Minnesota, meet your new governor — teacher, coach, soldier, sci-fi fan and eternal optimist
ST. PAUL — Tim Walz will be sworn in Monday, Jan. 7, as Minnesota’s 41st governor.
He’s a former high school teacher, football coach, retired master sergeant in the Army National Guard and a six-term congressman.
He remains a high school football fan, history buff, reader of science fiction and fantasy, avid runner and an eternal optimist — even when it comes to the Vikings.
Minnesota’s next head of state sat down a few days before his inauguration to shed a little more light on what makes him tick. What follows are excerpts from that interview:
Your inauguration is Monday. When did it really sink in that you’re going to be the governor?
“Maybe a little bit even this morning. We went to do a walk-through at the Fitzgerald (Theater),” Walz said, referring to the location where the executive branch will be sworn in Monday. “It’s starting to become pretty real.”
Are you nervous?
“It’s an interesting emotion, the incredible honor you get out of this. Running for elected office, you put yourself out there in front of your neighbors and truly millions of people go and vote and they pick you to do this. It’s very humbling.”
Walz noted that he’s been reading past inaugural speeches as he writes his first address as governor.
“It’s fascinating what you learn, but also a sense of history starts to seep in about what you are doing here and the shoulders that you are standing on.”
You have a close relationship with Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. You work as a team. Why did you choose to approach it that way?
“It is reflective of my leadership style. I certainly believe in empowering those around us. The term in the military is a ‘force multiplier.’ I’ve always believed you lead by training, providing resources, providing the vision.”
Walz said he’s known Flanagan for years and always admired her. He wanted someone with different life experiences as his running mate.
“She also — it’s pretty obvious — provides a contrast to me., as someone who grew up as an indigenous woman and a suburban legislator with a different kind of background who brings a new perspective.”
Are you going to move your family to the Governor’s Residence? How do you deal with the public attention they could draw?
“I think that’s the plan. We are still working with (daughter) Hope. It’s her senior year. She’s really great about it. We are living out of packed boxes right now. It is a logistical thread the needle.”
“My wife (Gwen) was very deliberate and I think people were very respectful, keeping our kids out of it … We do recognize now it is a little bit different. We are trying to navigate how we are going to move them to the next phase.”
You promised your son Gus a dog if you won. Did you get the dog?
“Not yet … We are going to have a rescue puppy. I’ve asked the kids to do some research. We will get it. To be honest, the fight for the cat (Afton) was one of Gus’ premier projects. He did a Powerpoint. Sold my wife. When he got the cat, I could not have been more surprised when she agreed to it. Now she loves that cat.”
You’ve spent much of your life in public service — in the classroom, the military and in politics. When did you first know you wanted to be in public life?
“It is something I never prepared my life to do,” Walz said, explaining it was after 9/11 and before the 2004 election when he had a “political awakening.”
“I said, ‘I can’t just sit on the sidelines, I have to do something.’ My wife said, 'Couldn’t you have just written a letter to the editor?’ We got involved. I helped work on John Kerry’s campaign in southern Minnesota.”
Fellow campaign workers noticed his “collaborative approach” and suggested he should consider running for office. Walz acknowledged his life experiences — as a teacher, service member, global traveler — gave him the necessary bona fides.
“What I’ve said, I think this is absolutely true. I never prepared my life; I think my life prepared me.”
Walz attended Wellstone Action, which was founded after the 2002 death of Sen. Paul Wellstone to train progressive organizers, activists and candidates.
“I showed up and had a fantastic young trainer who turned out to be Peggy Flanagan. That’s when we started our friendship.”
How have your different public roles influenced your leadership style?
“It stems from this idea of servant leadership. … I think it is a leadership style that empowers people to want to be and do the best they can … I think it’s leading with an optimism, laying out a vision, trusting those around you … I’ve said this to people, I’m sure I will fail them at times in this job. It will not be from a lack of effort.”
Is it different from your political approach?
“I think they are similar and because of it I’m willing to put myself out there. … I don’t view politics as some type of competition. I don’t view politics as something we have to beat someone or best someone. I’ve never seen it that way. … My job is to get things done for Minnesota.”
How do you work with people that you disagree with?
“I first and foremost listen and truly try to listen to their perspective. I try and always not assume negative motives … I approach those who I disagree with by trying to see it through their eyes. I’ll tell you what happens sometimes, I’ll leave those meetings and say, you know they’ve got a point.”
Has that willingness to assume good intentions ever backfired?
“Yeah, I think it has at times. … Don’t assume my kindness and my willingness to listen is a sign of weakness. It’s not. That’s coming from a position of strength. … I think it is totally possible to trust someone and totally disagree on the world view.”
You’re not going to have a lot of free time. When you do, what do you do to unwind?
“I’m a runner, but right now I’m a bit laid up. … I read a lot. And I’ve been trying to be very mindful of the time, especially the last few years, of my time with the kids.”
What are you reading?
“I’m kind of a sci-fi fantasy guy. I just finished reading the four-book series ‘Mortal Engines.’ I read a lot of these young adult ones, because I do it with my kids. I was reading that one with Gus. And then I just finished one I would not suggest reading because it is terrifying, ‘Command and Control,’ — it traces the history of America’s nuclear arsenal.”
After the Vikings' season-ending loss, you said on Twitter you were an eternal optimist. Does that extend beyond long-suffering sports teams?
Yes, my joke always was, I supervised the lunchroom for 20 years. I am an eternal optimist. I think I was surrounded by those people. My mom. I was in high school when my dad got lung cancer and had a slow death. … She was just that type of woman. She just seemed relentlessly optimistic. I remember thinking, our dad just died, we don’t have any money, you got to go get a job and you’ve never had one outside the home. My mom just said, ‘It will give me a chance to learn.’
I’m grateful to my parents and my relatives around me for that sense of seeing challenges (as) adventures. Some of that might come from growing up in a small (Nebraska) farming town without much around.”
What do you have to accomplish in your first year for you to consider it a success?
“Restoring faith in bipartisan decision making. That means we will finish our work on time. … With that being said, I want to focus on the things that I believe are bipartisan Minnesota values. The strength of this state lies in investing in our people, education, health care and community prosperity — which is infrastructure and local government aid and so forth.
“Republicans are going to be focusing on these same things. … Finish this thing on time, get those investments, let’s move us forward. And start maybe changing this trajectory that this is all about battling. … I think for me, changing that tone is how I will measure success.”
How will you nurture your working relationship with DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman and GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka?
“There’s things that I did in Congress. Little things like our Thursday morning bipartisan runs. Every Thursday morning we would run 5 miles together and kind of keep politics off limits and talk about family.”
Walz says he’d also like to hunt, fish and hike with his political allies and rivals. He also plans family activities.
“I’ve always said, once you get to know somebody’s family it is pretty hard to demonize them. Once you know their kids it is hard to not see their humanity.”
You’ve acknowledged there will be times that you fail. You don’t know what problems will arise. How do you prepare for the unknown? Is it a mindset?
“It is. Some of that comes from the military and some of it comes from the classroom. I think it is irresponsible not to prepare for it. At 12:01 Monday, I assume responsibility for (the troubled vehicle licensing computer system) MNLARS and I am as mad as other Minnesotans are.
“I think people should have an expectation of a forward-leaning, anticipatory government. … I’m not going to cast blame on this. I will assume responsibility on Monday. I just find it irresponsible that it took this long to be able to fix this. A lot of things people write off as accidents or chance is really just poor planning and anticipation.”
What else do you want Minnesotans to know about you?
“I recognize very clearly that I represent all of those hard-working decent people that are out there. My expectation and their expectation should be how I conduct myself is a reflection of them. I understand my responsibility to bring dignity to the state because the office I sit in is one I will only occupy for a short time and it will be passed on into history. I will be humble in doing that, and I will try to get them the results they deserve.”