Seeking to bookend a year under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic, racial strife and deep division, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Sunday delivered a largely upbeat 2021 “State of the State” address that underscored resiliency and a theme that brighter days ahead have already begun.
“The state of our state is strong, Minnesota,” Walz said in a speech streamed live from Mankato West High School, where he taught social studies before entering politics. “This is our goal-line stand. Get vaccinated. We’re coming back.”
Much of the roughly 20-minute speech could be read as an argument that Walz, whose emergency powers have afforded him a reign over an unprecedented level of the lives of Minnesotans, has governed well, as he underscored the state’s standing as better-than-average on a number of coronavirus measures, including deaths, testing and the pace of vaccinations.
Rhetorically, he cast this idea as praise for the state’s residents.
“You took actions, large and small, to protect and support your neighbors,” Walz said in his third “State of the State” since being elected. “You canceled travel plans. You donated to food shelves. You missed proms, weddings and graduations. You juggled your own job with your kids learning from home. You set smaller tables during the holidays. You wore a mask. You social distanced. You stayed home. You sacrificed. You endured. And you saved lives.”
He acknowledged the nearly 7,000 who have died thus far, and a section of the speech was devoted toward racial inequities, as he pleaded for peace as the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck stands trial.
Drawing from a speech that Martin Luther King Jr. gave at Mankato West, Walz said, “Please, Minnesotans, make your voices heard. Practice your First Amendment right — but please heed Dr. King’s advice that nonviolence is the only way to truly move hearts and create change.”
Walz made no mention, however, of the wider fractured state of society, the widespread violence that erupted following Floyd’s death, or the polarized politics that became injected into the pandemic and the debate over racial justice and the very policies he seeks to enact with a state Legislature divided among the two parties.
While he urged Minnesotans to continue wearing masks and to get vaccinated, he made no utterance of those who continue to downplay the pandemic and plan to refuse vaccination. Consistent with his generally non-confrontational style of politicking, he espoused virtues of budget proposals endorsed by him and his fellow Democrats, but he made no mention of the staunch opposition — especially to the Democrats’ proposed tax hikes — that Republicans harbor. The two sides need to agree on a two-year state budget later this spring.
In a video recorded before Walz spoke, the state’s top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, reaffirmed his party’s opposition to any tax hikes and reissued demands that Walz lay out mileposts for when he’ll relinquish emergency powers the governor assumed just over a year ago when the pandemic arrived.
Gazelka — also per his style — didn’t assume a combative tone either.
“The word that I would use is hopeful,” Gazelka said, pointing to the same marker Walz has: some 80 percent of the state’s residents older than 65 have been vaccinated. That accomplishment was part of the reason Walz is allowing, starting Tuesday, anyone over age 16 to get vaccinated.
But Gazelka gave no hint of allowing Walz to take credit. “Who deserves credit? President Trump deserves credit,” said Gazelka, who has refused to mandate masks in his chamber and presides over the caucus that witnessed one of its own members die of COVID-19 following several events where senators gathered unmasked.
‘THAW IS HERE’
Walz’s chosen venue for the speech itself drew a contrast to last year’s address, which he delivered from the Governor’s Residence, from where he was governing at the time, in observance of his own stay-at-home order issued in preparation for the pandemic that would ultimately wash over Minnesota and the entire nation. It was a grim moment, and Walz foretold of a “cold winter” ahead but promised that the prospect of springtime could steel the state’s resolve.
But it also was a reminder of the current context of a state still struggling against the virus: The traditional venue of the annual address is amid a packed Minnesota House of Representative hosting the entire Legislature and state Supreme Court. There was effectively no live audience to whom Walz was speaking Sunday evening.
Sunday’s speech was actually delayed by a week, as Walz recently completed 10 days of self-imposed quarantine after a member of his staff tested positive and attended a Walz news conference at a mass vaccination site at the Mall of America. He acknowledged that the rapid growth of a more contagious and deadly strain of the coronavirus has created a rush to vaccinate the population. And he returned, again, to the image of spring.
“The thaw is here, but in Minnesota we know better than to let our guard down at the first sign of spring,” Walz said.