“It only laid bare what was already there”: The Walz Reformer interview transcript

By: - September 21, 2020 7:15 am

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz speaks in the governor’s reception room of the State Capitol building in St. Paul Thursday, September 17, 2020. Walz has encountered twin crises in the pandemic and police killing of George Floyd that will define his first term. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

This post has been updated to correct a Walz error. 

Minnesota Reformer: What is the plan for the budget deficit? 

Walz: We’re working it. And I, you know, obviously it’s about revenues. We got news last week that revenues were up about 15.1% over May projections. So that’s about $200 million. Hopefully, and we see some of the projections, first quarter of 2021, I think the economists are showing a 3.1% quarter, obviously that can be impacted by numerous things. 

But with that being said, we have to balance the budget, and I’ve sent out the guidance — as I’m required by law, to my agencies, and what I’m asking them to do is put together the whole spectrum of scenarios of what it’s going to take to get us to a balanced budget. And when I say that it makes everybody angry. Because when I say we have to look at everything, there’s a group of people who hears tax increases, you know, and then there’s a group of people who say, well, you’re gonna have to cut services or people. As in so many things, we’re gonna have to, we’re gonna have to be creative, we’re going to have to be thoughtful. 

And I keep saying this that because of some of the issues that have been exposed, that we knew were already there, the inequities in education, homeownership and everything, especially in the Black community, that we’re going to have to think about what does Minnesota’s economy look like and what is going to be our role in that. So we’re starting that now. 

We’ve been at it for awhile. Some of it was forced upon us by the inability for a deficiency in a supplemental budget. That’s when you saw Togo and Willow River in the Department of Corrections and Department of Human Services, and so those are triage-in-the moment-cuts because that’s the only thing I can do without the Legislature. And then we’re gonna have to start figuring out, I’ll get on a call right after this to talk to (Senate Majority Leader) Paul Gazelka. We’re gonna have to figure out how to work together one way or another to get this done.

MR: So you’re considering some mix of tax increases? 

Walz: I want to look at what they come up with. And I’m not trying to not answer but I think at this point in time, I don’t think it’s fair to all the stakeholders and to the folks that are doing this that I’m asking them to come up with me and show me how we do this. Tell me what it looks like and I’ve spent time obviously before Commissioner Frans left with he and Commissioner (Cynthia) Bauerly and now with Commissioner Schowalter have, they’ve taken the time, the budget director Britta Reitan has taken the time to show me exactly where we’re at, where the projections are going and where some potential points to balance this are at. So I’m just saying at this point, I’m not committing, you know what that will look like. But I’m preparing people to say it’s going to be a — it’s gonna have to be a lot of things.

MR: When it comes to tax increases are there any principles that will that will guide you?

Walz: Well, and I again, I always remind the GOP senators, that at least till this point, almost two years in, I might be the only (DFL) governor who’s never raised taxes in my term, which I did not, none. But I said I, I think you have to be honest about what you’re looking for. I obviously tried to do a gas tax to pay for roads, bridges. We had some safeguards built in, but it is a bit regressive. I just want to make sure that we don’t do anything in a very fragile economy that hurts the economy. I think there does need to be a fairness, it needs to be progressive taxation. And … it would be ideal that we would have some bipartisan support of what it’s going to take because, I mean, the one size fits all, that doesn’t work, especially in a budget crisis. You gotta lay everything on the table. But I just think that making sure they’re progressive, make sure we protect those and the economy can least afford to have it. I’m worried, obviously the hospitality industry… it’s tough, tough.

MR: You came in probably with the idea that you were going to be an education governor. And that was going to be your focus. Obviously, everything has changed, although in some ways, the two intervening major events have only drawn attention to it more, when we consider probably the divergence of children in a privileged background versus those less than privileged. Where are we on education and addressing those racial disparities, which you said from the beginning were the biggest challenge facing the state?

Walz: I appreciate that question because I think you’re exactly right. Like so many things it only laid bare what was already there. I think I still have the potential to be that education governor, but I think it’s going to take some really bold moves. It’s going to take some help from the Legislature for us to get there. I think we’re gonna have to rethink how we fund education. And I talked about that with, you know, referendums and those types of things. … I got asked a question: “You ran on ‘One Minnesota ‘ — boy, we’re a long ways from that right now, aren’t we?” And what I would say was, while I would have never anticipated what happened after George Floyd was killed, on that scale, I was deeply worried when I was running on ‘One Minnesota’ that that was brewing right there. We were already splitting and it was getting harder and harder. They were pushing this idea that greater Minnesota was so estranged from the Twin Cities that we couldn’t even imagine how others live. And there were those that just kept fomenting that difference, kept fomenting it, so I mean, one of the reasons I was running on that was my fear that there would be this break that would be irreconcilable. I don’t believe that that’s the case. But I do believe if we don’t work on that it’s going to be very difficult for this state to reach its full potential, it’s going to be very difficult for folks to, to benefit.

And I think the irony of this is while the racial inequities in education, we also saw during COVID-19, the geographic inequities of COVID because of lack of broadband or lack of resources. I was out, and I’m doing these school tours, and it’s successful because the local folks are really adapting, they’re taking our guidance, we’re doing this right. But a lot of that is predicated on, do you have the capacity to be able to have a physical plant that allows you to do some things? Are you stuck in an old building? Do you have the capacity to have broadband? Do you have the resources to do 50% on busing, those types of things, so I’m still committed to it.

I said at the end of May, and I still do believe this if we don’t address this issue, especially around race and inequities now, I don’t think you get another chance at it. It just becomes that, you know, irreconcilable split or division just starts to spiral down. How do we continue to be a state of choice where people want to live? And again, the numbers are the numbers. The demographics are what they are: 70% of Minnesota’s workforce is going to have to come from communities of color. Well, if they don’t feel welcome or part of this, they’re not going to be here. And that is going to of course going to be a drag on the economy. 

MR: So just to follow up on the education thing. What are your plans? 

Walz: Medicine started moving in this direction, personalized medicine, you know the medicine and the drugs and the way we approached it was for you and your issues. What I feel like the teachers are getting at is they’re personalizing education more so now than ever before. We used to have, you know, multiple ways of delivering inside a classroom to make sure that you weren’t just lecturing, you were giving it on a visual side, you were doing some other things so that you were reaching different learners in the same classroom. I feel like right now, and this is something that we can apply to this gap, that we’ve gotten better at that individualized education, and how teachers are viewing that because now they are truly — they’re delivering content in classroom, their delivering a hybrid, they’re delivering it via you know, distance learning, and they’re thinking about the individual situation for that child. And I would hope that they would start applying that to that individual child’s you know, whether there’s trauma, whether there’s historical trauma in that, what the … economic situation looks like in that community to make sure we’re taking it right to them. So I think the physical delivery of education is — the situation with COVID is forcing us to figure out how to do that. So I’m somewhat hopeful. 

MR: We’re at 35% of students are kids from communities of color; 5% of teachers. And one of the problems is that until you reach a level of seniority, you’re first on the chopping block, to get laid off. Any solutions on that front?

Walz: Well, I think it starts on the front end of recruiting, we’re going to have to figure out how to get them in. I’ve said this, I think we need to set up programs that help with making sure we can get them through and get them licensed. We need to make sure that this is something that again, there’s a bit of a privilege that comes with this — student teaching with no pay. How do you do that? That’s really hard. And I think we need to set that up so our student teachers of color are being paid and can start to figure that out, and then giving incentives to the district so that we’re not looking at cutting. And I know this is a labor issue. I’m certainly not going to wade into that. But I feel like and I’m hopeful of this. Education Minnesota is really pushing this issue.

Granted, the University of Minnesota is a land grant university — it’s not education alone, as you might think of a Mankato State — but last year, the University of Minnesota, if I’m not mistaken, graduated, no teachers of color.*  None. And so I’m trying to encourag, and the group that’s doing the best in this — I’ll just in full disclosure, because my wife is over there — but I think Augsburg is doing a fine job of starting to figure this out. So yes we’ve got to figure out a way to creatively get folks in. You’re right about the retention. And it’s not even so much, many times because the cuts that come — half of all teachers, any teachers leave in the first five years, the number is much higher for teachers of color keeping and some of that might be they get moved from one building to another. Things happen. So we’ve got to do a better job of that, that has probably been one of our biggest failures as a state and in this first year, we’ve not figured out quite how to do that. I had grants in my budget, they were not approved. I need to come back and fight for those again. 

MR: Have you talked to John Thompson?

Walz: I have not. 

MR: Why not? He’s destined to be a member of the Legislature soon.

Walz: I think if you go back and look at my public statements the ability to have the discourse that works, we can’t cross that line. And I think what I would like to see is, I would like to see, you know, how is he going to address that? What’s he going to say? And again, and I get it, this is very touchy, because… this idea that we have a Black man in the midst of George Floyd, that it’s coming at him, but I mean, you can’t cross a line with that. I disagree and have spoken about it a little bit publicly that I don’t think (Minneapolis Police Federation President Bob) Kroll helps our situation in Minneapolis at all, but I certainly do not condone going to his house or dragging his family into things, and so at this time, I’m just, I’m still looking at it. I mean, it bothers me. It’s a tough situation. I’m trying to figure out what we do with it. 

MR: Also this week, the Minneapolis City Council found themselves begging the chief of police to do something about the rising gun violence and violent crime in Minneapolis. What is your message to the City Council, which just in June said they wanted to begin the process of ending the police department there?

Walz: Well, local entities are in charge, I think contrary to what people would think after they saw in June, the state is not a policing agency. The State Patrol does our highways and that, but that is not our role. Our role is there to try and support them. I tell people that we can get this right because up until this year, of the 10 Great Lakes and upper Midwestern states, we have the lowest crime rate. We are seeing increasing crime, it is unacceptable. If we’re going to expect folks like Deluxe to move back downtown in Minneapolis, they have an expectation of safety. And I believed early on that it was not this either/or. There’s certainly the break of trust, and the outrageous, and we’ll let the courts decide but criminal activity that led to George Floyd’s death. Anybody who’s covered Minneapolis knows that’s nothing new — that has been there for quite some time. But the jump to how do we maintain security got very quickly into the political sound bite side of things and I anticipated in my gut, my thoughts were, we’re going to find the right balance here of public safety that does involve police officers, but does understand that if we’re having a situation that warrants a social worker there, how do we figure out how to make that happen?  And again, whether it’s businesses or with communities in north Minneapolis, it’s trying to figure out, restore the trust, make sure that there’s a voice of the community in that policing, but you’re going to need to provide security to the community. And I think that’s what they’re doing. I think the good news about that decision might be as, as people are starting to dig into this, it’s obviously much more nuanced and complex than that it sounded like in talking points.

MR: Do you think the City Council — and hindsight is 20/20 — but do you think they erred in coming out right away and saying defund the police?  

Walz: I’m not going to judge on them because there was no city in America that was prepared for what happened in that aftermath. That trauma, both to the Black community and to the city as a whole, was visceral and intense and I think there was a desire to bring some conclusion in the moments to it. And so I’m not going to second guess where they were at. I do think though the complexity of this, and I knew at the time, this is going to be ongoing. And I have made the effort, I think the city has made the effort, that the state plays a role in this as partners, but they’re going to have to lead; they’re going to have to lead on these things. And that means policing. They’re also going to have to lead on housing, but we’re glad to be there with them on unsheltered, you know, the unsheltered folks, but I’m not going to second guess them. I’m going to say this is incredibly complex and difficult. I do think now watching this, that there’s an awful lot of voices being heard, which is good across that spectrum,

Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

MR: We could have more unrest with the verdict of former officers accused of killing George Floyd. Mayor Jacob Frey has said that the state was slow to react. What are the lessons learned from the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday night of that week? 

Walz: I think Mayor Frey responded and requested as quickly as he could have and I think we responded and provided that as quickly as we could’ve. What I’ve learned by this is we need to make sure that mayors and city councils understand exactly what we have. … It’s not as if we have a can that we take off the shelf and it’s immediately there. I have to get somebody who’s working and doing their job at their small business in Fergus Falls to report to their Army unit to get down and then being asked, at a time when civil unrest and rioting that — unless you were 60 years old, you’ve never seen it, the Watts riots, on that type of scale.

And so the lessons learned from this is we need to do tabletop exercises and rehearsals on what this is going to look like. People knew this. That’s why when they were going to hold the Super Bowl, they did that stuff for 18 months. But just as a general principle, that wasn’t happening. So if I asked, and I think if you ask an average mayor, what can the state provide you if you’re in one of these situations, and how fast we expect them to get here. So this idea that the state didn’t respond fast enough is, well what type of experience you folks have to know what that was going to look like.

What I do know is, knowing that what cities are going to need and if their police forces are not going to be able to handle it, then I can start planning a little bit on lead time we can start thinking about where we stage folks. And we can start thinking about, do we expand a rapid reaction force that doesn’t have to come from Fergus Falls, and can be there almost immediately. That’s something that I talked to governors all the time — no other states were doing that.

And I think what you saw was, in that short time, we saw that horrific suicide, and then the social media misinformation that led to that small burst of rioting down on Nicollet Mall and all that. You saw it differently, not because we didn’t respond as quickly the first time. It’s because being ready for that situation and being sitting there, and again, I can’t keep a force of 7,000 National Guard and 1,000 State Patrol on call 24/7, and I think the lesson learned there was how quickly those things can accelerate. And that communication amongst — people don’t think about this: Radio frequencies. How you gonna do it? Who’s the chain of command? Where’s the center in the cell that’s controlling everything? And how are you moving information down to folks on the ground? And as I said, and so clearly twisted, the National Guard doesn’t train for civil disobedience, you might have been Military Police. But if you’re an aviator, a helicopter pilot, you were trained in basic military skills, but the idea — you can’t arrest people, and coming in at night, into a city you don’t know, in a command structure you’ve never rehearsed with or practiced with, and there were credible threats of people wanting to kill you. Not to mention, there’s a balance here, if you remember, a lot of the peaceful unrest and then evolved into the rioting; they were angry with police. So to see more of them, makes people more angry. So I just think it’s the communication piece. I think it’s the rehearsals and I think it’s the assumption in today’s world, with social media and things, these things can accelerate far faster than then people would have thought.

MR: We are anticipating is a wave of evictions. We had the moratorium in place. That seems like a Band-Aid. 

Walz: Yeah, the $100 million in rental assistance will help. And, again, for those I always talk about our toolbox of things, those who said we should end the … emergency powers right away. That would mean the evictions would start now, and the only thing backfilling that at this point in time until Dec. 31, is the president’s eviction moratorium, but they didn’t put any money into helping us. This one’s going to take collaboration and I think it’s important to say this, the vast majority of property owners and landlords have really done what they needed to do to help accommodate people. But they also have mortgages to the banks and in many of the cases, and… this warms my heart, the banks have been accommodating in allowing no interest to accumulate on this, allowing these folks to change some of their terms on their loans to them with the idea that we come out of this thing, can we work from tenant to landlord, to lienholder, with some assistance from the state — hopefully the federal government — can we ease people back to a point where they’re back whole again and they’re paying? That’s my hope.

The landlords get this, it doesn’t do any good for them to lose tenants if there’s nobody else to come in behind because the sheer numbers that will be out of apartments will be horrific. So I think the $100 million will help, I think the collaboration that I’m seeing, I hope that our willingness to say we’re going to protect people that COVID-19 put at risk. But I’m going to listen, when some of these building owners say, ‘Hey, some folks are using this as a shield. And there’s some folks here that are dangerous and need to be removed.’ We actually tried to work with them on that. And I think that created some goodwill with them because I’m going to need them because again, if there’s not legal protections, once this thing comes off, you’re absolutely right, it’s probably worse than a Band-Aid, it’s a tourniquet and then you’re going to release the tourniquet and it would be horrific. The hopeful thing for me in the recovery of this is, unlike 2009, there was a fundamental problem with you know, the subprime loans and the housing bubble, that caused catastrophic movement, we might be a little bit — and again, not to soften the blow for jobs that have gone away and things like that — but a lot of economists think we could get a little steeper recovery afterwards and hopefully that will ease that.

MR: A reader asked about ‘mom and pop’ landlords — they bought the house next to theirs, fixed it up and rent it. What do you say? They have Section 8 tenants…

Walz: Those who say well, you know the governor cut off all these businesses or whatever, well, the virus actually did and we followed it on but wherever you’re at, federally and state, we asked people to stay home, we asked people to leave their jobs. Most nations in the world provided relief, and we did a pretty good job of the $600 additional (unemployment) and then the $300 you added on. The purpose of that was to allow people to stay home and squash the virus and still pay their bills. Now here as a nation, we’ve screwed this up, and drug it out so long, we’re not providing any more relief, Congress went home without providing the next one because they want to pretend like this is over. And all of that dumps back down to those mom and pop landlords.

What I’m still saying, and I went last week testified in front of Congress, this is where the federal government needs to get us some help. And I have to tell you, I think … those small mom and pops, and the hospitality industry, we need to do more with that, in addition to helping the states now, I know that the Senate has made it clear, they don’t care about that, but Sen. (Mitch) McConnell’s idea that states go bankrupt, states will not go bankrupt, they will just cut services to the most vulnerable, which will deepen the recession (and) make the economy worse. I mean, that is pretty much how this plays out every time.

So what I would say to them is, I do think there’s a responsibility for us to do more support. I do think, after the November election, I am much more hopeful that there will be a desire to do that. And again, my hope is by the end of the year. Keep in mind, all this money we have, all the money we moved out to the counties and to the cities — and Minnesota moved more to the counties and cities than any other state — they have to have that done and spent by the 31st of December and it ends. So when I’m out there at the schools who are doing a fabulous job, they got everything set up, but the superintendent tells me, what do I do January 1? No more additional money, can’t do double buses, can’t buy more PPE, what’s going to happen then? And the state’s asking the same question, and that’s why it was insane to go in front of Congress and members of Congress, I mean, I was there and I’m damn glad I wasn’t in Congress after I heard these questions. ‘Well, Governor, your state’s only spent 26% of the money we gave you.’ I said I have 93% of it allocated out to be spent by the 31st. ‘Well, why are you here asking for more money? You haven’t spent yours yet?’ I’m like, do these people spend their entire paycheck on the day they get it? Or do they not figure out how to get to the end. We’ve done a really good job. I can pay for testing all the way up to the 31st of December. What do I do on the first of January? So my commitment is to try and do what we can to bring folks back, but I’m going to need federal help.  Our budget won’t allow us to do it. 

Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

MM: Are there certain benchmarks where you’re willing to give up the emergency powers? Or is that going to be with the vaccine?

Walz: Yeah. Two months ago. And again, the emergency powers are the toolbox we open up, we’ve taken some tools out, we put some back in. Things like the moratorium, the testing regime, some of it was as I needed it, I needed to waive truck weights, so I could transport dead hogs that couldn’t be processed and I needed that money to bury them. That had to happen quickly so that we didn’t have, you know, a cholera outbreak or something like that. But two months ago, I told the Republicans, how about you guys codify, put into law and fund our testing program to ramp up, and you write the statewide mask mandate, vote for it and tell your people to wear it, and I’ll give up everything else. ‘No, no, you have to just do it, you have to give it all up.’

Now, here’s my thing: Politically, it doesn’t help me to do this, but I have a moral obligation and a legal responsibility to protect Minnesotans. If I thought they wanted to work with me, if I thought they wanted to get rid of these to restore the balance of power, but they just don’t believe COVID-19 is a threat, they don’t believe in this emergency, and they don’t believe we need a mask mandate or testing. I have got legislators down in Mankato telling people no matter what, even if you have it, don’t go get tested, the governor just wants to use that to shut down your school. That is reckless, irresponsible and bordering on criminal. And here’s the irony of it, Mankato surprised all of us and turned up at 2.9% positivity rate and their kids are back in school because of what our testing and data show. But what I’m saying is, I am more than willing to work with that, but the contrast here — and they tried to make this the governor’s in an overreach. Oh really like 49 other governors? Just like the president? And many of the things I’m doing are waiving regulations that you guys agree that we shouldn’t be doing. It’s just this idea that they fundamentally disagree. Like I asked them about school. ‘Well, just let everybody go back to school.’ Well that would ensure no one’s in school, because we will get it, we’ll have teachers sick and schools will shut down. So it’s not about sharing responsibility as much as they don’t want to fix this, and I feel a moral responsibility that I can’t allow them to do that. If I felt like this wasn’t a threat, I could just be ‘No problem.’ But it is a threat, and it is still a crisis. 

MM: Tell us how you think the different paths that Minnesota might take on Nov. 3, with a DFL Legislature versus a Republican Legislature or mixed Legislature?

Walz: I, again, think that I have a track record both in words and in actions of respecting separation of powers as a 12-year legislator in the Article 1 (of the U.S. Constitution) side of things. I believe strongly in that. I think I’ve shared and compromised. I think getting a budget done, and I think I have publicly acknowledged the importance of having conservative voices help get where we’re at. Now with that being said, it’s become increasingly more difficult. The partisanship has gotten hard. The damage done by the taking out the commissioners is, is pretty deep. So I think there could be a bit of a reset. I am not Pollyannaish, I know that would be hard if you have one-party rule it causes a lot of issues. But I do think the ability to get a budget, to do the things that, again, the business community, the labor community, how come we don’t have a bonding bill done? I’m just baffled by this. And I was willing to take a massive compromise on what I thought should have been done. I think those types of things could change.

My hope would be that some of the partisanship goes away, if it turns out that way. But I have to be just totally honest, I am planning and have to prepare for every scenario. …  I have to operate under all of those principles, and I think asking my team to try and prioritize what we care about what we can make for Minnesota, and how do we actually get a few things done. And I have to tell you, six months ago, I would have been super bullish on our ability to do that. It’s been strained, I’m going to leave right from here and get on the phone with Sen. Gazelka and see what I can do. But at some point in time that hand has to reach back my way other than me just trying to say “Let’s get this right.”

MR: What will you say to him on that call? 

Walz: Both of those people [commissioners recently ousted by the state Senate] were friends of mine. In the case of Nancy Leppink, I asked her to relocate from Geneva. I asked her to bring her family, I asked them to carry out — which I thought they were doing spectacularly — the wishes of this administration that was voted in by a historic number of Minnesotans. And then to watch them be humiliated on the floor (of the Senate). It’s very personal. These are friends, in the case of Steve Kelley, a bit of a mentor to me, and to watch them just discard him; on a personal note, it makes this a pretty, that strained the relationship [with Gazelka]. If I’m losing on a tax vote, or if I have to compromise on the budget or whatever. But they personally just tried to destroy two people’s lives who are friends of mine, with absolutely no thought or really even heads-up. And so I’m gonna start with that…. You just don’t treat people that way.

MM: Is there anything you can do if the Trump campaign violates rules during the rally Friday? 

Walz: What I’ve tried to do is see if we can spread the space out. .. to make sure there’s plenty of space for both people attending and the counter-protesters. We’re gonna try and have masks and things on hand, because again, I can’t stop him from doing it. I’ve advised them, I’ve told them, I think they’re going to flaunt that, but I still have the responsibility to protect you, and I have the responsibility to protect the people going there with the best data I have. I am worried, especially at a time when we’re finally there. What I said was, “You want Bemidji High School to play football? Don’t go to this thing without a mask, because that’s gonna be the implication.” All I’m asking is just wear a mask, and stand a little ways apart and then go celebrate. 

*The University of Minnesota corrected Walz on his claim that zero students of color graduated from the education school there: “The University of Minnesota Twin Cities has proactively engaged to recruit and retain prospective K-12 teachers from underrepresented populations, resulting in our candidates of color enrollment growing from 10.7% in 2013 to just less than 23% in 2020-21; in the 2019-2020 academic year, 55 students who identified as a person of color were recommended for licensure after graduating from the College of Education and Human Development; for the 2020-2021 academic year, there are 84 candidates of color expected to graduate from CEHD and seek licensure.”

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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 toddler son.