Governors’ State of the State speeches often attempt to lay out a grand vision, filled with all the goals they can pack into the time allotted. One side claps, the other doesn’t and, soon, everyone moves on.
Gov. Tim Walz’s address Wednesday evening was different. Given largely off the cuff, his speech was an appeal aimed at legislators — particularly Republicans — to help “write a different story” that would not end in mistrust and gridlock and unbridgeable differences, but in genuine compromise that would help the “real people” whose stories he used to try to reset the tone of a legislative session that, at its midpoint, has been showing definite signs of fraying.
Though his own frustration level has ticked up noticeably in recent days, Walz refrained from “calling out” the other side, even though Senate Republicans only this week started hearing pieces of the budget proposals the administration released two months earlier. Instead, as he spoke of the dairy farmer without insurance, the neighbor killed on a deteriorating road, the child suffering from school inequity, Walz acknowledged that Democrats and Republicans alike, although their solutions may differ, at bottom long to help relieve the problems that hold Minnesotans back, that make their lives less than they could be.
That hit home with some Republicans. Demonizing the other side is all too easy. Raise your flag, carry it into battle, give no quarter and when the battle ends in a draw, declare you’ll fight all the harder if only voters send more to your side. But that hasn’t worked in Washington, as Walz, a former congressman, noted, and it hasn’t worked here in Minnesota, as anyone who recalls earlier government shutdowns can attest. Republican Sen. Jim Abeler, of Anoka, found himself applauding Walz several times. “He set a great tone,” Abeler said later. “He mentioned compromise several times and I like that. It’s unifying. It’s what we need. I find myself more optimistic than when I came in.”
No one speech is going to magically make deep ideological differences disappear, even from as gifted a speaker as Walz. And we may be testing the limits of what improved tone can accomplish. But a governor willing to humble himself, to acknowledge that his opponents have good intentions and maybe even good ideas, can go a long way to allowing the other side to make similar gestures of goodwill. Walz did what more leaders should do: He used his bully pulpit to turn the flame down, not up.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka noted afterward that “we have to reach a place of compromise. The fact that [his] tone was positive and generally not chastising us, that was important. I’m confident that with the approach he’s taking, with the approach we’re taking, that we can get to the finish line and the end product will be good for Minnesotans.”
To hold true to their words, both leaders will have to be willing to disappoint — even anger — their supporters if they are to cross their partisan divides. Real compromise means you get a few wins and you take a few hits. Walz may have to dial back his proposed tax increases, even though it would compromise elements of his agenda, or accept the Republican push on projects like the Line 3 pipeline. Gazelka may have to accept gun law changes that Democrats and a majority of the public desire and meet a new governor and DFL House majority halfway on proposed spending. Such compromises would be painful, and not easily reached.
But they would mark Minnesota, with the only divided state government in the nation, as willing to do the hard work of bringing differing sides together to produce a better outcome — an idea foundational to this country.
There is some reason for optimism. One of Walz’s strongest lines brought Republicans and Democrats alike to their feet with thunderous applause: “I do not want a single one of us in this building to fail, because that means Minnesota fails.”