Gov. Tim Walz vowed Monday to fight for equality in a state where race or ZIP code can determine someone’s trajectory, using his first speech as governor to set Minnesota apart from the deepening division gripping Washington.

“We find ourselves at a time when economic, social, racial, and geographic division feels rampant. I will not normalize behavior that seeks to deepen or exploit these divides,” said Walz, a Democrat from Mankato. “I will not normalize policies that are not normal — ones that undermine our decency and respect. If Washington won’t lead, Minnesota will.”

As the federal government edges toward what could become the longest shutdown in history, the former congressman said the executive branch in Minnesota will operate differently and pledged to work with Republican legislators.

At his inauguration ceremony at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Walz laid out the challenges he plans to tackle. Without going into detail, he said he wants to ensure all children have a good education, make health care more affordable and improve the state’s infrastructure.

Walz’s lieutenant governor, Peggy Flanagan, is the highest-elected American Indian woman in state history, and the inauguration reflected that. A drum ceremony followed the national anthem and ended the day’s proceedings, and Walz and Flanagan took part in smudging, a cleansing ritual, before the event. “My job is to show young people like her what is possible,” Flanagan said of her 5-year-old daughter, who sat across the stage on Walz’s lap while her mother addressed the crowd.

The ceremony was filled with moments of levity and family — Walz’s kids snapped a selfie with their dad before he was sworn in, Flanagan’s daughter showed off her newly lost tooth. But the state’s new leaders also struck a more serious tone as they told stories of people struggling to pay for health care and a woman fearful about her grandchild’s education.

Walz said he will build on eight years of Democratic leadership in the state’s highest elected office. Outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton ended his second term Monday, capping a more than 40-year political career.

Walz is the first new governor since Jesse Ventura to inherit a budget surplus, giving his administration more freedom to tackle issues other than a looming budget crisis.

“I believe when history tells Mark’s story, his lasting legacy will be that he put people first. Above politics. Before himself,” Walz said. “He left us with a better Minnesota. We are all grateful.”

Dayton waved as he received a standing ovation, then pointed toward Walz, who continued with his speech.

A former high school history teacher, Walz invoked the messages of past governors. He noted that the state has faced and overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Minnesota faces a shortage of affordable housing and needs to deliver more affordable and effective health care, he said. But he first touched on racial and geographic disparities in educational and economic opportunities.

The procession into the theater Monday started with teachers — those who had taught him and those he has taught.

He listed a number of other priorities: “Investing in our infrastructure. Increasing access to quality housing. Expanding options for affordable child care. Protecting the right to collectively bargain for a pathway to the middle class. And giving local leaders the tools they need to succeed.”

Walz has selected all but one of the commissioners who will lead the state agencies and help enact his agenda. The administration will work with a newly divided Legislature, to be sworn in Tuesday.

One of his biggest hurdles will be getting buy-in from the state Senate, where Republicans have a two-seat majority. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, has already voiced his concern with some of Walz’s priorities, including raising the gas tax.

Gina Countryman, executive director of Minnesota Action Network, a group that worked to elect a Republican governor, quickly condemned Walz after the event.

“Governor Tim Walz has promised ... to raise taxes on all Minnesotans despite Minnesota already being one of the highest taxed states in the nation,” she said.

Soon-to-be House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Republicans will be watching Walz’s budget proposal in February for areas of agreement on roads and bridges.

Incoming House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said Walz “hit the right notes in terms of bipartisanship.”

“We’re used to a lot of divide in Washington, and I think Tim Walz is up for it,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said of Walz’s ability to navigate the divided Legislature.

Klobuchar was one of several Congress members who looked on as Walz and the state’s constitutional officers, all Democrats, were sworn in. Keith Ellison became the next attorney general, Julie Blaha is the new state auditor and Steve Simon will continue as secretary of state.

Walz followed the inauguration ceremony with a public reception at the State Capitol. There, he described his and Flanagan’s jobs as “gifts to lift up the people’s voices.”

He was interrupted by a chorus of protesters chanting “Stop Line 3,” referring to the Enbridge oil pipeline replacement project. Walz replied that he would speak with them afterward. It remains to be seen whether Walz, like Dayton, will support an appeal of the Public Utilities Commission’s approval of the plan.

He and Flanagan have a series of inauguration celebrations planned across the state over the next week, including parties in Duluth, Mankato, Minneapolis and Moorhead.

 

Staff writers Torey Van Oot and Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.