Hutchinson’s Days Inn had extra visitors this past Friday morning as DFL regulars and curious locals filed into a conference room to hear from gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz.
The DFL hopeful has represented in Washington, D.C., Minnesota’s First Congressional District, which runs along the state’s rural southern end, since 2007. Though he did not secure the party’s endorsement — it went to state Rep. Erin Murphy — Walz, 54, has decided to continue his bid in the primary election. He is joined by running mate Rep. Peggy Flanagan.
Walz spoke in Hutchinson about his platform, and his vision for a more unified Minnesota. Afterword, he sat down to chat with a reporter for this Q&A.
You spoke about unifying Minnesota. A lot is said about an urban/rural divide in Minnesota, such as when discussing transportation funding. Can that divide be bridged?
“I’m the only candidate from Greater Minnesota. I’m also unique that I’m a rural Democrat, and there aren’t a lot left in the country. I do believe people are seeing it’s counter productive to divide this state. The economy in Minneapolis/St. Paul helps fuel the whole state, as do we out here in ag country.”
“We need transit in the cities to move large numbers of people, we can’t keep adding lanes to (Interstate) 35. But that (building mass transit) is not why we are not building highways and bridges out here. It’s because we have not done the gas tax, we have not had an honest conversation with people. If you take pledges where you’ll never raise anything, or talk about honest budgeting, I think that makes people frustrated. Because people are willing to pay for things as long as they know it is being spent wisely, and they know where it is going. So I think my job is to make the case on the ticket with Peggy and I — an urban legislator and a rural legislator who grew up farming and knows farm country, and one who grew up in the cities and working with areas of diversity of population.
“I think our strength is in that diversity. Our strength lies in having an economy that is both urban and rural. A lot of states don’t have that capacity. We weathered the great recession because of that. So my job is to make government function fairly. To not make a false choice, to say ‘Those people can’t have transit’ or ‘Those people don’t need highways out there.’ That’s a false choice that doesn’t work for any of us.”
Even highway funds, such as those designated for Corridors of Commerce, meant for rural Minnesota often seem like they barely leave the metro area. Rural Minnesotans along U.S. Highway 212 have worked for years to see four lanes added to the road throughout the state. How should this be addressed?
“You build coalitions that we’re all in this together. One thing I would say is, I would look at your local legislators, and if they voted against a gas tax, you have to ask them why. We haven’t raised it in 30 years. We need to look at it. I’m not pollyannish, that’s not going to fix everything. The federal government funds about 50 percent of the roads. The federal government is paralyzed right now. But we have to have an honest conversation about what this is going to cost. I’m willing to look, and lay everything on the table to get efficiencies out of this, to get infrastructure, those kinds of things, making that case.
“The Corridors of Commerce thing? I’m frustrated by that, but this is what happens when we have a legislature that is as divided as the country. Urban and suburban tend to be Democratic. Greater Minnesota tends to be Republican. It used to be you had a mix, and then you had a compromise. The same thing is happening in Congress on the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill debate didn’t used to be urban/rural. It used to be cotton versus soybeans ... I would join my Republican corn growing state to fight against the southern cotton and rice growers who were Republican and Democrat. I think that’s what makes the case that you need a mix in the legislature. You need to make the case on what you’re investing in, and you need to make sure people understand you can’t just magically say you’re going to deliver for this thing you’re going to build them without figuring out how it’s going to be paid for with the budget.”
Gov. Mark Dayton championed environmental legislation that mandated buffer strips along state waters. As a result, many farmers stopped producing on a portion of their farmland along ditches, but don’t feel fairly reimbursed for the loss in revenue. How would you address that?
“I agree with (farmers) on this ... The farmers are not pushing back on this because they don’t care about clean water. They most certainly do. And it’s not that the buffer strip idea, or the idea of source-point cleaning of water is not a good idea. I think the frustration is: Why didn’t we include in the conversations those people who were going to be affected by it? Why didn’t we on the front end bring them in? I refuse to believe that (farmers) weren’t going to be (willing). In many cases, they already have been. We’ve seen compliance above 90 percent of people voluntarily doing this.
“But if we as a society are going to ask them to take productive land out of production, there is a responsibility to compensate them fairly for that. I totally agree with that.”
“Our producers are feeding, fueling, clothing the world, better than anybody else. They care deeply about the soil and the water because it’s their legacy and it’s their children’s legacy. People in the cities do care deeply about it, and they do understand they all eat, and they do understand there is a legacy … our core values are the same.”
“Our producers want to keep that water as clean as possible, want to do it in the most efficient way, willing certainly to help. Certainly tired of people lecturing to them. I don’t think our agencies need to be seen as regulatory agencies, they need to be seen as partners ... I will show regulatory humility … rather than me coming in with a stick and telling you what it’s going to be, I’m much more the carrot guy.”
Why might a conservative voter consider voting DFL? Why should they consider you?
“Along with Collin Peterson, we are two of the 10 members of Congress who represent rural districts, we are two of the four who represent districts that Donald Trump won by 15 percent or more. It’s because they know me and I’m one of them. They know that I’m the school teacher, the football coach who coached their kids. They know that I served 24 years in the National Guard … they know that I’ve been there on Farm Bills where they endorsed me, folks from the Corn Growers, the Soybean Growers, the Pork Producers have been with me on those issues. And they know that I’m effective in getting things done. And they’ve seen a career of someone who doesn’t go out of his way to throw fire bombs, but to get things done.
“If you’re a farmer out here, you care about a lot of things, but in your business you care about markets, you care about the Farm Bill, and you care about immigration. All three of those things are really, really messed up and there are no solutions coming from the Republican Party. I would make the argument that we will do those things, as well as ensuring affordable health care, as well as ensuring that we can balance budgets, which we have done. So I think the case that politics based on tribalism, or an identity, that’s not necessarily true … I am a little bit of a different animal on this, and it might explain why I was not endorsed at the DFL convention. I’m being seen as someone who builds bridges, someone who reaches across and tries to bring folks together.
“And so I’m trying to make the case to Democrats that I’m the guy who can beat Tim Pawlenty in November, and I’m making the argument to independents and Republicans that I’m not just the guy who can win elections, I’m the guy who can get some things done, and that’s been proven.”
What really makes you tick? What do you like to work on?
“I really like building coalitions to solve problems, and I’ll give you an example. In the city of Trimont, a small farming community down south, a grocery store was closing ... So we were trying to come up with some creative solutions. And I believe in the free market ... there would be those who say ‘let it close.’ But letting it close would have had huge repercussions. The elderly population would have moved to long-term care facilities, probably down in Fairmont or out of town. You would have seen somewhat of a collapse in the community. So I said, ‘There are public/private partnerships to make this work. Lets go out and figure out if the private sector can do about $800,000.’ I worked with USDA and the Economic Development Agency to try and bring in some things. We partnered together to work with a private entity. We were able to create a town center down there. And now we have a vibrant grocery store, a hardware store, a Kwik Trip, a gas station, all of that. And that community is vibrant. We’ve actually seen some population growth, the economy grow.”
“The person who runs a grocery store, that’s a private business, they know more about this than I do. That’s not the role of the government. But there was an ability to lay some groundwork that collectively we did it all together. So yeah, taxpayers helped out a little bit, but we made that money back.”
What assets do we have here in the state of Minnesota that need to grow, or can grow to help us out 10 or 20 years in the future?
“First of all, we are very blessed with our natural resources, the best agriculture land, clean water, mineral and forest. But none of that will matter if our most important assets are not utilized and enhanced — and that’s the people. That’s making sure our people are both healthy, and they are as well educated as possible. And it’s an understanding this is not just a feel-good thing … it’s an economic imperative. The growth in this state is predominantly going to be from communities of color. We do a good job in Minnesota educating people, except we have a big gap in communities of color for various reasons. It’s hard to educate a kid who is homeless, a kid who is hungry. So we need to look at those things. And its hard to educate, to be very honest, kids where you don’t know the cultural issues.”
“We need to make sure, if you are in a rural school district, you’re not trying to pass bond referendums to fix a leaky roof while you look in Minneapolis or Minnetonka and see dome stadiums with turf fields. That’s not a socialistic approach, that’s just a smart approach. I, as governor, will talk about local government aid and equity and make sure we are not putting a burden on small communities ... Trying to do a referendum where your only tax base is farmland, that’s unfair to those farmers to ask them to do that. Now that’s started to be corrected a little bit, but as governor I’d do more.”