By Mark Fischenich
MANKATO — In one respect, what residents of southern Minnesota saw in 2006 from candidate Tim Walz was exactly what they got from Congressman Tim Walz.
The Mankato West High School geography teacher, assistant football coach and Army National Guard command sergeant major was constantly on the go as a candidate. Voters rewarded his energy — and promises to change the way Washington operated — with an upset victory over six-term Congressman Gil Gutknecht, a Republican.
And during two years in the U.S. House, Walz barely slowed down.
After getting named to two major committees, the typical number for a member of the House, he lobbied for a third — ending up on panels dealing with agriculture, transportation and veterans affairs.
He held more than 170 public meetings in the 1st District, which stretches across the southern quarter of the state. He went to grocery stores on Saturday mornings to chat with residents, he scheduled regular conference calls with any media that wanted to quiz him on his votes and positions.
He scheduled forums across the district to get input from farmers as he worked on the new federal farm bill. He called dozens of experts and constituents in the region when he was mulling whether to support the $700 billion rescue plan for the financial services industry.
“That was very much a sense of responsibility — to add the openness and the accountability,” Walz said of his attempts to put himself in front of his constituents.
Despite the activity, Walz struggled to make progress on a major promise of his 2006 campaign — a transformational shift in government if he and a majority of other Democrats were elected in the U.S. House and Senate.
“If they disagree with President Bush and they want to see a change in the priorities, they can vote for me and they’ll see a change,” he said in late October 2006.
Two years later, Walz said the level of partisanship in Washington and the checks and balances of America’s constitutional democracy make it difficult to bring sweeping change. Walz repeatedly said he sees the wisdom and necessity of making it difficult to pass laws. But he has also expressed frustration as Senate filibusters and presidential vetoes killed House proposals.
“That’s the nature of a democracy,” Walz said. “... We had a president who had a very different idea of the direction the country should have gone.”
At the same time, the new Democratic Congress prevented some of the excesses and mistakes that occurred when Republicans controlled both the White House and the Congress, he said.
“We were starting to reestablish the checks and balances that are needed.”
Two years ago, Walz was calling for a gradual draw-down of U.S. forces in Iraq, along with boosting the military commitment in Afghanistan. He wanted to rescind the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that had been pushed by Bush and passed by the Republican Congress, using the resulting 10-year revenue of nearly $1 trillion to reduce the deficit.
Few changes in tax policy have occurred and deficits have shot to record levels, rising dramatically even before the financial bailout package (which Walz opposed). He said he still expects the big changes to happen, eventually.
“I’ve continued to stay positive and optimistic — that school-teacher part of me.”
There were some accomplishments, however, both for the new Democratic Congress and for Walz.
The minimum wage was increased, financial aid for college students was improved, congressional ethics rules were tightened, fuel efficiency standards for new cars were raised.
Veterans benefits were upgraded, including the passage of a new G.I. bill. The five-year farm bill was widely supported by Midwestern farmers and included provisions that came out of those farm forums Walz held.
“I use that as a model for everything I do,” he said. “During the bail-out (debate), I was on the phone constantly for a week and a half.”
Ultimately, he voted against both versions of the financial rescue plan, saying there was too little help for average Americans and no guarantees taxpayers would be reimbursed if the rescued banks and financial services firms returned to profitability.
Walz’s Republican opponent, Dr. Brian Davis of Rochester, has criticized the incumbent’s performance in a number of areas, but the major theme has been he’s too liberal and too willing to boost taxes. Davis also has chided Walz for not being quick enough to open up coastal and wilderness areas to oil drilling.
Republicans are throwing the same claims at most Democrats, Walz said.
“It’s pretty standard fare. It’s being run in hundreds of districts across the country,” he said. “... The fact of the matter is I’m generally considered to be a Blue Dog-type fiscal conservative.”
Walz never officially joined that group of Democrats, who push for balanced budgets, but he’s supported pay-as-you-go rules that require new spending and tax cuts to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases in other parts of the budget. The National Journal, based on his 2007 votes, listed Walz among the centrists in the House.
Walz said the charges have grown increasingly absurd as the election has neared, specifically noting one Davis ad that says Walz favors a $1 trillion “tax increase” on oil.
The false charge is based on Walz’s proposal to allow offshore oil drilling, which would allow oil companies to capture large amounts of oil in coming decades. Federal energy officials estimate the offshore drilling would generate enough oil to result in $1 trillion in royalty payments by oil companies.
So the $1 trillion “tax increase” is actually the standard royalty payments that oil companies have been required to pay for decades — essentially reimbursement to the government for oil taken from American lands and waters.
“It’s a pretty weak attack on something that I’m proud of,” Walz said of the legislation. “... I think it pushed the idea of energy independence farther ahead than anything in 30 years.”
The offshore oil drilling plan — which dedicated the royalty payments from the new oil to green energy and conservation — was developed by Walz and about 20 other Democrats and Republicans in the House. The bipartisan coalition was attempting to find a compromise to break the partisan stalemate on energy policy, and the bill got the support of 179 House Republicans.
“When Republicans finally offered an oil bill, they offered one I helped write,” Walz said.
If he’s re-elected, Walz pledges to work to build new coalitions on other key issues. He mentioned his support of an effort by the steelworkers union and the Sierra Club — two groups that traditionally were at odds — to promote renewable energy and conservation, something that would provide environmental benefits and new good-paying jobs.
Other agenda items include making sure veterans are taken care of, being a vocal advocate of pay-go budgeting and continuing to push for solutions to the nation’s energy problems.
Walz touts endorsements from veterans groups, the National Rifle Association, labor organizations and former Congressman Tim Penny. He said he feels good about what he’s hearing from voters while on the campaign trail.
“It feels very similar (to two years ago). Optimistic and hopeful for change.”
Still, he’s not slowing down.
“We’re confident, but we always play like we’re behind,” he said. “That’s how I coached football. ... When the final whistle blows, that’s when we’ll know.”