This leftover from the weekend encapsulates the leadership crisis facing the state of Minnesota — and how even an arguably good decision gets undermined by it. Gov. Tim Walz announced a mask mandate for all public indoor venues and some outdoor venues as well, after a couple of weeks of dithering over the decision. Walz cited thousands of messages from the private sector urging him to impose the emergency measure as a motivating factor in his decision.
What didn’t get disclosed, however, is that Walz’ office solicited those messages — and in fact wrote templates for them without any disclosure of their involvement. That has legislators crying foul at the state capital:
Just as Gov. Tim Walz announced a statewide mask mandate this week, his top economic development commissioner fired off an e-mail to business and industry groups urging them to submit pre-written letters supporting the policy to newspapers and other organizations.
None of the sample letters included disclosures indicating the text was written and provided by state officials.
The push sparked protests Friday from Senate GOP leaders accusing the DFL governor of using state resources for what they called a “taxpayer funded PR campaign” in support of a mandate that many Republicans oppose as an overreach of his emergency powers to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka accused Walz of pressuring businesses into supporting his position, and wants the legislature to investigate and “reprimand” Walz for ethics violations, or perhaps at least Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Steve Grove. It was Grove who sent out the e-mails with the templates, and DEED is defending itself against charges of ethical violations. “We’re using every tool at our disposal to keep Minnesotans safe and healthy,” they said in a statement to the Star Tribune, “and allow our businesses to remain open.”
Did this cross the line from advocacy to deception? A former president of Common Cause Minnesota — not exactly a right-leaning organization — believes so:
David Schultz, a Hamline University professor who served as the president of Common Cause Minnesota, said the administration’s move raises several ethical, and potentially legal, issues. Asking groups to publish letters a state agency drafted on the state’s behest, without disclosure, prompts transparency concerns, he said. The use of public dollars for what Schultz called “quasi-lobbying,” encouraging individuals and groups to express public support for the policy, is also problematic.
“We know you can’t expend public dollars for clearly political purposes,” he said. “There’s something inappropriate in expending public dollars for the purposes of encouraging the public to take political positions. And this is clearly a political position.”
What makes this so frustrating is its lack of real necessity. The mask mandate is defensible on its own — as is opposition to it — and didn’t require astroturfing. There has been generally wide compliance with advisories to wear masks in the state, but it’s hardly been universal either. Polling in the state, including a Fox News poll of Minnesotans released last Thursday, show massive support for those who wear face masks while out in public even without Walz’ astroturfing. In fact, it’s the most popular group on which Fox polled:
There are some partisan differences in this outcome, but not too pronounced. Among Democrats, 98% see face-mask wearers favorable, but it’s still 69% among Republicans too. Among those who see Trump favorably, it’s also 69%. In the suburbs, 87% see them favorably, and 78% of rural respondents do too. It’s polling like this which has driven Trump into more enthusiastic adoption and support of mask wearing lately.
In other words, Walz and his administration had all the support they needed to make this decision, whether it is wise or not. They tried to manufacture evidence of support and got caught — and now it looks like nothing more than a political ploy to boost Walz. That’s an unforced error from a governor and administration that has made a habit of making them in 2020. This state needs nothing more than it needs a complete housecleaning of leadership at all levels, and is almost certain not to get it.