To pass the time between the seven ballots it required for the DFL to endorse Mike Hatch for governor at its convention in Rochester last month, the party brought up each one of its congressional candidates for brief introductory remarks. In a bit of an upset, the one who most wowed the crowd was not the gifted orator from the Fifth District, State Representative Keith Ellison, or nationally known child safety advocate Patty Wetterling from the Sixth District, or popular incumbent Betty McCollum from the Fourth District. It was pint-sized fireplug Tim Walz, a military veteran, schoolteacher, and coach from Mankato making his first-ever run for office against incumbent Gil Gutknecht in the First District.
The highlight of his brief address occurred when he talked about losing his hearing as a result of his military service, only to get it back through laser surgery paid for by his teacher-related health plan. One morning he woke up to a beautiful sound he had never heard before and asked his wife what it was. That's your four-year-old daughter, singing to herself to wake up, the way she usually does, his wife replied.
Pausing briefly for effect, Walz then roared into the microphone, Every citizen deserves to have enough health coverage to be able to hear his or her child sing themselves awake in the morning!
City Pages caught up with the 42-year-old candidate the Wall Street Journal describes as "the Republican nightmare in the First District" last week when he visited the Twin Cities to meet with supporters.
City Pages: How did you decide to run for office?
Tim Walz: I never intended to be in this position. My wife and I both took the philosophy that the public schools are a little microcosm of society, so you can get involved in everything there. We were doing football, basketball, speech, debate. We were the sponsors for the junior class, taking the trips with the kids, a little of everything.
My time in the military, same thing—heavy involvement. As the command sergeant major I was the top enlisted guy so I was taking a lot of time doing that. I was approached by a group of people in January of '05, although many of them, until the Kerry race, probably didn't know my political affiliation.
CP: You worked for Kerry then?
Walz: I did. The reason I got into it was I had just gotten back from my deployment with the National Guard and Bush was in Mankato in the summer of '04. I tried to go to an event out there with some kids. And I went to this thing and they wouldn't let the kids in. They were a threat to the president, according to the Secret Service.
I said, "Well, they're with me." And they said, "Well you're not going in either." And I said, "Yes I am going in." And they said, "Well you are going to be arrested then." And I said, "My wife isn't going to be real happy about that. This is ridiculous." And they said, "Do you support the president? You don't, do you?" I said, "None of your business. And I'm going in."
So they sent somebody in with me and put the kids back on the bus. I got done that day and went home and called somebody up and said, "What do I need to do?" We just totally ripped them in Blue Earth County and got a huge amount of veterans involved.
Suddenly I no longer had the luxury to sit on the sidelines. Somebody asked why I was doing this. Maybe if things were being done right, I wouldn't be. I know I can teach and I know I do it well. I know I served well in the military. Those are things I have done. I have come to realize the people who are supposed to be leading us are not. And if they are, it is the wrong direction.
CP: What do you regard as the signal issues of the campaign?
Walz: The lack of real leadership and the lack of addressing the issues in the first place. My opponent continues to say he won't talk about the war in Iraq—he openly says this—and instead wants to talk about immigration. Now, today, he said he wants to author a bill on gay marriage, which is totally cynical and a total charade.
I look at people in my district and I say, I don't have the luxury of doing that. I sit across the table from people and look in their eyes, people whose children are over there. Many of them, their children were in my classes, I coached them in football. They joined my Guard unit, and I trained them. They deployed with me, and now they are in Iraq. I don't have the luxury to ignore them.
The war in Iraq is an issue. We have the fourth-largest deployment in the nation coming from Minnesota, and the concentration of those is coming from southern Minnesota, and the congressman doesn't want to talk about it.
Health care. All politicians are talking about it now but we think we're talking about it with a sense of courage. I am saying that if we don't do something about this as Democrats—I don't know about the Senate, but I really believe we are going to win the House. When we do, this country is going to want us to act, boldly and immediately. And I would say in January, if you don't see a bill introduced to cover all children in this country, I would be very cynical about the Democrats, too.
The economy is fragile. I know they keep telling us about all the jobs being created. Well, they pay less. It's like the line from the waiter who says, "Yeah, I know they created 10,000 new jobs. I've got four of them." They say the GDP is up and my line always is that the GDP never filled up a gas tank and never sent a kid to college. We know things are out of whack. We see the CEO salaries going up and we see bills crafted that allow large corporations to dump their pension responsibilities. And yet we can't get a break for a returning soldier who is in trouble; he has to pay everything off, whether it is health-related or not? There is just that ludicrous shifting going on.
CP: You are a member of the Minnesota National Guard. How long was your active service?
Walz: I did two stints where I was full-time. I did it in 1989 and then again in 1992. Then in '03 and '04 I did 10 months with Operation Enduring Freedom, where, by luck of the draw, I served in Italy. It was originally Turkey or Iraq and then they changed it to Enduring Freedom and I said, "That's Afghanistan." But they said, "You guys are going to do the supply lines between Turkey and England." We provided total base security and the training for soldiers coming in.
CP: Is your opponent a veteran?
Walz: No. But quite honestly, I don't think it is a prerequisite for political service. I have been told that of this group of "Fighting Dems" running for office, I am the only one who doesn't have pictures of myself in uniform on my website. I am a little uncomfortable with the militarization of everything. I think there is great leadership that is not in the military, as well.
I don't downplay it, and I don't bite the hand that feeds me, because it has gotten me a lot of press. But I also have always looked at it as just one piece of character. The National Guard is a very honorable thing to do, but I am also honored that I have survived 20 years of lunchroom supervision at school.
CP: So what is your specific position on the war?
Walz: People in Afghanistan were responsible for 9/11, bin Laden was in the country. As a geography guy, I had had a whole lot of problems with the Taliban years before 9/11, on human rights issues. I thought they were incredibly dangerous. [I] am still convinced, that that war needed to be prosecuted to the fullest extent. I am very disappointed with what has happened there and very disappointed that the people responsible for 9/11 haven't been brought to justice.
I was never convinced the war in Iraq had anything to do with our national security. It had nothing to do with 9/11. It was poorly planned and it was poorly executed. Since that time we have been sold on it the way you would sell a car. They bring out the dog and pony show and tell us this is the way it should be—Bush's trip [last week] is the same type of thing.
That being said, we need to solve it and we need to solve it in the best way possible. I don't get to see all the information that Congress is getting, and whether Representative Murtha is right that we are the catalyst for violence. And that if you remove that catalyst you remove the violence. I am not sure if it is Senator Kerry's version—stay until the end of the year—or if it is something in between. My take on it is that the first thing I know is that it is never going to get solved unless we openly debate it. And this Congress's unwillingness to have any checks and balances or any criticism on this is absolutely as wrong as you can get.
I'm not talking about opening debate on the floor to criticize the planning and criticize the president. There will be a time for that: We have to go back and look and make sure we don't make the same mistake again. Say, What can we do? What will it take to get this infrastructure stuff done? In all these other conflicts—Bosnia, or wherever—once you saw these benchmarks of success being reached, like the capacity to generate water or electricity, sewage, job creation, those types of things, you started to see a drop off in the violence. But nearly all of our money right now is going into security.
This idea that when the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down? Their government has no intention of standing up. We're propping up that government and American men and women are doing the fighting.
It irritates me no end when Republicans say that all the Democrats can do is complain about what is out there—like that's difficult to do right now. But what I am saying is that while it is egotistical to think one person has the answer or that any answer will be a quick and easy fix, I do think there are some solutions out there. [Former Carter administration National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski talked about a regional security force that is still willing to do that, whether it is the Egyptians or the Jordanians. We could start to bring them in and pull us back to Kuwait.
My fear is that if you just leave immediately—and there are a lot of people who want that—I am not convinced we are not going to see some type of genocide. The way I look at it, it is our responsibility. I know that is not the answer people want to hear.
CP: The First District runs along the entire border of southern Minnesota and is viewed as being socially conservative. There is a reference to your "Catholic values" on your website. Are you pro-choice or pro-life on abortion?
Walz: I am pro choice, openly pro choice. And the reason for that is that if our goal is to get women true opportunities, true choice, and to reduce the number of abortions, criminalization is not the way to go. That is just based on fact. The second part is the privacy issue: me extending my values and my beliefs into somebody else's values and beliefs on something as personal as that. Guess the Catholic values thing was more the social justice thing. When I went to the CYO camps, the message always was, Don't be too big for your britches; look out for people less fortunate because it could be you. There was a real sense that we are all this together. I reference those values because I feel strongly about it.
On the abortion issue, reports show that 71 percent of women who have abortions one year later say it was strictly because of economic means. So in the Clinton years when we were having the ability to provide health care and the ability to provide daycare and food, the WIC program, and those things, the abortion numbers went way down. And in the Bush administration they have gone way up. I think there are some people who are maybe searching for a little personal salvation on this and I know they feel really strongly about it. But I say, if you really want to reduce the number of abortions you make sure there are opportunities for women and that our education system is strong.
CP: Do you worry about being too socially liberal for your district?
Walz: No. Because I think I am consistent on the subject of personal freedoms and where the line of government ends. I am a strong advocate for people's right to hunt and own guns. It is a state's rights issue for one thing—Guiliani and the Republicans are the gun-control people in New York. I am about government doing the things that we can't do alone; it is an extension of things we can best do together. But when it comes to those personal freedoms, I am very much conservative in saying hands-off those things.
I never really saw how it was a conservative value for people to let government reach in and change your positions on health care. My wife and I spent many years having this little girl and that was a decision made at the fertility clinic and Mayo between my wife and myself and I don't want the government involved in that—no more than I want them to control my hunting decisions.
CP: Fiscally, if you want to spend money to improve education, the tax cuts can't be locked in the way Bush is now proposing, can they?
Walz: I will not be nearly as willing to give tax cuts to that top percentage of people. We've got a war going on, energy prices as high as they've been, 46 million Americans without health care. And what did the U.S. Senate do this week? They debated a bill on the inheritance tax that affects 0.27 percent of the population—80 percent of that in 18 families. Those 18 families won't be helping me or supporting me, because I think there needs to be a sense of progressiveness in our tax code.
I think there are ways to save money that we are wasting. I think the $9.8 billion that disappeared in the provisional authority in Iraq might be something to look at. Because if they did that, they could bring special ed funding up to where it nearly needs to be. I am a stickler on waste. I am the guy who still uses the same textbook in my classroom that still has the Soviet Union in it because I can supplement it with new things from the computer and GIS programs. You don't need to spend $45,000 on those new textbooks.
People accuse me of being just tax and spend, with no evidence for that. The actuaries have shown, here in Minnesota, that our 68,000 children who are uninsured, if we get them on to some form of basic health care, it will actually lower everyone's premium and we'll save money. My opponent and this far-right group of Republicans always [advance] the false dichotomy: "Well, this guy is an environmentalist; he must be against business." Where the truth is, the more environmentally friendly you are, the more opportunities you have in business.
I am not this neoclassical Chicago school of economics person, because I have never seen it work. I understand the theory: Give it to the entrepreneurial class and they'll build and they'll create jobs. The problem with that way of thinking now is they'll create those jobs in China without working conditions that provide worker protections, while it takes jobs away from Americans and lowers wages. The way to build a free and open and stable society is by making sure that as many people can enter the middle class as possible. And we know that the numbers aren't showing that.
Again, my opponent would claim that he wants a national sales tax and is not for the progressive income tax and he wants to privatize Social Security. What would have happened to my family in that case? I'm 17 and just getting out of high school. My father is dying of cancer and the family is broke. I join the army and get in on the G.I. Bill. My little brother uses Social Security survivor benefits to go to college and get his degree. My mother uses Social Security benefits to retrain as a nurse and enters the work force. The Republicans say that what you need is personal responsibility to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. We did that; we just had no boots. They were loaned to us by Social Security to pull ourselves up—and guess what? We paid it back with interest. I say that is the way to a better society.