Gov. Tim Walz picked up copies of literary classics including "Lord of the Flies" and "Of Mice and Men" off a table of books Wednesday before reaching for Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," a dystopian novel about a patriarchal group that overthrows the federal government.

"We are keeping this fully in the fiction section of Minnesota," Walz said, holding up his selections before tucking them inside a Little Free Library, a book exchange box he parked in the lobby outside his office.

"Let's be very clear," Minnesota's Democratic governor said. "These books are banned in the state of Florida. That's where freedom goes to die."

The book event, intended to highlight March as Reading Month in Minnesota, was the latest in a series of acts and national media appearances by Walz that promote Minnesota as the progressive antithesis to Republican-led states like Florida, and others, that are passing expansive conservative laws.

Earlier this month, Walz called governors of states moving to restrict gender-affirming care for transgender children "bullies" as he signed a symbolic executive order protecting such care in Minnesota. Late last year he floated the idea of running ads to recruit teachers from Florida, after a new law there imposed restrictions on some instruction about race and sexuality.

Walz's tone has been especially sharp toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is pushing a self-described "war on woke" in his home state ahead of a widely expected run for president in 2024. The two served in Congress together before being elected governors of their respective states in 2018 and winning reelection last year.

At the book event, Walz was referring to a new Florida law that requires material in school libraries and media centers to be approved by a trained specialist. In response, some teachers have removed most books from their collections until they are approved, fearing criminal penalties.

In an emailed response to Walz, DeSantis deputy press secretary Jeremy Redfern linked to a video where the Florida governor pushed back on claims that the new law banned books, saying that only pornographic and inappropriate books are being removed from schools.

"We find it kind of strange that a governor would put pornography in a library outside of his office," Redfern said in the email. None of the books included in the Little Free Library are considered pornographic, and Redfern wasn't specific about what he meant.

Of late, Walz has appeared on national news outlets offering up Minnesota — where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office — as a model for other states pushing back on the Republican agenda.

Minnesota Democrats codified abortion rights into law in January and expanded voting access for people after they leave prison, and now are moving bills to protect health care that would affirm the gender identify of transgender Minnesotans.

"This is a state where your reproductive choices are yours, this is a place where you can bring your authentic self and be protected, this is a state where you read what you choose to read," Walz said Wednesday.

Archetypal governors

The more combative tone against Republican governors in states such as Florida, Iowa and South Dakota is a new approach for Walz. He has worked with governors in both parties to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and largely avoided clashes with the administration of former President Donald Trump during his first term in office.

But with gridlock in a divided Congress, national groups are looking toward governors in states controlled by one party to demonstrate a broader agenda, said Kevin Parsneau, a political science professor at Minnesota State University Mankato.

"Republicans might want to push DeSantis out there to say, 'This is what your state will look like if you elect Republicans,' and Democrats might want to put Walz out there to say, 'This is what your state will look like if you elect Democrats,'" Parsneau said. "They're both archetypes."

While DeSantis is clearly moving toward a presidential run, Parsneau said Walz doesn't appear to be setting himself up for a potential challenge to President Joe Biden. The Minnesota governor isn't traveling to early primary states, or writing a new book, the typical precursors to a national campaign.

Walz, a former high school teacher and coach, might be taking personally Florida's proposals to restrict the teaching of certain topics and books in schools, Parsneau said.

"He might specifically take it as: 'You don't know what you're talking about with running schools, and you're doing it from the governor's office,'" Parsneau said.

During the book event, Walz acknowledged he's trying to be proactive in talking about what Minnesota is doing differently. He noted that he had recently signed laws banning discrimination based on natural hair, and making Juneteenth — commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans — a state holiday.

He invited people with differing ideologies to add books to the Little Free Library.

"This isn't to pick a fight with someone," Walz said. "This is just to make it very clear to Americans that there are a vast number of people who disagree with these policies that are meant to hurt and marginalize."