Riding in a jet-black SUV with tinted windows, Gov. Tim Walz zoomed past traffic on I-35 as he was hustled to a business showcase near Duluth, where he arrived with his usual military promptness for the first stop of another packed day.
In his first 100 days, the DFL governor has brought a caffeinated energy to the job, often traveling to solidly Republican regions outside the Twin Cities as he tries to enact an ambitious Democratic agenda on health care, education and infrastructure while also living up to the spirit of his “One Minnesota” campaign mantra.
Besides Duluth, last week’s “community prosperity” tour — Walz’s fourth statewide tour since his inauguration — took him through Marshall, Austin, Winona and Baxter. Altogether, he’s clocked more than 3,500 miles crisscrossing the state since he became governor in January.
The campaign-style tour, coming during the Minnesota Legislature’s weeklong recess, was designed to use Walz’s retail politicking chops and break through the partisan divisions gripping the State Capitol with five weeks remaining in the session.
It also made use of the governor’s extroverted persona, building on his brand as a former command sergeant major in the Army National Guard and a geography teacher and coach at Mankato West High School. Around people, Walz wears a broad smile as if he’s just heard some good news. When someone makes him laugh, he sometimes leans back, like he’s been hit with a gust of wind.
“Up here the politics dissipates and people are looking for real solutions,” Walz said in an interview after a nonprofit luncheon in Duluth. He contrasted his short time as governor with 10 years he spent in the political trench warfare of Congress. “They see you as the state’s mayor and they want some of these things fixed.”
But even as Minnesotans continue to greet him with an open mind, Walz is no closer to enacting his robust policy agenda at the Legislature — where he is seeking more money for schools, roads and health care. Readying for the closing weeks of the legislative session, Walz is locked in a high-stakes battle with Republican lawmakers over a two-year state budget that will weigh in at nearly $50 billion and potentially shape his legacy as governor.
Senate Republicans, who serve as a bulwark against complete DFL control of state government, say they are protecting Minnesotans from the Democrats’ voracious appetite for higher taxes and more government.
“You can’t promise something and not have a plan to pay for it,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. “So he’s getting money from every Minnesotan he can.”
To subsidize existing health care programs, Walz has proposed keeping in place a 2% tax on health care providers that would otherwise expire. To fix the state’s roads, he wants to increase the gas tax by 20 cents per gallon over four years and then tie it to inflation after that. Corporations with foreign income also would pay more, while a paid family leave plan would require workers and their employers to split a 0.65% tax on income.
Amid all the travel, Republicans see little to like in the broad road map of Walz’s agenda.
“If he follows the left wing of his party, he’s going to have a hard time.” Benson said. She was joined by another Senate Republican in a bit of “Minnesota nice” condescension, saying Walz has a “steep learning curve” at the Capitol.
Walz laughed at that formulation, showing a counterpunching style that always comes with a smile.
“I’m kinda baffled by this whole ‘break’ thing,” he quipped, referring to the Legislature’s weeklong recess for Passover and Easter.
But with the Legislature on break, Walz has been able to grab headlines in cities large and small to pitch his vision of a Minnesota with the best schools, health care and transportation systems, all while helping to nurture businesses old and new.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Walz said. “There’s a lot of things Minnesota has done right, but I do think to a certain degree we’re living on our laurels with these Fortune 500 [companies]. A lot of innovative things led that to happen. I’m not sure we’re leaning into the next big thing.”
Walz starts many days with a 12-oz can of Diet Mountain Dew — the first of four — a buzzy, fizzy drink without any known nutritional value that fuels his exuberant style of retail politics and governing.
At the Natural Resources Research Institute in Hermantown, Walz teamed up with House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and his jobs and economic development Commissioner Steve Grove, a former Google executive. They heard local entrepreneurs make “pitches” in what Grove called a “Minnesota nice” version of the hit TV show “Shark Tank.”
One idea came from Katelyn France, a 19-year-old University of Minnesota Duluth prodigy with two patents and a company that uses a 3-D printer to make a bracelet with a person’s digitized medical information for emergencies. Other technologists with ideas in various stages of commercial readiness explained machine learning for fashion media, the health properties of birch bark, a new friendship app and the benefits of software to manage construction sites.
Walz, who spent 20 years as a teacher, relishes this aspect of his job — learning new things and encouraging fellow Minnesotans. With Grove and Hortman, he pitched a set of incentives for the state’s jobs agency to help startup companies. He also talked about maintaining Minnesota’s overall quality of life to retain and attract talented workers in places like Duluth.
“We need to be prepared for change,” he told the gathering of entrepreneurs. “What can we do to help companies like yours?”
At a nonprofit gathering in Duluth, Walz expounded on the need for every region of the state to pull together. He often tells the story of Far North Spirits in Hallock, near the Canadian border, whose owner supports transit in the Twin Cities so her customers can get to bars and restaurants and buy her product.
After a quick, harrowing flight through the rain to Baxter, Walz toured the plant floor of Lindar Corp., which makes containers for cupcakes and other food treats. “Fascinating!” he exclaimed when he came off the factory floor.
Lindar’s owner, Tom Haglin, also serves on the Brainerd school board and said the state’s low interest loans helped the company expand. But he’s also concerned about the state’s tax burden.
Haglin, like many Minnesotans, offered Walz a deal: “We have no issues in paying taxes as long as we’re making good, sound investments and making good decisions.”
Haglin didn’t vote for Walz in 2018, but he said he respects his passion for education and what he believes is Walz’s collaborative style: “I’m optimistic.”
In a roundtable discussion, Walz tailored his message to the local businesses, voicing his desire for “regulatory humility” to counter the frequent GOP charge of burdensome government regulation. Local leaders said they would like help attracting workers to the Brainerd area and keeping young people there. Some talked about the need for more housing and child care, messages that echoed Walz’s own pitch.
Local state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, who was also at the event, was polite, if not convinced by Walz’s program.
“Some of the biggest obstacles” to business success, he said, “are in and of themselves the government.”
After the roundtable, state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, privately pressed Walz for money for soil and water conservation districts. Walz and Senate Republicans may be at odds, but he remains eager to find agreement where he can. Ruud said she is optimistic about a budget deal. Asked how far apart they remain, she laughed, “The Grand Canyon.”