Newsmakers in 2019: Tim Walz: Can he do it?

December 30, 2018

Gov.-elect Tim Walz is staking his governorship on a radical notion.

The DFL leader, who will be sworn in on Jan. 7 as the state’s 41st governor, is betting he can govern from that arid, depopulated region called the moderate middle, taking the best ideas from the left and the right to forge bipartisan solutions.

In these stridently partisan times, that is no small bet.

Of course, most candidates campaign on the idea of working across the aisle, because many voters love the concept.

But they almost never get it.

No candidate for governor ran more explicitly on the idea of overcoming the partisan divide than Walz did with his “One Minnesota” campaign.

“How about we find the best ideas from both sides, piece them together, move us forward, and understand that we’re not all going to get what we want,” Walz said during a Rochester visit.

Can he pull it off? Success would be a Houdini-like political act. The reality of governing is that the trench warfare of our current politics causes political leaders to recalibrate their grand expectations downward once the decision-making starts.

Walz continued to hit bipartisan keynotes after his election with his “One Minnesota” listening tour. Walz and his lieutenant governor, Penny Flanagan, used a recent tour of the state that included a Rochester stopover to reinforce his determination to govern from the middle: Taking the best ideas from every corner of the state, no matter the origin or political party.

Walz’s career has been marked by flexibility and a certain malleability.

The Mankato Democrat won six terms in Congress, representing the conservative 1st district as a supporter of veteran issues and champion of the Second Amendment before making his bid for governor.

When he ran for governor, Walz’s position on gun rights had evolved, stressing the need for gun restrictions such as background restrictions and the banning of bump stocks.

“It means working across political differences,” Walz said about the intractable gun issue. “I firmly believe that we can protect our second amendment rights by protecting our children and our work place.”

Indeed, the rationale Walz gave for running in the primary and abandoning the endorsement process was that it would preserve and expand his “mandate” to govern from the middle and get something done.

Bipartisan solutions, he told a Rochester audience during his statewide tour, would have the virtue of surviving the right-left pendulum swings that govern today’s politics — where the new party in power seeks to tear down the legal and regulatory structures of the previous administration.

Walz’s governing situation will be unique. Of all the states, Minnesota was the only one to emerge from the election with a divided legislature. Democrats will control the House, while Republicans will have a one-vote majority in the Senate.

Every other legislature in the nation will be controlled either by Democrats or Republicans. The last time there was only one divided state legislature was over 100 years ago in 1914.

The battles in Minnesota will revolve around taxes and spending and the size of government. Walz campaigned on certain promises, on raising the gas tax and continuing the provider or “sick tax” to fund his transportation and health care initiatives — no-go places for Republicans.

By one estimate, Walz’s campaign promises amount to $18 billion in new spending, said GOP state Sen. Dave Senjem.

“So he’s going to have to backtrack,” the Rochester Republican said. “He wouldn’t be the first governor. But he’s going to have to backtrack amongst his constituencies, his voters and know it’s time to get real.”

Senjem said the best thing Walz can do to set the right tone for the session is to get to know legislators. One potential obstacle for Walz is that few legislators on the GOP side know who he is.

Senjem offers the late DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich as an example of how to break down those barriers.

Although Senjem wasn’t a legislator at the time, the old-timers speak of Perpich’s savvy ability to develop relationships with legislators from both parties. He would do that by walking around the Capitol, going from office to office, getting to know people.

“If Gov. Walz would do that, he would go a very long way in terms of bringing a cohesive nature to this Legislature,” Senjem said.

But of course, that was a different time.

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