Gwen Walz had already had a full day by the time she lost a shoe on stage while making her first major speech as Minnesota’s First Lady.
She had met with three community groups, shuttled her sixth-grader, Gus, to his first day at a new school and worried over Hope, her 18-year-old daughter, driving an ill-suited Volkswagen Bug in a snowstorm. Her husband, Gov. Tim Walz, was in Washington testifying about road funding.
As she began walking away from rallying a Capitol crowd trying to restore voting rights to felons, her heel got stuck in a slat in the stage. She slipped out of the shoe and explained the problem to the crowd of ex-felons and their loved ones, cracking them up in laughter and warm applause.
“It’s all glamour,” she quipped.
Minnesota has been without a first lady since 2010 when voters elected Mark Dayton, who was the first unmarried governor in nearly 100 years. Many recent first ladies held full-time jobs and showed little public interest in shaping policy or being involved at the Capitol.
Walz, 52, is aiming to be unlike any other first lady in state history.
She is the first with an office in the Capitol. From there, she’s begun to craft an ambitious policy portfolio that includes education and corrections, though she’s quick to point out that housing and health and other issues are all interrelated.
And she’s not just giving speeches to friendly crowds. An educator for nearly three decades, she uses the jargon of a policy wonk, arguing that the Department of Education needs to collaborate with school districts more and focus less on top-down regulatory compliance.
She sat in on the job interview of Paul Schnell, the new commissioner of the Department of Corrections. She encouraged Sarah Walker, a lobbyist on criminal justice issues who is now an assistant commissioner, to apply for her job. She has tapped her significant list of contacts to encourage others. She is one of her husband’s closest advisers and is in frequent contact with gubernatorial Chief of Staff Chris Schmitter, who is a friend going back to their days in Washington.
Schnell said Walz and her staff have kept in touch with the DOC and highlighted the “intersection of education and corrections” as a major focus. Schnell said he envisioned Walz attending future graduation ceremonies that take place at state prison facilities in the coming months.
Her approach is not without risk. Her ambitious agenda, strong ideas about personnel and policy and access to the governor could engender fierce opposition — including in her own party — born of both genuine differences of opinion and sheer envy.
“Tim is the governor and makes the governor decisions,” Gwen Walz says. “We have a lot to do and everyone has a role and part in it. It is my responsibility to find my way forward in this new role, with respect and awareness.”
Days after the election, she visited the Summit Avenue governor’s residence and spent four hours with former First Lady Mary Pawlenty, whose family split their time between the residence and their Eagan home.
Pawlenty, who was a judge and mother of two young daughters when her husband was elected, worked on military family issues as first lady. “I suggested she keep her own counsel and decide for herself what works for her,” Pawlenty said. “She’s a strong woman and she’s going to be terrific.”
Walz is busy making the residence the family home — already the site of cousin and friend sleepovers — while also thinking of ways it can be used to further Walz’s “One Minnesota” agenda of inclusion and unity.
Wouldn’t it be nice, she asks the house manager while the snow falls gently outside the light-filled solarium, if lawmakers and their spouses who come for receptions could leave with a little takeaway gift, like the gingersnap cookies her great grandmother made? (She’s got the recipe.) And wouldn’t it be great if they were still warm?
“That would be such a nice Minnesota thing,” she says.
Walz recently started working 20 hours per week as a special assistant to the president of Augsburg College, developing projects such as training East African immigrant teachers. (Her pay will be commensurate with what she made when she was an administrator in the Mankato School District until last year.)
Still, with all that, she pleads: “I don’t want to be perceived as some supermom person. That’s not who we are and it’s not helpful to working women.” She readily admits she needs a lot of help and isn’t afraid to ask for it — Team Gwen includes everyone from her three sisters to the principal of Mankato West High School, who has taken in Hope Walz for her final months of her senior year.
Also, motherhood keeps her grounded, she says: “My kids do not think I’m cool.”
On their first date, Tim Walz took Gwen to see the darkly eccentric Michael Douglas movie “Falling Down” and then went to the only restaurant in town that wasn’t a bar, a Hardee’s. The conversation was stirring. As she tells it, he leaned in for a kiss. She said no. His reply: “That’s fine, but you should know I’m going to marry you.”
He taught social studies and she taught English, and at one point they shared a big classroom in their Nebraska high school. She could hear how engaged his students were. She became smitten.
They were married and a pattern emerged: Tim Walz had a big idea. She made it happen.
“My wife can plan and get anything done,” the governor said.
They spent their honeymoon in China on a trip they organized for dozens of students. There was an odd number of students, so the couple didn’t even sleep in the same room.
Raised in Ivanhoe, Minn., and a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, she longed to return to Minnesota. The couple wound up in Mankato, where Tim Walz coached football and Gwen Walz coached the cheer team while they continued teaching.
She’s self-effacing about Tim Walz’s more-natural charisma: “The fun Walz and the other Walz,” the students called them.
But some of her students will never forget her.
Jacob Reitan, a Minneapolis attorney, says he remembers when Walz told her English students in 1997 that there would be no bullying of gay and lesbian students.
“It meant the world to me. I was shaking. I thought the class could hear my heart beating,” Reitan says.
Tim Walz was elected to Congress in 2006, when Gus was three weeks old. Gwen saw family problems all around her in Congress and went to work on a spouse orientation program. That’s how she met Randy Florke, the partner of Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat from New York. Florke introduced her to the Bard Prison Initiative, which aims to give prisoners a liberal arts education. Together, they have lectured prisoners on the recent history of the gay rights movement.
Her Lutheran faith and time in Mankato — home to the 1862 mass execution of American Indians — have moved her to work on issues of forgiveness and reconciliation, she says. And now she brings these values to state government and politics — an arena that can be deeply unforgiving in its scrutiny.
Walz tries to spend 10 minutes a day on the Steinway piano in the residence. She works through a bit of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” but Gus is home from school early.
“I want to make Gus turn off that Xbox and converse with me for a moment,” she says.