Every politician has an origin story, the tale of why they got into the game in the first place.
Rarely tied to personal ambition, the story is usually about how some person, some event, some turning point in their lives called them to serve. They didn’t volunteer as much as they were drafted.
For DFLer Tim Walz, it was a campaign rally for then-President George W. Bush that he attended with some of his Mankato high school students. Once there, Walz said the students were questioned about their political views after security found a sticker for Democrat John Kerry on one student’s wallet. Walz went on to work for the Kerry campaign and was tapped to run for Congress two years later.
If not for that incident, Walz told Congressional Quarterly shortly after an upset win over incumbent U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht that he probably wouldn’t have run.
For Republican Scott Jensen, it was a call from the producers of Laura Ingraham’s FOX News program who had heard of his complaints that federal rules could be pushing doctors to categorize deaths as COVID-19-related when he thought they were due to other causes.
“All of a sudden I was being pushed to the front of the line. I was being asked to speak to issues, put them in context. And I literally became a national figure,” Jensen, a medical doctor from Chaska, said this summer. “And I think I have a half a million people that follow me every day. And people started to push me to run for governor.”
The teacher looking after his students, the doctor being protective of his patients, both now running for governor of Minnesota. From their political origin stories have flowed their political personas, their campaign themes. It is rare to hear either speak without a reference to the teacher, the doctor.
“I’m a family doctor,” Jensen said during Friday’s last of three debates. “I’m running for governor because I think Minnesota is fractured.”
Said Walz: “Having spent 20-plus years in education, Scott doesn’t honor that. Being governor means lifting this state up.”
For Walz, the teacher isn’t far from the surface. One of his favorite quips is that he knows how to deal with the Legislature from his 20 years supervising the high school lunchroom. His State of the State speech in the second year of COVID was delivered from his former Mankato West classroom.
Walz was in Congress for 12 years, representing the type of rural districts that Democrats were losing favor in across the U.S. He positioned himself as a moderate, working on local issues by serving on the House Agriculture Committee and acting upon his 24 years in the National Guard with work on the House Armed Services Committee (he resigned from the Guard in the spring of 2005 as he was preparing for his first campaign).
His election margins grew smaller until he reached a tiny 50.3 percent to 49.6 percent win over Jim Hagedorn in 2016. Facing an up-or-out choice, Walz began preparing a governor campaign once it was clear that incumbent DFLer Mark Dayton would not seek a third term.
The Nebraska native was viewed by much of the base as not liberal enough to win the endorsement, something Walz responded to by recruiting state Rep. Peggy Flanagan as his running mate. Still, the pair lost the endorsement to Erin Murphy but stayed in the race to easily top Murphy and then-Attorney General Lori Swanson in the primary.
The general election against Republican Jeff Johnson wasn’t close, and Walz took the oath of office in January 2019 in an atmosphere of relatively good feelings with a DFL House and a GOP Senate. Despite some detours with an effort to adopt a series of transportation tax hikes, that session ended with a bipartisan budget deal.
The next year was not as much fun. In the midst of the 2020 session, COVID-19 quickly appeared and shut down much of American life. Using executive powers granted by state law, Walz ordered the closures of schools, bars and restaurants and many businesses. Then, on May 25, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking demonstrations and riots not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul but across the U.S.
Criticizing Walz’s handling of the response has been a central theme in Jensen’s campaign. The Republican argues Walz was too slow and too timid, and that it has contributed to increases in violent crime. He accuses Walz of “freezing” in the midst of the riots.
“He unleashed a poisonous spread of lawlessness. Arguably he is the godfather of the crime epidemic that has swept our country,” Jensen said during a debate in Rochester earlier this month.
Walz admits to missteps in the fog of unrest but defends the work of police, the State Patrol and National Guard members in eventually quelling the riots. That experience led to a decision to put large contingents of police and troops in place quickly when later unrest occurred or were feared.
He has also said that being in the battle is hard, while watching from the sidelines is easy.
“I served 24 years in the National Guard,” Walz said while standing for the first time in the forum. “That’s a lot more experience than watching ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ and second guessing while our men and women are facing gunshots. They performed historically and they performed heroically.”
But his defense led to one of the more fiery exchanges of the second debate between the pair in Rochester.
“I’m proud of Minnesota’s response. I’m proud of Minnesota’s first responders who were out there, from firefighters to police to the National Guard to citizens who were out there,” he said.
Said Jensen: “You heard it here. Gov. Walz just told you ‘I’m proud of Minnesota’s response?’ Wow. Burn that into your psyche, Minnesota.”
The COVID-19 state of emergency ended in the summer of 2021, but crisis management has remained at the core of the Walz administration. That now includes the Feeding Our Future scandal in which federal prosecutors have issued some 50 indictments that Walz asserts were triggered by his agency. But critics, led by Jensen, have said enforcement came too slowly and allowed a $250 million fraud to continue too long.
The state’s continued financial health has kept budget cuts off of the governor and the state Legislature’s to-do lists. State treasuries were aided by the massive influx of spending from three major pandemic relief packages passed by Congress.
Another bipartisan budget deal was reached in 2021 after both sides abandoned many of their partisan goals, including a Walz proposal to tax high earners. But compromise eluded the parties as the 2022 election loomed. Who is to blame for that failure – Republicans say Democrats for wanting too much in new spending, Democrats say Jensen for politicizing a bipartisan compromise – has been a he-said-she-said sideshow of the campaign.
Either way, regardless of who wins, a $12 billion surplus over the next two and a half years will be issue No. 1 when the Legislature convenes in January.
From maverick to lightning rod
With just a decade on the Waconia School Board as his only experience in elected office, Scott Jensen went to the State Capitol in 2017 as a freshman senator from a safe GOP district centered on Chaska. The owner of a family medical clinic along with other businesses, he quickly won a reputation as a maverick if not a moderate, willing to work across party lines on hard issues, including gun safety, marijuana reform, insulin affordability and even gay conversion therapy bans.
His bedside manner and tendency to use the familiar “Doc” when referring to himself drew admirers but also some suspicion in his own caucus. He became part of a bipartisan group of physicians known as the Doctor Caucus that sought less-partisan approaches to health care issues. One of Jensen’s successes involved the regulation of pharmacy benefit managers that manage prescription drug claims for health insurers. He was later appointed co-chair of a task force created by Attorney General Keith Ellison to look into lowering drug prices.
When he announced that he wouldn’t seek a second term, Jensen said of the Legislature, “This is really a bizarre place.
“I think the modus operandi is to circle the wagons,” he told MinnPost after announcing he would not run. “So whether the discussion is marijuana or guns or abortion: ‘circle the wagons; here they come. You know, we’ve got to defend at all costs.’ … I know it’s a cliche, but I really do buy into the idea that the dumbest question is the unasked question. I mean, just ask the question.”
Just as the pandemic changed the trajectory of Walz’s political career, it transformed Jensen from a maverick to a lightning rod. He joined fellow GOP senators in questioning the breadth of shutdowns but later gained publicity by stating that doctors and hospitals were citing COVID-19 on death certificates in order to win higher reimbursements from government and insurance.
He later touted unproven and unapproved treatments for the disease caused by the new virus, moves that led to complaints to the medical licensing board. Jensen survived a grueling endorsement process at the GOP state convention, partly by taking more conservative positions on issues. He apologized for his own willingness to have conversations with gun safety advocates and repeated an assertion that Secretary of State Steve Simon “would look good in stripes.”
After securing the endorsement, Jensen acknowledged that intra-party politics require different tactics. “Once you get the endorsement, I think you can broaden your platform,” Jensen said. “New issues will be brought into the mix.”
While Walz sometimes has trouble completing sentences, letting his rapid-fire speaking style get ahead of his syntax, Jensen has had trouble sticking to the themes of the campaign. While polling says the GOP is best to talk about inflation and crime, Jensen often spends more time talking about the topic that got him into the campaign.
“When you look at them being locked in, that’s not a whole lot different than students being locked out and not a whole lot different from businesses being locked down,” Jensen said of nursing home lockdowns. “This whole concept of locking down Minnesota is absolutely an abomination of government overreach.”
Jensen said he thought the best response was to isolate those at most risk and let the rest of society build immunity by exposure. The early pandemic response that kept many workers at home and increased jobless pay to compensate them was an incentive “to sit on the couch and watch TV,” Jensen said. Walz responded angrily. “What you’ll never hear from your governor is that Minnesotans are lazy, setting on their couches while we watched 13,000 of our neighbors die.
“Instead of bringing false information, be part of the solution. If you truly believe in our people, invest in our children, invest in our teachers, and don’t you dare call us lazy.”
While Walz has the endorsement of Education Minnesota, the state’s large teachers union, Jensen’s relationship with his profession is less supportive. Without mentioning Jensen by name, the board of the Minnesota Medical Association endorsed Walz for two reasons – public health response to the pandemic and gun safety.
“The ongoing global pandemic and other critical healthcare issues are at stake this year and that compelled the organization to support a candidate who would best advocate for the health of Minnesotans,” wrote Dr. Will Nicholson, Chair of the association’s political action committee board.
Jensen sometimes touts opposition from the medical community and ethics complaints filed against him by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice as proof of his courage. He has asserted that the board was “weaponized” against him.
“If they did it to me, they’ll do it to you,” he said at Farmfest. Jensen has said he would change the board’s makeup if elected. He has also said he would continue to practice medicine if elected, something he’s done while campaigning, though he has relinquished hospital admitting privileges to avoid hospital COVID rules.
Abortion rights take center stage
The tone of the campaign changed on June 24 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 case Roe v. Wade and ended a federally protected right to abortion. Polling shows crime and inflation are the top two issues on the minds of voters, with abortion third. But those who cite abortion are mostly DFL and independent voters who could make it a voting issue. And abortion rights is the central theme of a massive deluge of TV ads against Jensen, sponsored by the large DFL-associated independent expenditure committee Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
Walz immediately pledged to support abortion rights in Minnesota. “Not on my watch,” he said of any changes to state law or the Minnesota Constitution.
Jensen has been less unequivocal. In an often-replayed interview on MPR News in March, Jensen said, “I would try to ban abortions … we don’t need to be snuffing out lives that if left alone will produce a viable newborn.” He said he opposed exceptions for rape and incest unless the life of the mother was at risk.
He has moved away from that position since, now saying abortion is not on the ballot because the state Supreme Court found it protected under state constitutional provisions. Courts have struck down legislative restrictions on abortion, so only a constitutional amendment or a dramatic change in the current makeup of the state Supreme Court would alter the status quo.
Jensen said he supports wider access to contraception, including the morning-after pill, says a mother’s mental health, as well as physical health, should be considered and favors increased financial support for mothers.
Said Walz on Friday: “This is the most anti-choice, anti-woman ticket that’s ever run. As long as I am governor, women’s health care rights are protected.”
Callaghan covers the state government for MinnPost. Follow him on Twitter or email him at pcallaghan(at)minnpost(dot)com.
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