Tim Walz was out of his element.
Minnesota’s extroverted first-term governor was stuck inside his Summit Avenue home with a PowerPoint presentation ready to go and a video camera pointed at his face.
The former schoolteacher and football coach isn’t really a teleprompter guy, so he was going without one. He’s not usually a PowerPoint guy either. But these slides, filled with charts and models, would help the DFLer deliver a message to Minnesotans he couldn’t have imagined a few years ago, when he was crisscrossing the state campaigning on a message of bridging urban and rural divides.
He didn’t want COVID-19 to be the thing that united them.
“Minnesotans, we’re in this together,” he said as he pleaded to thousands, via livestream video, to stay inside their homes to slow the spread of the coronavirus. No governor in modern Minnesota history had ever had to make such a sweeping emergency order.
But Walz and other governors across the country are now on the front lines of something unprecedented, with no playbook to follow and where every decision means life or death.
He has direct knowledge of the threat: The video message came on the third day of his own self-quarantine, coming after he found out a member of his security detail had the virus. “I’m asking you to buckle it up for a few more weeks,” he told Minnesotans from his own home confinement.
The age of social distancing has tapped into another side of Walz, the former command sergeant major who spent more than two decades in the Army National Guard responding to natural disasters and months deployed overseas, even if he never saw combat.
“He’s not sugarcoating stuff, but he’s not scaring people either,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, who led the Department of Public Safety under former Gov. Jesse Ventura during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “You can’t underestimate the psychological impacts and the importance of leadership on the public in a time like this. His calm, thoughtful approach to this has been the perfect tonic to the fear that people naturally have.”
Sprinkling terms like “plan of attack” and “battle ready” into daily briefings on the coronavirus, Walz has used sweeping executive power afforded to governors in times of crisis to shut down bars, restaurants and schools, halt sports franchises and postpone elective surgeries. He’s enacted paid leave for state employees and increased penalties for price gouging for the duration of the state of emergency. Now as governor, he’s the commander in chief of Minnesota’s National Guard, and he’s deployed them to help with the response to COVID-19.
“I do really feel like he’s the governor made for this moment,” said Steve Grove, Walz’s commissioner of employment and economic development, who has been in the room as they prepare the state’s response.
It’s thrust Walz into the limelight in a whole new way. His office’s phone lines have exploded and he’s trended nationally on Twitter. Protests have popped up outside of his residence. Minnesotans have started timing emergency grocery and liquor runs around his daily 2 p.m. coronavirus briefing, knowing that at any moment he could transform their lives even more.
Even his political foes in the Legislature are careful to mute their public criticism of the governor because they don’t want to undermine his response to the virus.
“I root for him, frankly, to be successful for Minnesota,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. “I do encourage him to weigh the risk of the virus, which is great, with the consequences of causing people to be out of work and lose their jobs. What is the price of that long-term as well? That’s a difficult balancing act.”
Behind the scenes, his commissioners and confidants say he seeks counsel daily from academics, business leaders, hospitals and governors in other states. He’s also turned to former Minnesota governors Mark Dayton and Tim Pawlenty. He absorbs huge amounts of information and acts quickly, they said, even if he’s ahead of where public sentiment is.
“Governors need to make the right decisions in a crisis, but they also need to make them at the right time,” said Pawlenty, a Republican who served two terms as governor. “Making a key decision a bit early in a crisis is almost always better than making it a bit late.”
Even with sweeping actions, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state had hit 441, with 30 still hospitalized as of Saturday. Both numbers are expected to grow.
In his breathless speaking style, Walz rattles off rafts of statistics in his daily briefings. One of those numbers — 235 — were the total number of intensive care beds open in the state on March 22. Walz is trying to make sure they’re not all filled at once while the state tries to increase capacity.
But with new information pouring in every minute, things haven’t always gone smoothly. He’s had to clarify an executive order shutting down businesses with a new executive order shuttering even more businesses. Forty-eight hours after saying schools should stay open, he called a sudden news conference to order them closed, acknowledging that new data he received reversed his message to the public.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said Walz’s willingness to admit mistakes helps create an aura of transparency around the governor at a time when many legislative functions have been forced out of public view by social distancing.
“A good leader is willing to be wrong and admit it,” he said. “There’s a level of candor and honesty about the shortcomings about what they are doing that makes people feel like they trust him.”
When it has come to big decisions, like shutting down bars and restaurants, those who are closest to Walz say they have weighed heavily on him.
“There are moments when you see him come to that conclusion, look out at the team and articulate that decision and take a breath to reflect on the magnitude of it,” said Chris Schmitter, Walz’s chief of staff, who has been with him since his days in Congress. “Then move quickly into: ‘OK what are the steps we need to take to execute it.’ ”
The decisions have taken a personal toll. The former teacher closed down classrooms, which are now implementing distance learning plans. More than 20% of the state’s workforce is unemployed at his direct order. He’s relied heavily on child care providers to stay open to provide care for the children of doctors and emergency responders at a time when they were already struggling to stay afloat.
The messages he delivered on the campaign trail — to pump funding into schools and improve economic security for Minnesotans — are now most directly hit by his own orders to curtail the pandemic.
“There is a lot of emotion in the room because the consequences are so clear to everything that he hopes to achieve,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. “He and [Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan] are so keenly aware that the economic disruptions that these orders are creating hit the people who already have the most fragile lives.”