The former high school teacher was in his element, with an auditorium of juniors and seniors and a pitch he had honed over a year in office.
"I ran on the theme that we're one Minnesota," Democratic Gov. Tim Walz said from the stage in the Waseca auditorium. "You can't divide Minnetonka from Mankato. You can't divide Waseca from Warroad. That our — the state, our nearly 6 million people — are intricately tied around industries like agriculture, mining, forestry, health care, high tech, manufacturing."
Walz has not let up on that campaign theme nor on his election-season travel pace since he landed in office 12 months ago. Supporters and opponents applaud his drive to hear from all industries and corners of the state. But with much of his time focused on consensus-building, hiring and passing a budget, many campaign promises remain on the table.
Walz enters his second year in office facing a list of unfinished policy priorities, some politically fraught decisions and the complicated backdrop of the 2020 election, which will decide control of the Legislature for the rest of his term.
The governor stepped into the top job with just one month to generate a spending and revenue plan for the next two years of state government. Walz points to the budget, completed with minimal overtime in a politically divided Legislature, as one of his biggest accomplishments thus far. It preserved a tax to support health care access, moderately increased education spending and devoted more dollars to housing and local government aid — some of Walz's top goals.
But amid tough, end-of-session budget negotiations last May, Democrats and Republicans deferred most of their controversial policy priorities. For Walz, that meant no gas tax increase or new gun regulations, nor a public health care buy-in or universal prekindergarten.
He plans to push Republicans to offer other ways to fund transportation in 2020, and said he needs to continue building a coalition to support the gas tax. He also intends to look for middle ground on gun regulations, noting that conservatives elsewhere backed "red flag" laws allowing the courts to temporarily remove guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves and others.
This year's short legislative session starts in February, and with the two-year budget out of the way, lawmakers have more time to focus on policy wish lists. That doesn't mean much will get done. The Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic House are up for election this fall, diminishing much hope of compromise or bipartisanship.
Not all of Walz's priorities need to go through the legislative gantlet. Some of his biggest challenges will involve executive decisions.
Several top managers at the sprawling Department of Human Services (DHS) left in Walz's first year, and discoveries of wasteful spending and dysfunction have rocked the agency. Walz took office saying he is open to rethinking the makeup of state government. While he has yet to make any significant changes to the structure he inherited from former Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, he is considering splitting up DHS. Legislators as well as the local governments, nonprofits and Minnesotans who work with or rely on DHS programs will scrutinize Walz's next steps.
Walz has said he will seek guidance from an outside expert, blue-ribbon commission and new DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead, who previously led Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Leaning on outside experts and stakeholders has been a hallmark of Walz's year-old administration. From DHS to climate change to school finance, Walz has appointed working groups, panels and subcabinets that inform — and sometimes delay — his decisions.
"If you are going to cut down a tree, spend nine-tenths of your time sharpening the ax before you go at it. We spend a lot of time on the front end making sure we're thoughtful," Walz said, adding that people are more inclined to help address an issue if they feel they have buy-in from the start.
But his reliance on thoughtful process has not always endeared him to parts of the Democratic base that helped elect him.
He must also navigate divisive proposals to build a copper-nickel mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters and replace the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline. Environmentalists have pressed Walz's administration to block the projects. So far, he has resisted.
"Process, science and law have to be followed. So my critique to them is: It is simply not legal. Nor, would I argue, it is the right way to go about it," Walz said of the idea that he could just suspend permitting and reviews. He said it would set a precedent where future governors could come in and do whatever they want, including moving forward on a pipeline without checks and balances.
Aaron Klemz, with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, has been fighting the PolyMet Mining proposal for a copper-nickel mine near Hoyt Lakes. He said a lot remains to be seen on how Walz's agencies handle that project, as well as the proposed Twin Metals Minnesota mine adjacent to the Boundary Waters.
"This is a pretty crucial test of how the [Department of Natural Resources] and the [Pollution Control Agency] will respond to a similar proposal that puts another set of Minnesota's resources at risk," Klemz said. "He said very clearly he cares deeply about the Boundary Waters; he doesn't want to see them harmed in any way. But when the rubber hits the road and you actually have a proposal on the table, how do you respond? We haven't seen that yet."
Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President Doug Loon says his positions on many major controversies will be clearer after he has a couple sessions under his belt and people can judge what he was able to get done with legislators or through executive action.
"How will he handle legalizing recreational marijuana? Right? We don't know yet. Will he have a part to play in its development at the Capitol or will he be strictly in a position of rolling out regulations should it become law? Time will tell," Loon said. "And the voters will have an opportunity to evaluate him in 2022."
Back at the Waseca Junior and Senior High School auditorium, the social studies teacher interviewing Walz asked about recreational marijuana.
"We tried prohibition on alcohol and it didn't work," Walz replied. "So now we regulate it, we tax it, and we let adults make their own decisions. I'm a firm believer that cannabis would fall in that same place and it would work. But I don't think it'll happen this session."
The high school stage wasn't the only setting where Walz displayed an easy manner. His social chameleon skills were evident earlier that December morning as he toured businesses along the main drag of State Street in Waseca, a small town roughly an hour and a half south of the Twin Cities.
At a bustling coffee shop he listened closely to residents while striking a common Walz pose: hands clasped in front of him and his head leaning in. Then he and the town's mayor popped into Barden's Bar, where Walz joked with the bartender about being "a puritan" — he doesn't drink alcohol — and inquired about pulltab revenue. Next door at 4 Seasons Athletics, Walz, a former Mankato West High School football coach, smiled for photos wearing a Waseca Bluejays hat and chatted easily with the owners about youth sports, the local economy and his love of dog parks.
Later in the afternoon he struck a somber note at a Minnesota National Guard holiday party in St. Paul, which came shortly after three soldiers died in a helicopter crash. As the state's commander-in-chief and a former National Guard command sergeant major, Walz slipped into military language as he offered condolences.
Walz rarely uses a script. His off-the-cuff speaking style is fast and meandering. He is prone to digressing mid-phrase to make a connection or share a story before circling back to his original point. His 2018 Republican opponent Jeff Johnson criticized the Democrat during campaign debates for being evasive, and some Republican legislators have since echoed that sentiment.
"A year into his term as governor, I see him continuing trying to be all things to all people, and unfortunately at some point he has to step back and govern and stop campaigning," said House Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu, R-North Branch, adding that his roundabout speaking style enables him to avoid making commitments.
To others, Walz's accommodating style is no different from other politicians, and they contend that he has taken firm stances on issues such as education and climate change. Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director Charlie Weaver, who backed the return of former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2018, said Walz covers a lot of ground in two minutes. But most politicians similarly talk about the big picture. The question, Weaver said, is whether they follow up on how to achieve their vision.
"That's what's been impressive, is yeah, he speaks in broad brushes and he is lyrical and he is funny. And he does cover a lot of things," Weaver said. "But I've seen him follow up on those things. He's a charismatic guy, but there's some meat on the bone."