without worrying about immediate political ramifications.

Garofalo, who is the lead Republican on the influential House Ways and Means Committee that helps decide where the state should spend its money, has been warning members of his caucus about the pandemic for weeks.

As far back as March 10 — when Minnesota had recorded just five confirmed cases — Garofalo said publicly that extreme measures would soon be necessary.

“The data showed the disease was spreading far more quickly than other diseases and was far more lethal,” he said. Garofalo, who is a network engineer when not legislating, said he saw a now famously prescient presentation from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who warned in 2015 that civilization was not properly prepared for something like the new coronavirus that is causing an exponentially growing number of COVID-19 cases.

GOP officials in other states have also broken with the national party line. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has hewed closely to the advice of state Health Director Amy Acton and gave the same kind of stay-at-home order and closure of bars and restaurants as Walz.

There has been some GOP dissent in Minnesota, however.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, was one of the four nay votes in the House, questioning the lack of public input and transparency.

And, he said, the government response to the pandemic has been heavy-handed, arguing families best know how to care for themselves.

State Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, has minimized the risk of COVID-19, saying in a Facebook post that it poses “little risk to more than 95% of people” and should not be allowed to “pervasively dismantle employment.” His views carry particular weight because he’s a physician. 

(His fellow physician, state Sen. Matthew Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, rebutted Jensen, citing the disaster in Italy as cause for more drastic action.)

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he had “grave concerns” about Walz’s stay-at-home order, and called defeating the virus while not killing jobs “a delicate balance.” But he ultimately voted for the package and has yet to register anything like full-fledged opposition to Walz’s emergency measures.

Garofalo said minimizing the danger is a natural coping mechanism. “The moment the data says we can let up, we should. But as of March 28, we’re seeing the daily (national) fatality count double every three days. We don’t need what is happening in other places to happen to us in Minnesota.”

For those itching to see partisan combat at the State Capitol, Garofalo says, not to worry:  “Right now we’re united against a common enemy. But we’ve been spending money without figuring out how to pay for it,” he said. “Once the reality of a budget deficit shows up, then conversations at the Capitol are going to be much more challenging.” 

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children