As Gov. Tim Walz himself has said, 2020 made him the COVID governor. Next year, the state Constitution mandates that he must also be the balance-the-budget governor.
But between now and November 2022, when he must face the voters if he wants a second term, the DFL governor would be well advised to reclaim the mantle that got him elected. In 2018, Walz won the strongest gubernatorial majority in 24 years with a vow to be the One Minnesota governor.
My claim: One Minnesota is still the right theme for Walz — less for the sake of his re-election than for his success as governor. And time's a-wastin' for him to make that slogan real.
I'm not dispensing cheap campaign advice here. As Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton both demonstrated, it's possible for a Democrat to win a statewide election without carrying vast swaths of greater Minnesota. A big metro win plus narrow majorities in a few regional centers will do the trick.
But that's likely not a formula for achieving legislative majorities, even if the next redistricting plan is friendlier to Walz's party than the current one. DFL dominance in the state's big cities can't end gridlock at the Capitol. Win the way Biden and Clinton did in 2022, and Walz will risk starting a second term as former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton did in 2011, with a Republican-controlled Legislature, a stalled agenda and a high probability of either a government shutdown or an ill-crafted budget deal. (Dayton got both.)
That risk for Walz looms as polls this year have detected erosion of his support in greater Minnesota, where he carried 16 counties in 2018. A September Minnesota Poll found his slide most evident in northern Minnesota. There, more of those polled voiced disapproval than approval of the former southern Minnesota congressman's gubernatorial performance, even as his statewide approval/disapproval ratio stood at 57-36%.
To better understand that trend, I spoke with the legislator who has come to personify northeastern Minnesota's alienation from the DFL: state Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook.
That's former DFL caucus leader Bakk, ousted from that role in an internecine coup earlier this year. He and Sen. Dave Tomassoni of Chisholm (who, unlike Bakk, still uses the DFL label) now comprise a separate independent caucus, a small but potentially significant force in a Senate in which Republicans have the barest of majorities.
Bakk, a former labor official, faults Walz first and foremost for not pushing the replacement of Enbridge's Line 3 oil pipeline traversing northern Minnesota. That line means good-paying jobs and dependable property tax revenue in a part of the state that badly needs both, Bakk said. On Walz's watch, the Public Utilities Commission has approved the line's replacement, but the state Commerce Department has asked the courts to review that decision.
The six-term senator has supported Walz's use of emergency powers to attempt to throttle the COVID pandemic. But those actions have been hugely unpopular outstate, Bakk said.
"It was a colossal mistake to shut the entire state down" last spring, when the virus was not yet much in evidence in greater Minnesota, Bakk said. "Leaving the big-box stores open while Main Street was closed? It was like he panicked."
But Bakk traces trouble for Walz in greater Minnesota to a year earlier, when the new governor asked the Legislature to increase the highway-dedicated state gas tax by a hefty 20 cents per gallon. Walz did not get his way, in part because rural drivers complained that a higher gas tax would unduly burden them.
That experience should point Walz toward a course correction, Bakk said. He advised against another gas tax increase proposal in 2021. More highway money could come instead from tapping more of the sales tax revenue generated by auto repairs and higher license tab fees on vehicles that consume little or no gasoline.
"You could charge sales tax at electric car charging stations," he suggested.
Another Bakk idea seemed tailor-made for a governor who's a former high school teacher in Mankato. Small-town schools are disadvantaged by the state's per-pupil funding formula and need more help, Bakk argued.
"An extra $100 per kid if your school population is below some threshold would make a big difference," he said. "I'd do the same thing for small two-year colleges. Those schools are really important to families, especially now. They allow kids to go to college while staying at home and not racking up big debts."
His third recommendation is my favorite: It's past time for Minnesota to finally make internet broadband universally available and affordable. Broadband is essential infrastructure for modern life.
"We haven't made enough of an effort at broadband, and people really see that now," Bakk said.
These are what Bakk called "tall timber" ideas, especially for a 2021 legislative session that will also be obliged to close a $1.3 billion gap in the next biennium's budget. What's more, Bakk isn't sure this agenda would be sufficient to revive rural support in the governor.
What is certain is that by leaving the DFL caucus, Bakk is signaling that he won't mute his criticism if he thinks Walz is not living up to his One Minnesota promise. The 66-year-old senator ran for governor once before, in 2010. When I asked, he did not rule out a second try.
"Right now, I'm looking at all of rural Minnesota being ignored," he said. "Who's going to be the rural voice in 2022?"
My hunch: Bakk aims to turn his newfound independent status into a rural Minnesota bullhorn.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.