ST. PETER — State Rep. Susan Akland faced her first political controversy in only her second day in office after she made an impromptu appearance Wednesday at a conservative rally at the state Capitol.
Akland, R-St. Peter, said Saturday her appearance and speech at the rally were taken out of context after the Star Tribune reported part of her speech to rallygoers where she “told the crowd she was happy to see them unmasked.”
“Our actions matter and our words matter,” she said. “And I regret that my attendance at the event is viewed as furthering division. That was not my intent and not the leader that I plan to be for my district.”
The rally, called “Storm the Capitol,” took place as a companion protest with dozens of conservative rallies around the U.S. as Congress certified Electoral College results from the 2020 presidential election. Those protests include the one that turned into a riot where several thousand people stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Though the rally in St. Paul ended peacefully, watchdogs say they were concerned by the rhetoric of some speakers calling for supporters to fight the government.
One speaker said the U.S. was on the threshold of a civil war and couldn’t progress as a nation without violence. Another speaker, Alley Waterbury, told the crowd, “We are going to fight, we are going to go down. There’s going to be casualties. I’ll be the first casualty, I do not care!”
Akland said she was invited to the gathering by Republican Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, of Glencoe, to briefly attend in the middle of the afternoon and hadn’t heard about the event beforehand. She said she only stayed for a half-hour or so as she didn’t bring a coat or winterwear.
One video of the rally shows Akland discussing the reason she ran for office was because she felt conservative Christian values weren’t being represented in the Legislature.
She said she wasn’t certain about the rally’s purpose before she was invited, though she thought it had to do with holding Minnesota accountable for a fair election process. Conservatives claim Minnesota and other states didn’t follow election rules this past November. Numerous legal challenges to election results around the nation have been defeated in court, and many claims about election fraud have been false or unsubstantiated.
She said she realized there were some extreme speakers after she heard one of them. Akland also said she was unaware of the D.C. insurrection before the rally and didn’t find out about it until later Wednesday.
Critics jumped on the Star Tribune’s reporting that Akland told the crowd she was happy to see them unmasked, as Akland is a retired nurse married to a doctor. While Akland said she didn’t remember exactly what she told the crowd, she said that comment was taken out of context as she meant she was happy to see so many people at the rally.
“The statement was not a call to defy masks or defy masking guidelines,” she said.
Akland said she has been challenged in the past on her views over Minnesota’s mask mandate, which she supports. She reiterated on Saturday that masks were appropriate to wear in public during a pandemic.
“Be cautious, be considerate and use some common sense,” Akland said. “I wouldn’t want to get somebody else in trouble because I didn’t wear a mask. You have to be considerate of them.”
Akland’s progressive critics say she shouldn’t have taken part in a rally organized by ultraconservatives as it will reflect poorly on both her and House District 19A, which includes all of Nicollet County and small parts of Blue Earth and Le Sueur counties.
“She’s not respecting, she’s not representing the people of this district by saying and doing what she’s saying and doing,” said former Rep. Jeff Brand, of St. Peter, who lost the seat to Akland by 108 votes on Nov. 3. He is expected to run for the 19A seat once more in 2022.
Brand said he doesn’t believe Akland’s explanations, but ultimately Akland and the district will likely face political consequences for her actions.
As a member of the minority party in the House, Akland needs the support of her fellow Democrats to pass legislation of any kind. Brand said she risks alienating her colleagues across the aisle if she burns her bridges too early by aligning with the more right-wing branch of the House GOP.
Brand compared Akland’s situation to Republican Rep. Matt Grossell’s 2019 drunken-driving arrest. Brand said few lawmakers wanted to take up bills with Grossell after video of his arrest surfaced.
“It doesn’t take much to turn off that switch for people to not work with you,” Brand said. “I’ll tell you right now, this is not going to be good for the end result of the district for the next two years because I guarantee they’re going to shun her.”
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, said he hasn’t spoken to Akland much about District 19 issues and it was too soon to tell whether her actions may strain efforts to represent the Mankato area and St. Peter in the Legislature. Frentz said he was looking forward to working with Akland, however.
Akland said she has received plenty of emails, phone calls and social media posts about the rally and is trying to reach out to explain her position.
“I’m elected to be a voice for 100% of constituents, not just the 50% that voted for me,” she said. “I’m getting a lot of backlash, but I think that if people could talk to me, they could understand me.”
Brand said he has heard of one attempt to submit a petition to recall Akland, though he said he wasn’t taking part in petition efforts. Other progressives in Nicollet County say they’re organizing against every lawmaker who took part in Wednesday’s rally.
Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, said some lawmakers and the media took Wednesday’s protest in St. Paul out of context by lumping it together with the D.C. insurrection. Munson was the first speaker at the St. Paul rally and said it’s hypocritical to condemn the rally and lawmakers who attended it without scrutinizing similar political rallies after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd.
“We didn’t see the same type of criticism for people attending the same sort of protests this past summer,” Munson said. “This was a rally in support of fair elections.”
Munson pointed out the St. Paul rally had no riots, violence or vandalism.
Former Rep. Clark Johnson, the North Mankato DFLer who retired in 2018 after representing District 19A, said it’s still early for Akland to learn the ropes at the Legislature. He publicly took issue with Akland’s perceived mask comments in a letter to the editor earlier this week but said he was glad to hear she supported the mask mandate given her history as a health professional.
Still, he said he was concerned over Akland’s choice to join far-right lawmakers in speaking at the rally. Johnson said people in District 19A are more moderate and won’t respect officials who support extreme positions. While he acknowledged being a lawmaker has a difficult learning curve, he said Akland will likely have to learn fast her office is a “very visible job.”
“It requires you to be thoughtful about what you’re saying, what you’re doing, who you’re associating with. She’ll learn soon enough,” Johnson said.
Akland said she’s been frustrated by the response to her rally appearance.
“I’m sort of a peacemaker so I don’t like this, this conflict,” she said.