DFL voters would do well to think beyond the Nov. 6 election when they choose their party’s nominee for governor in the Aug. 14 primary. They should also consider which candidate, if elected, is up to the biggest challenge a DFL governor would face in the next four years.
That challenge: Forging consensus within an electorate that’s increasingly divided along partisan, geographic and demographic fault lines, in order to shore up one of Minnesota’s best assets — a functional state government.
Among the three leading DFL gubernatorial contenders, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz seems best equipped for that task. He gets the Star Tribune Editorial Board’s primary nod in a field that includes two other formidable candidates, state Rep. Erin Murphy (the DFL Party’s endorsee) and Attorney General Lori Swanson.
Consensus-building is a skill that’s particularly desirable in a DFL candidate because odds are good that if a DFLer succeeds Gov. Mark Dayton, he or she will preside over divided government, just as Dayton has during six of his eight years in the office. Republicans have enjoyed considerable success in this decade under a legislative redistricting map that won’t be redrawn again until 2022.
Minnesota needs the next four years of state lawmaking to be less prone to partisan gridlock than the past four years have been. More than that, this state needs a leader who can bring Minnesotans together. It needs a governor who is steeped in a belief that Minnesotans are one people with a shared destiny and who knows how to apply that idea to the nitty-gritty of governing.
Walz, 54, has shown that ability during 12 years in the U.S. House representing Minnesota’s First District, spanning the state’s southern border. He has bucked the trend of partisan sorting by region that has left the state with few rural DFLers and even fewer urban Republicans in office. His bipartisan appeal was evident in the 2016 presidential race, when he hung on to his seat as Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in his district by nearly 15 percentage points.
Walz has worked well with Republicans while staying true to his party’s central values. He’s been rated a leader in bipartisan lawmaking by the Lugar Center, an independent Washington-based research group. He acquired a bent for teamwork growing up in rural Nebraska, spending 24 years in the Army National Guard and working as a teacher and football coach in Mankato.
His inclusive leadership style is evident in the partnership he has forged with his running mate, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan of St. Louis Park. Flanagan brings geographic, racial and gender balance to the ticket plus the knowledge of state lawmaking that comes from two terms in the Legislature. But she is no token. Walz tapped Flanagan 11 months ago and made her his de facto deputy since then. They offer DFL voters an appealing “twofer.”
If ranked-choice voting were employed in this primary — and because of its potential to nominate the candidate acceptable to the broadest swath of a party’s rank-and-file, we wish it were — Murphy would get our second-choice recommendation. A nurse by profession and a six-term state legislator from St. Paul, Murphy, 58, exudes energy and optimism. She was the first candidate to enter this race and has campaigned tirelessly. Her health care expertise would be welcome in the governor’s office in 2019, when a looming crisis in financing state health care programs must be addressed.
But Murphy undercut her claim that she can bridge the rural-urban divide when she chose a one-term suburban legislator, Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley, as her running mate. While Murphy’s 18-month quest to win the DFL endorsement was successful, she has struggled to become a known quantity among the voters who are not party insiders.
The better-known candidates are three-term Attorney General Swanson, 51, and her running mate, retiring U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan of the Eighth District.
Swanson’s surprise entry in the gubernatorial contest two days after seeking, then abruptly spurning, the DFL convention’s endorsement for a fourth term was a disruptive act that exhibited little regard for the relationships within one’s party that governing requires. She touts her independence as a plus, as it arguably has been in the Attorney General’s Office. Swanson has been a vigorous litigator on behalf of Minnesota consumers.
But a governor — especially a DFL governor at this juncture in state history — must be a consensus-builder to succeed. Among these three able candidates, Walz seems best fitted for that role.