For people who preach about personal responsibility, these lawmakers sure are being irresponsible

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, addressed reporters on Oct. 19, 2020, urging Gov. Tim Walz to reduce COVID-19 regulations. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Not long ago Republican legislative leaders at the State Capitol rejected most government plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. They assured us that Minnesotans could be reliably counted upon to use their overriding sense of personal responsibility to keep their neighbors safe. 

“I think encouraging people to be responsible for their health and the health of others is a good idea,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, in July.

This COVID-19 plan, if you want to call it that, was not really a plan. After all, if that’s your approach, why bother having any laws at all? People’s sense of personal responsibility will compel them to pay child support or prevent them from dumping their garbage in your stream. 

No, this was not a policy plan, it was a political necessity — the GOP base had gone feral, drunk on the fumes of revolutionary fantasy, angry about the imposition of having to wear a mask to Target. 

(What’s next — they’ll make me wear a shirt and shoes?)

And now the events of the past couple weeks have shown that even on its own terms the whole “personal responsibility” plan was a sham.  

Let’s review: 

The Thursday after the election, as Fox 9 reported, Senate Republicans held a post-election victory party at a Lake Elmo event center that included between 100-150 people. They were celebrating their narrow 34-33 majority status. “Few attendees wore masks, and the party lasted for hours,” according to the Fox 9 report.

Not to be outdone, their House GOP colleagues, fresh off picking up six seats, held a party of their own at the Intercontinental Hotel. 

Meanwhile, at that moment, more than 53,000 of their fellow Americans were hospitalized due to COVID-19, gasping for breath, alone except the haunting noises of the machines, while health care workers put in double shifts to save lives.  

The next day, the House GOP packed into a conference room in the State Office Building to choose their leader, and again it was Rep. Kurt Daudt. 

I’ve been in those rooms countless times. They’re airless and diseased, and that was before the pandemic. 

Senate Republicans also met in caucus. Gazelka, who steered the caucus to the majority, was again made caucus leader. 

Then the trouble began. A House member sent an email to colleagues the next day, telling them they suspected they had COVID-19. It was later confirmed. Republicans elected not to tell House Speaker Melissa Hortman, who was preparing the chamber for an upcoming special session of the Legislature.

An outbreak spread among senators. We now know four of them are positive. They failed to tell their DFL colleagues, even as they, too, prepared for the session. 

(House and Senate Republicans say no one positive was on the floor of the House or Senate, so no one was actually endangered.) 

Gazelka said that even though he was feeling symptoms — his spokeswoman said he wasn’t, but they couldn’t keep their stories straight — he still got on an airplane and went to Florida. He tested positive. 

Outgoing Rep. Alice Mann, a physician, said it best on the floor of the House the other day: “You will know you are wrong,” she said about her colleagues who underestimate the seriousness of the pandemic, “when your child will have to wait in the ER writhing in pain for six hours with a broken leg.”

Indeed, as of Tuesday, 74,000 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19, an additional 20,000 since the GOP had their shindigs. 

Once the truth started leaking out, did Republicans take responsibility for their reckless behavior? 

Of course not. Like teens caught at a kegger, they turned it around. 

“The blaming and shaming of a positive COVID diagnosis has got to stop,” Gazelka said in a statement. 

Leave me alone!

They didn’t even have the decency to tell the venue where they had their party, until questions arose. 

State Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo Township, told the Star Tribune that “he had a cold but was not concerned that he was exposed to the virus and had not been tested. Anderson asked how the reporter got his cellphone number and vowed to change it immediately if the reporter planned to call again about COVID-19 or any other issue.”

I don’t have to answer to you or anyone! 

Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, in the same Strib story, blames the community spread he failed to help prevent, though it’s also unclear what he’s even talking about at all. 

“It’s just a lot of it around and they talk about the community spread and stuff we’re seeing. I guess at least there is a lot more testing now than there was a few months back and with that the percentages are going to carry in some numbers.”

Remember where all this started: Personal responsibility

If your family or neighbor or co-worker threw a party during a pandemic, putting people at risk and burdening our health care system, you would let them know — or maybe in Minnesota fashion you just would never invite them to your home again. 

So where did this bizarre anti-social behavior come from, this thrill for transgression that puts others at risk?

I suspect they’ve picked up the failson traits of their hero. You know the one: the failed real estate developer, who used racial hatred and his game show host TV skills to hypnotize his followers into abject servility, persuading them that his character traits — narcissism, incompetence and impulsivity — are actually fine qualities. President Trump’s behavior since the pandemic began has been instructive. 

But we can also blame their ideology, the Ayn Randian apotheosis of the self, a valorous island while community is a mere burden. That’s fine if you want to be an iconoclastic architect in one of Rand’s novels, but in the real world, it doesn’t work with communicable disease. 

To his credit, Gazelka issued a statement Tuesday that showed a tiny bit of contrition “It’s important we learn from our experiences, exercise good judgement and work at constant self-improvements.”  

Here’s a place to start: Personal responsibility means you assume the risks of your behavior. But it also means — especially during a pandemic — you recognize the ramifications of your actions on other people. 

In your own home, on an airplane, or at the State Capitol, especially when you’re making laws and policies that affect millions of Minnesotans.