Key moments from first televised debate in governor’s race between Walz, Jensen

By: - October 19, 2022 7:15 am

Gov. Tim Walz, left, and Republican nominee Scott Jensen. Courtesy photos.

Gov. Tim Walz and his Republican challenger Scott Jensen debated abortion, crime, the state budget and opioids Tuesday in Rochester — their first and only joint televised appearance. 

Walz hit Jensen for the Republican’s shifting stance on abortion and his proposal to eliminate the state’s personal income tax. 

Jensen sought to shift the conversation to crime and the $250 million pandemic aid fraud that recently led to dozens of federal indictments.

As is his style, Walz spoke swiftly and stumbled on some words. Jensen relied on dramatic sound bite phrases —  “You just heard a smokescreen!” for instance — that the Chaska family physician uses during his frequent Facebook Live videos.

There were some cringeworthy moments. The debate moderators — all white — asked the white candidates to examine race relations in Minnesota. Jensen advocated for colorblindness, and Walz said they are a work in progress. 

Here are a few takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:

Jensen was a top opioid prescriber in Minnesota

Eight minutes into the debate, Walz cited data about Jensen’s medical practice, saying he issued more opioid prescriptions than 94% of other Minnesota doctors. 

Walz’s campaign followed up the statement with an email saying the 2013 data comes from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

The campaign said that by total number of days worth of opioid pills prescribed, Jensen ranked in the top 6% of Minnesota physicians: 5,005 days worth of opioid pills to 46 patients that year.

Walz also said Big Pharma companies bought Jensen meals — drug companies commonly wined and dined doctors while persuading them to push their opioid product. In response, Jensen shifted the conversation to drugs coming from the southern border and said Walz is weak on border security. 

What does ‘fully funding’ education mean?

Jensen, who has previously advocated for less funding for Minnesota schools, questioned Walz’s education mantra — that the state should fully fund it. Jensen cited declining student test scores and said he is advocating for more strategic funding of education, instead of backing “broken institutions.”

Jensen has said he would create a school voucher system for Minnesota, which would use public dollars to pay for private school tuition or homeschooling.

Walz, a former educator, acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic hindered student learning. He also acknowledged that Minnesota has a stark learning gap between white students and students of color, with white students regularly testing much higher in reading and math. He said, without offering evidence, that Minnesota students of color score highly compared to their peers in other states. 

Response to the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder

Walz said he was proud of the way first responders handled the unrest in the Twin Cities following the 2020 police murder of George Floyd. While America has seen riots and civil unrest in the past, Walz said the unrest was an unprecedented situation for which “Minnesota had to write the book.”

“I’m proud of Minnesota’s response. I’m proud of Minnesota’s first responders who were out there,” Walz said.

Jensen, who has hammered Walz for his handling of the unrest, sought to paint Walz as in league with rioters and looters.

“Anything that has to do with lawful behavior, it seems that Tim Walz isn’t there,” Jensen said. “And he says, ‘I’m proud of the way Minnesota responded.’ Burn that into your psyche, Minnesota.” 

Jensen again repeated an attack he’s been using lately, that Walz is the “godfather of crime.” 

Jensen said that if he were governor during the unrest, “the chain of command would have kicked in right away,” and he would be on the scene calming demonstrators and leading the response.

Getting into the weeds (and rocks and cows) of Minnesota politics

The candidates waded into niche corners of Minnesota politics. Jensen alleged Walz was disrespectful to the National Guard, even though Walz served in the Guard for 24 years. 

During an interview in the summer of 2020, Walz was asked to respond to Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s claims that Walz hesitated to send in the National Guard during the civil unrest. Walz said at the time that Frey was unrealistically expecting troops trained in civil disturbance, but he would likely get “19-year-old cooks.” 

Walz addressed the comment head on, clarifying that what he meant is that the troops have military expertise in various areas, and a small percentage are trained in civil defense.

Jensen responded with sarcasm, reaching for another out-of-context Walz quote. This one, that greater Minnesota is the land of “rocks and cows,” has long drawn the mockery of Republicans, even though Walz represented the rural 1st Congressional District for a dozen years. 

‘A wonderful smile’

The candidates were asked to say one nice thing about each other.

Walz said he admired Jensen’s affinity for his family, adding that he always appreciates it when someone puts their family first. 

Jensen’s answer was less generous.

“I thought about this question. I think Tim Walz is an affable individual who has a wonderful smile,” Jensen said.

After the debate, Walz tweeted a photo of himself with a beaming smile, and wrote, “Thanks, Scott.”

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.