Just as Gov. Tim Walz announced a statewide mask mandate this week, his top economic development commissioner fired off an e-mail to business and industry groups urging them to submit pre-written letters supporting the policy to newspapers and other organizations.
None of the sample letters included disclosures indicating the text was written and provided by state officials.
The push sparked protests Friday from Senate GOP leaders accusing the DFL governor of using state resources for what they called a “taxpayer funded PR campaign” in support of a mandate that many Republicans oppose as an overreach of his emergency powers to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka called the move a “poor decision” at best, adding that he is looking into whether the action constitutes a violation of state law or ethics.
“The average Minnesotan understands that businesses and individuals should never be directed or pressured to publicly support the Governor by one of the Governor’s own commissioners,” Gazelka said in a statement. “The public needs to see a reprimand and explanation of this abuse of power.”
Gazelka’s criticism represents the latest iteration of an ongoing political dispute over Walz’s response to the pandemic and the emergency powers he has used to temporarily close schools, restaurants and other public places, which Republicans see as an excessive economic disruption.
The letter templates were sent out in an e-mail Wednesday as Walz was announcing the mandate, which takes effect Saturday. They were attached to e-mails signed by Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove. Among the drafts were letter-to-the-editor templates custom-tailored to be from business owners, health care professionals and “parents/educators.”
“[To] make this work — we need your help,” Grove’s e-mail reads. “Your support for wearing masks is critical toward ensuring adoption. As respected leaders in your communities, we need your voices to ensure we mask up, so that we can continue to reopen our economy.”
A Walz spokesman directed questions on the letters to DEED. A spokeswoman for the agency said officials there believe the administration actions were within ethical and legal bounds.
Grove, the agency head, defended the outreach in a statement to the Star Tribune: “As part of Minnesota’s public health campaign, DEED is partnering with businesses across the state to get the message out that masks will slow the spread of the virus,” he said. “We’re using every tool at our disposal to keep Minnesotans safe and healthy, and allow our businesses to remain open.”
Providing supporters with sample talking points and messaging is a common tactic used by political organizations and campaigns to build public momentum. But organized efforts intended to create the appearance of widespread public support while concealing the source of the message, a practice sometimes known as astroturfing, have come under criticism in recent years.
David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who served as the president of Common Cause Minnesota, said the administration’s move raises several ethical, and potentially legal, issues. Asking groups to publish letters a state agency drafted on the state’s behest, without disclosure, prompts transparency concerns, he said. The use of public dollars for what Schultz called “quasi-lobbying,” encouraging individuals and groups to express public support for the policy, is also problematic.
“We know you can’t expend public dollars for clearly political purposes,” he said. “There’s something inappropriate in expending public dollars for the purposes of encouraging the public to take political positions. And this is clearly a political position.”
In addition to the letter-to-the-editor templates, DEED provided sample text that individuals could send to state officials to indicate support for the mandate. Instructions at the top say to “e-mail or mail” the message to the governor. Schultz said that request borders on “subterfuge” by creating the “false perception of an overflowing of support for the administration’s policy in this area where there may not be.”
Putting that request to groups and industries with business in front of the administration adds another layer of potentially concerning political pressure, he said.
“If they had sent out something to say, ‘encourage your friends, encourage your neighbors to wear a mask,’ that’s OK, that’s no big deal,” he said.
“But to write the canned language and encourage people to send this back to the governor, so the governor can say ‘I got 25,000 postcards telling me they support what [I’m] doing?’ That’s not just a transparency issue, there’s a little bit of deception there.”
The dust-up comes as Republican lawmakers have sought unsuccessfully to end the governor’s use of emergency powers, arguing that his actions are no longer warranted. On Wednesday, Gazelka criticized the mask mandate as a “one-size-fits-all” approach that doesn’t make sense for communities with fewer coronavirus cases.
Health officials say the mask mandate reflects growing evidence that face coverings, along with social distancing, hand-washing and other precautions, can help control the spread of coronavirus. While some studies have provided weak or inconclusive findings on the benefits, a June analysis showed the spread of COVID-19 dropped more sharply in states with mandates.
State and national polling, including a Fox News Poll of Minnesotans released Thursday, show broad support for use of masks during the pandemic.