Minnesota Republicans use budget bills to focus on rising crime in the Twin Cities

Their arguments at the Legislature are a preview of 2022

By: - June 24, 2021 6:00 am

A supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department before a crowd gathered at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 7, 2020. The decision came after protests and riots in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The event, “The Path Forward: Community Meeting with City Council Members,” was organized by Reclaim The Block and Black Visions. Photo by Tony Webster.

Minnesota Republicans offered another signal that they intend to use crime as a political weapon against Democrats in 2022, turning to an unlikely vehicle to do it Wednesday: A transportation budget bill. 

The Minnesota House debated a $7 billion transportation budget bill Wednesday, with many GOP-sponsored amendments that aimed to provide state funding for law enforcement priorities, including body armor for state troopers and additional funding for a police academy class.

Seemingly tangentially related to roads, bridges and transit, the efforts to add the law enforcement funding to the transportation bill underscore the election arguments Republicans are preparing ahead of 2022, when all 201 legislative seats will be up for election. DFL Gov. Tim Walz, who Republicans lambasted for his response to last year’s riots and civil unrest, is also up for reelection. 

Republicans can now use Democratic-Farmer-Labor nay votes on the police amendments in next year’s election, with mail and digital advertising that will paint DFL candidates as soft on crime.

During the debate, state Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, a former sheriff’s deputy, criticized Democrats for their critical statements of police. He unsuccessfully sought to give $1 million for additional staff and equipment to provide air support to the Minnesota State Patrol. Citing high turnover, he also sought to give the agency more money to hire new troopers. He implicitly blamed Democrats for the turnover. 

“Minnesota State Patrol is not an organization that anyone used to quit from,” he said. “The way the public sentiment from certain segments of the state government are being directed towards state law enforcement, these young men and women who have been putting their lives on the line, they are deciding to give up, something that would be very rare before.”

Democrats are particularly vulnerable to attacks because they are divided on the issue of policing and have been unable to push back with a united message. Twin Cities progressives have resisted giving police departments additional funding without securing police reforms in return, while suburban Democrats have faced attacks from GOP-aligned groups seeking to tie them to Minneapolis progressives who first spawned the “defund the police” rallying cry. 

Former state Sen. Matt Little, a Lakeville Democrat, was on the receiving end of the attacks, losing his reelection bid in 20202 in one of the most expensive legislative races in state history.  

Little, who opposes efforts to defund police, was nonetheless accused of supporting defunding law enforcement during the campaign. He said Republicans are cynically using crime for electioneering. 

“Elected Republicans at the State Capitol don’t really care about rising crime,” Little said. “They view rising crime through a singular lens, which is an electoral one. They are chomping at the bit to put this on their literature.”

He argued that Democrats should push back against such attacks by pressing ahead with efforts to reform police. He cited banning pretextual traffic stops for minor infractions that police use to search vehicles, but critics say offer dubious results while amounting to profiling or harassment of Black drivers. Little also said police should have enough staffing to focus on crime prevention and solving cases. 

“To support police and people of color, you have to do both,” he said.

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, a freshman lawmaker who has been involved in negotiations over police reforms this year, also criticized Republican efforts to score political points. 

“Believe it or not, crime is more complicated than race-baiting politicized talking points would have you believe,” he said. “Democrats are serious about addressing violent crime, so we will not play politics. We support police funding, police reform and accountability, and community crime prevention efforts because that’s what’s needed to defeat crime, not win elections.”

Minnesota Republicans last year were successful in holding the Senate majority and flipping a number of House seats. DFL party strategists said last year that Republicans effectively scared suburban and rural voters by linking Democrats to the “defund the police” movement that took hold in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd. 

Republicans ran hard on the issue in 2020. “PUBLIC SAFETY is our ticket to the majority, let’s win with that,” one House GOP member said in an email last September that was meant for his fellow Republicans but inadvertently went to all House members. The email advised Republicans to avoid debating COVID-19 issues ahead of a floor session.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, this week reiterated his pledge to protect police from new state laws that he said are “anti-police” or that would make their jobs more difficult. 

“We feel that with the rise of crime, particularly in the last number of months, we want to focus on getting more police out on the streets, making sure they have the resources,”  Gazelka said on Tuesday. “We think that’s the no. 1 issue right now, with crime going up and up and up, and with police deciding whether they want to continue to be police or not.”

Gazelka is in the middle of negotiations with Walz and House Democratic leadership on the public safety bill, and the fate of police reforms is unclear even as Minnesota remains in the grip of protracted protests over police shootings of Black men. 

In the House, the transportation bill passed, 112-21, without any Republican amendments that would have given police departments more money.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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