Violent threats against Minnesota's political leaders are growing in frequency and intensity, a trend that started long before last week's storming of the U.S. Capitol cheered on by a crowd in St. Paul.
The rise came as lawmakers grappled with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last summer. In the backdrop were a pandemic and officials administering an election shrouded by unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud.
"Those of us who have been doing nothing but trying to protect people from COVID's spread and conduct fair elections, having to put up with this level of threat is just ridiculous to me," said Attorney General Keith Ellison, whose role includes enforcing the state's COVID-19 restrictions.
Citing security reasons, he declined to specify the nature of certain threats that he has received in recent months, but he acknowledged that it has become serious enough to warrant changes to his daily lifestyle in response. Ellison, who has been singled out before for his faith after becoming the nation's first Muslim member of Congress, said Islamist terrorist groups have made threats on his life.
But this feels different, he said.
"Those are people from across the water who don't know me," Ellison said of receiving death threats from terror groups while he was a member of Congress. "But this thing recently, some of these folks are good old Minnesotans operating under serious delusions."
Threats have flooded in through e-mails, phone calls and social media posts, sometimes sparked by misinformation. Prosecutors charged a Blaine man in August in connection with a profanity-laced phone message for Gov. Tim Walz, threatening to put his body in a building the state bought for a surge in COVID-19 deaths and "burn it down." Groups protesting COVID-19 closures have regularly staked out the governor's residence in St. Paul over the last year. A number of state legislators, including DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, have had protesters outside their homes and businesses.
"It's a pretty credible threat when somebody says they're going to put a bullet through your head, or 'we're not going to be happy until we put your head under water and the bubbles start coming up.' It's real and it's increased," said Gazelka of threats toward himself and others in the Senate GOP caucus. "There has been a huge uptick in the last 12 months."
Threats against public officials have been on the rise across the country, including in nearby Michigan, where federal authorities in October thwarted a plan to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, take over the state's Capitol and perform a week of televised executions of other public elected officials. St. Croix County Republicans in Hudson, Wis., posted a message on their homepage last week, before the insurrection, urging people to "prepare for war."
On the same day as the breach in Washington, Walz said his teenage son was evacuated from the governor's residence after the "Storm the Capitol" rally made its way from the Minnesota Capitol to the family's home. One speaker at the rally said there would be "casualties" and talked about going to the home of a judge who approved mail-in voting rule changes before the last election.
At an event Tuesday, Walz didn't comment on his own security but said the state is coordinating with police to set up hotlines for legislators and their families who are increasingly facing harassment.
"How did we get here and how is this OK?" Walz said. "This is a horrific assault on the democracy."
"Legislators here, these are moms and dads and business owners and teachers and nurses and doctors who come to the Capitol to do the people's work for a couple of months out of the year," he added. "These people are posting their names and addresses online and threatening to go to their houses."
Republican leaders released public statements and a letter this week denouncing the violence that took place in Washington. Gazelka said leaders in all parties need to join together to tone down the rhetoric.
"I want to stand against anyone who is threatening public leaders and their families," Gazelka said. "We need to encourage the dialogue back to the Capitol and not toward people's personal lives."
But Democrats have criticized Republican leaders for not actively combating Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims of widespread voting fraud, which the president repeated in a rally just before a mob of his supporters descended on the U.S. Capitol to stop the counting of Electoral College votes.
"Leaders have to be held accountable for what they say or what they don't," said Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina. "When you are fanning the flames of a potential stolen election, that doesn't help. That just puts doubt on the integrity of our election system."
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon has been targeted for his role in administering the 2020 election. Multiple Republican state lawmakers have accused Simon of "knowingly" running an "illegal" election, stoking jeers at last week's rally in St. Paul.
Simon's wife and sister have been harassed online, he said, but Simon has received no specific threats of violence. Yet since the fall, he said, Simon has had to keep in regular touch with "multiple law enforcement organizations" for his security — something he said he has never had to do in his 16-year political career.
"I have never seen a climate this hostile toward public officials generally and toward those who touch elections generally," Simon said.
"If people are hearing a steady stream of talk about how the election is rigged and the president was robbed and elections are illegal — which is a charge that was leveled specifically my way — then is it any wonder that someone would take that seriously and literally and go after the perpetrators of what is being described at these rallies?" he added. "Of course not. Why would we be surprised if someone acted in a violent way based on language like that?"
Staffer Jessie Van Berkel contributed reporting to this story.