ST. PAUL — In a rare opportunity for Minnesotans to watch five of the state's highest-ranking politicians in conversation, a legislative discussion hosted Monday, Jan. 11, by Forum News Service quickly devolved into a yelling match about the deadly U.S. Capitol riot Jan. 6.
Tensions have mounted in the nation's only divided state legislature for the better part of a year, and they reached a fever pitch at Monday's annual event, meant to give constituents in Greater Minnesota an opportunity to hear from top lawmakers.
Gloves came off as the lawmakers shouted over one another while also calling on their opponents to tone down the rhetoric — raising questions over the tone of political negotiations that affect Minnesotans' lives most during this year's legislative session.
In addition to the violence in D.C. last week, supporters of President Donald Trump in Minnesota organized their own demonstration at the state Capitol on Jan. 6, dubbed "Storm the Capitol." Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that on the same day as the demonstration, threats of violence were lodged against him and his family, resulting in the first evacuation of the Governor's Residence in state history, he said.
He described State Patrol coming into the home and "removing my 14-year-old son to a safe location as he’s crying, looking for his dog, wondering what’s going on."
Several GOP lawmakers and state Republican Party leaders attended last week's demonstration in St. Paul, which did not result in physical violence. But several speakers talked of impending violence and "casualties," as reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Asked how they would hold accountable any lawmakers who attended those demonstrations, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said they were not aware of lawmakers themselves making threats or causing violence. They both condemned the U.S. Capitol mob but also pointed fingers at Democrats for civil unrest over the summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Walz shot back, saying Gazelka and Daudt's comments were a false equivalency. He said the violence during this summer's demonstrations was illegal and wrong but was categorically different from storming the Capitol, threatening elected officials' lives, and attempting to overthrow the presidential election certification.
Several people, including a Capitol police officer, died as a result of Wednesday's demonstration. A noose was hung in front of the Capitol, and several protesters carried firearms and zip ties.
State House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said her caucus is investigating six GOP state House members who attended last week's St. Paul demonstration and called on them to renounce the violent language used by others.
"It's quite a different thing to ask for your country to live up to its potential than to advocate for the overthrow of the legal systems in your country," she said. "We absolutely have a right for freedom of speech but that stops at incitement to domestic terrorism."
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said the Jan. 6 insurgence in D.C. is the result of the violent language used by Trump himself and his closest confidantes, but also because of months of messaging from Trump and down-ballot Republicans who falsely claim that the presidential election was stolen.
Courts across the country have upheld the 2020 election results, and the results have been certified in every state and now by Congress. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
"Those have been allegations of allegations of allegations," Kent said. "Because so many millions of Americans now believe, because they have been told by their leaders, that this election was rigged and unfair, they are reacting and responding to that."
Asked several times by reporters to recognize the fairness and outcome of the election, Gazelka said "a lot of people don't feel there was a free and fair election," but he recognized Joe Biden as the president-elect.
A reporter told Gazelka he has received emails from the majority leader's supporters saying there was widespread election fraud and asked Gazelka directly to call out the falsehood. Gazelka replied, "I'm going to let you do your job ... You're going to have to do the digging."
The arguing continued for the better part of the hour-long event, punctuated by a shouting match between Hortman and Daudt, which ended with Hortman asserting, "I'm speaking" (echoing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris during the vice presidential debate in October). At one point, Walz threatened to sign off of the forum nearly 40 minutes earlier than scheduled, saying he was "incredibly disappointed" in the tone and direction of the conversation.
Members of both parties pointed to extreme political rhetoric as partially to blame for the country's current situation, but appeared unwilling to keep their voices down and arrows quivered — at least for the hourlong conversation. Walz, Gazelka, Kent, Hortman and Daudt are the chief negotiators in St. Paul, and major policymaking — including the state budget, COVID response and more — are dependent upon them reaching an agreement.
Walz said Minnesota lawmakers "have work to do" on issues impacting constituents with the legislative session underway, but questioned how lawmakers can find common ground.
He asked, "How do we find common ground when we have people that will not say the election was fair? How do we find common ground when basic medical facts are disregarded? How do we find ground when the leadership continues to perpetuate these falsehoods?"
Contact Sarah Mearhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org or 610-790-4992.