Behind the Mask: Gov. Tim Walz’s Fight to Unite Minnesota

A masked-up discussion of racial justice, RBG, unions, and his biggest pandemic regret
Gov. Tim Walz at the Minnesota governor's residence in St. Paul
Gov. Tim Walz at the Minnesota governor’s residence in St. Paul

Photo by Nate Ryan

Though it might seem like it was much longer ago, Gov. Tim Walz took office in January of 2019. (That’s just COVID-19 time distortion talking.) Prior to that, Walz was the U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s First Congressional District, served in the Army National Guard, and worked as a geography teacher at Mankato West High School. For much of 2020, Minnesota has seen unprecedented change and disruption due to the racial uprising following the killing of George Floyd and, of course, the pandemic. Walz has tried to be the voice of reason amid overlapping catastrophes, multiple calls to the National Guard, and promises of his campaign to build “One Minnesota” in an undeniably divisive climate.

“There’s no shame in acknowledging our shortfalls,” he says, during a masked-up, socially distant interview at the State Capitol in St. Paul in late September. “This is the opportunity to write the next chapter in Minnesota’s history.” While answering our questions—and some we solicited from key community members—Gov. Walz was candid about recent challenges, and his vision for better days ahead.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gov. Walz in the solarium at the Governor's Mansion in St. Paul
Gov. Walz in the solarium at the Governor’s Mansion in St. Paul

Photo by Nate Ryan

How do you connect with Minnesota during a pandemic?

I was at a barbershop in North Minneapolis today with my friend Houston White, who is launching his coffee brand. I have to be careful with the social distancing. I won’t cross certain thresholds, like at schools. I’ve been out this week on a “thank you” tour. My job has to be to keep these schools and businesses open, and we need to get out there to hear from them. We’re all doing Zoom, but that’s not enough. The feeling I have—I don’t believe Minnesotans want this division. I don’t believe they disregard COVID. They’re sick of it, and so am I. But getting sick of something is not the same as beating it and keeping people safe.

A question from Minnesota’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, Qorsho Hassan: How can we address retention of teachers of color?

The teachers of color issue is, for me, one of the fundamental building blocks to fixing inequities, achievement, home ownership, and everything else that goes with it. Make sure that those teachers are given an opportunity to lead. As Houston told me this morning, it’s also not enough to be valued in your organization. You’re there for 40 hours a week, then you go back where there’s no community for you, or it’s a segregated community. We need to make very clear that these teachers are valued and they’re integrated deeply into the community. We’re making sure that we don’t lose them early when things happen.

Another from Hassan: How can we address the system failing students of color?

We can’t just view education funding as “Well, we’re going to give out this flat amount, and then if your community is wealthy, go ahead and pass a bonding referendum and build a climbing wall and a couple pools, and offer French and Latin and everything else.” Meanwhile, we leave other schools crowded and with no heat in them. I think it’s a combination of funding those schools, getting leaders from the community, and retaining those teachers of color. Then we’ve got a shot at this.

The events surrounding George Floyd have changed Minnesota history. How do we update history education to better teach students the injustices of the state, past and present?

I guarantee you, until recently, it wasn’t just students, but there were a lot of teachers that were unfamiliar with the execution of 38+2 Dakota in Mankato [during the Civil War]. I bet you more than a year ago not 5% of Minnesotans knew Max Mason [a Black circus worker accused of rape in Duluth in 1920; a mob lynched three of his coworkers]. I do have experience with this, and I think the curriculum matters. Even if you give students the content, if they don’t understand what precipitated it, you’re not getting anything. We need people here to understand why MNDOT’s decision to build I-94 through Rondo has a direct tie to George Floyd’s death and what happened afterward.

From the Penumbra Theatre’s Sarah Bellamy: How can the state partner with groups like the Black arts community to change the public narrative around race?

The first thing we can do is get rid of this idea that the arts are a fringe thing to do after everything else. It’s fundamental part of what it means to be human, and tells our stories in a way that other things don’t. The art that you saw spring up around the George Floyd memorial is an expression of the human condition. One of the things we need to do is fight for a budget that doesn’t say “Boy, we have tough budget times, the arts get cut.” The state needs to be the resource to allow this creativity and to get out of the way so that a community can tell its story. But we need to make sure we change that narrative that these are only “nice to have” things after the roads are built.

Folks saw you driving a ’79 Scout truck during the State Fair Food Parade. What’s the story behind that vehicle?

I bought it about 15-20 years ago from an Army helicopter pilot who had a long deployment. I had them growing up because they’re farm trucks. If you bought a tractor, they’d throw these in. I told my wife I had no idea, when I bought this thing for $3,900—and I do a lot of my own work on it—that the dang thing would be on the top of the collectors’ list. My kids thought it was the goofiest thing in the world, but my 19-year-old daughter was driving it around yesterday.

What is our state’s path to better fuel efficiency?

I get around using fossil fuels, but we’re going to need to transition. The question is always how quickly and smartly we transition based upon what the evidence shows. One reason that I continue to ask for clean-air standards is that Minnesota can only purchase about a dozen electric vehicles and hybrids while states that have clean-air standards can buy 46 of them. Why aren’t we incentivizing behavior that we know can make a difference?

Photo by Nate Ryan

What environmental changes have you observed during the pandemic?

The geographer in me showed my 13-year-old and my 19-year-old one of the most stunning photos. Folks in northern India could see Mount Everest for the first time since the mid-1980s. I lived in that area and I was at Mount Everest in 1989. It was such a beautiful image. Look at how quickly we got a reversal. I used to hear this idea with people who smoke—“Well, I already did the damage.” We know that the damage can be reversed. You can turn it back. So from a planet’s perspective, we’ve still got a short window here.

What role does science play in your administration?

Science is not a belief system. It’s the data that’s supported—if it’s done right. But there has to be an ability to manage public safety, commerce, peripheral well-being issues with what the science tells us. If we followed just the science on COVID-19, we would’ve locked everything down tighter than anything until we had a handle on community transmission. With the lack of a national strategy, we weren’t able to do that. The single biggest regret I have around this is that we didn’t get clear messaging around social distancing and masking from federal leadership. That did not have to be controversial at all.

I had a sign in my congressional office that said, “If the facts dispute our ideology, we change our ideology.” I see too many people not want to have the facts. This boggles my mind. There are legislators that advocated people not getting COVID-19 testing because they thought they were using it to close their schools in Mankato. We were using it to protect lives and get those schools open. The idea that if you just don’t test and we’ll be OK flies in the face of everything. As the new facts come along around COVID, we need to change.

How can we create sustained improvements in the lives of homeless Minnesotans?

This was a problem before COVID-19, and it’s not just the Twin Cities. It’s Mankato, it’s Virginia, it’s everywhere. It’s not treating it once that person is in that camp on Hiawatha. It’s what happened from birth until they got there. What happened on home ownership, what happened on addiction, and why is such a disproportionate number of Indigenous people on the streets? It’s a complex issue because it’s local government, county government, state government, federal government, but it’s also a lot of nonprofits and faith-based organizations. The template is what I started when I was in Congress—this idea of eliminating veterans’ homelessness. Veterans come with a package of support, usually from the VA. They’ve got mental health support, they’ve got healthcare support, they’ve got job training support. They have this healing net around them that addresses all the things that lead to homelessness. It’s expensive to do this, but to not do it is even more expensive.

We are seeing workers in the Twin Cities food and beverage industry forming unions amid the pandemic. What does this signify to you?

There are a lot of employers that are open, safe, profitable, and have unionized workers. I am a lifelong union member. I believe with all of the fiber of my being in the ability to collectively bargain. It helped my family enter the middle class. It made our education system stronger. I do understand the concerns. If it were all about “our better angels,” we wouldn’t need these things. Someone said, “Why do you have to have mask mandates? Just tell people to wear the masks.” Why do we have to have traffic laws? Because 95% of us are fine, but what about the 5% who think it’d be fun to drive on the sidewalk?

I know, from a teachers’ union perspective, it’s not just about arguing for more pay, it’s about our children’s ability to learn. To keep and retain the best people. To keep our workplace safe. I’m not going to go back to the times where the labor that creates the wealth is not seen as valuable. I value management and ownership’s role to make decisions, but if you have a well-qualified, well-trained, safe workforce, that’s where profitability comes from. It’s not just burning through people and “We’ll just find someone else.”

How did the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg strike you?

I went out to Boom Island. It was very powerful to be in the community for a social-distanced candlelight vigil. I listened to folks who clerked for Justice Ginsberg, and to young women talking about her impact. The ideas of fairness in the workplace, control over reproductive health rights, freedom to marry who you love, all those things. Her life inspired this sense of what you can mean in your community to a whole generation. If an 87-year-old woman fighting cancer to her last breath was fighting for these things that made our country better, then we damn sure can get up and continue that fight. This is a moment. I was personal friends with [U.S. Representative] John Lewis [who died in July]. Certainly in my lifetime, there are no two stronger examples of what we can be.