Minnesota governor Tim Walz speaks in the State Capitol building in St. Paul Thursday, September 17, 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer
Just 62 days after Gov. Tim Walz issued a stay-at-home order to Minnesotans at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, George Floyd was murdered at the hands of police. Civil unrest ensued and a Minneapolis police precinct was torched.
In July 2020, Walz ordered a statewide mask mandate for indoor spaces. Then in November 2020, with cases climbing and hospitals pleading for help, Walz again ordered restaurants and other public gathering places shuttered.
Just months later, during the trial of Floyd’s killer Derek Chauvin, Daunte Wright was killed by a police officer. This time, a multi-jurisdictional police force aggressively defended the Brooklyn Center police headquarters. Months later, omicron arrived.
Walz’s governorship has been dominated by crisis, and his reelection campaign has required a constant stream of explanation for why he managed a given emergency the way he did, and what might have gone better.
Walz, largely reactive during his first term, now hopes that he will be able to reinvigorate his agenda with another four years in office.
“You don’t run for governor just complaining about things that happened,” Walz told the Reformer. “I think we’ve set the tone both economically and innovatively for the future… and I think that’s the leadership Minnesota wants.”
Still, when it comes to Walz, Minnesotans will face the age-old question: Are you better off than you were four years ago? With the massive asterisk that most people understand it hasn’t been a normal four years.
From COVID-19 to the economy, education to crime, Walz argues that his leadership means Minnesota remains in a better position than states across the country. Now, voters will decide if they agree by sticking with Walz or electing former state Sen. Scott Jensen, a Chaska physician.
Walz’s most polarizing decisions were related to restrictions his administration put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19: canceling large indoor events, closing schools, briefly shuttering restaurants and bars and mandating masks.
A wave of misinformation — including from his opponent Jensen — led some Minnesotans to believe that the virus wasn’t serious and that mitigation measures wouldn’t work.
Walz says in hindsight, his caution was warranted.
“I think these are unprecedented incidents… (and) on COVID we rank very near the bottom in deaths from COVID,” Walz told the Reformer.
Walz is correct that Minnesota’s COVID-19 death rate per 100,000 has been consistently lower than a majority of states throughout the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Multiple analyses give Minnesota a passing grade for its pandemic response.
Jensen continues to attack Walz on this point, however.
“We can never again allow the power grab Tim Walz forced on Minnesota,” Jensen’s website says.
Just last week, Jensen found a new culprit — not supported by experts — for the virus’s death toll: Overuse of ventilators once presumed to be necessary to keep COVID patients alive.
The COVID-19 restrictions that kept many Minnesotans safe were not without cost, however.
Like their counterparts around the country, Minnesota students suffered academically during the pandemic, as did their social and emotional health.
Walz campaigned in 2018 on more education funding while inheriting Minnesota’s stark disparities between the state’s white students and students of color — an issue some advocates say Walz hasn’t prioritized.
Addressing these years of racial disparities, exacerbated by the pandemic, seems to lack urgency in the Walz administration, said Josh Crosson, executive director at EdAllies, a Minnesota advocacy group focused on racial disparities.
“We need a greater sense of urgency here from the governor, and I don’t know if more money will do enough,” Crosson said. “The current system isn’t meeting kids’ needs, and we know that because we haven’t seen outcomes from our current system that are showing that we are tackling disparities in a way that’s meaningful.”
Jensen has advocated for less education funding, implementing a Minnesota “parents’ bill of rights” and school vouchers.
Walz touts his compromise budgets for providing more money to schools to help students catch up. He blames Republicans for scuttling a deal at the end of the 2022 legislative session that would have eased the increasing fiscal burden of districts’ skyrocketing special education costs.
Walz inherited a steady state economy from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton that had been performing in line with other states for years, said Louis Johnston, an economics professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.
“I think continuity would be the word,” Johnston said, describing the economy under Walz. “Governor Walz, in a sense, has continued the policies and deepened the policies that were enacted by Governor Dayton.”
Those policies reflect a belief that strong education, health care, transportation and social service systems provide the foundation for economic growth because they produce healthy, highly skilled workers who then help the state’s companies’ thrive.
Jensen has repeatedly attacked Walz for what he sees is a lackluster state economy. He’s blamed Walz for inflation, although inflation is a national — and recently international — phenomenon, not something related to the policies of governors. Jensen wants to eliminate Minnesota’s personal income tax, which he believes will drive economic growth. Economists say it will benefit the wealthy while requiring major cuts to education and health spending and/or increases in other, regressive levies like sales and property taxes.
The data show that Minnesota’s economy has performed well despite the pandemic, with strong measures of labor force participation and, at one point, the lowest unemployment rate ever recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jensen has sought to focus on the issue of public safety, hammering Walz for increasing violent crime. Jensen has gone so far as to call Walz the “godfather” of the nationwide increase in crime, citing the aftermath of Floyd’s murder.
The crime rate in Minnesota certainly rose, but it has done so nationwide, in states with both Republican and Democratic governors. The reasons for rising crime are complicated, researchers say, but some contributors include disruptions to life caused by the pandemic and strained community-police relations after a number of high-profile police killings in 2020, including Floyd’s murder.
Walz has flooded Minneapolis — which has suffered from both an increase in shootings and a sharp reduction in officers — with state policing resources. His administration says that’s helped contribute to a recent reduction in shootings and homicides.
Walz also points to a deal he had with Republicans to add another $450 million to public safety statewide, only to see it scuttled in the closing days of the legislative session.
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