Minnesota lawmakers repeatedly said the eyes of the world were on them in the two months that followed George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
But in the end, only a handful of eyes saw a sweeping package of police accountability proposals crafted in response to his death before legislators approved it in the dead of night.
In some ways, it’s a tale as old as politics: closed-door deal making, secretive horse trading and last-minute lobbying in smoke-filled rooms. Whenever former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton retreated into sensitive negotiations with Republicans in the Legislature, they instituted a “cone of silence,” a joke both parties recycled legislative session after legislative session.
There’s always some excuse for it, too. Lawmakers can’t speak freely in the public eye, meaning they would never actually reach a compromise. Deadlines, like those set in the middle of the night, are the only way to put pressure on lawmakers to get the work done.
This time, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that complicated things. The public health crisis forced the Capitol to mostly shut down to the public in March. Then, the unrest that followed Floyd’s death on May 25 made the building a target for destruction. Barricades still surround the Capitol, and State Patrol troopers are on constant watch.
Even reporters, who are supposed to get access to news conferences, struggled to navigate the tight security and inform the public about what lawmakers were debating.
“A big part of it is the COVID-19. It does bother me that the press cannot be more engaged. It’s hard for them to get in the Capitol,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told WCCO the morning after adjourning the second special session of the summer. “We try to do more on Zoom, but Zoom is not the same.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, blamed Republicans for adjourning the first special session of the summer in June — triggered by Gov. Tim Walz’s extension of his emergency powers — forcing negotiations to go behind closed doors. Ideally, she said, differences on policing bills would have been worked out in public Zoom hearings with members of both chambers.
“It takes two bodies that are willing to do it that way,” she said.
But even Zoom hearings were almost nonexistent during the July special session, called as Walz extended his emergency powers for another 30 days.
Instead, lawmakers set a midnight deadline to finish their work on Monday and retreated behind closed doors until nearly 11 p.m. They emerged with a sweeping package of proposals to change policing in the state, from banning most chokeholds and warrior-style training to a requirement for officers to intercede in cases of excessive force.
Some had been debated in public hearings weeks earlier, but others were entirely new creations, hatched in private. Within a few hours, while most Minnesotans were sleeping, lawmakers passed the deal and sent it off to Walz’s desk.