Mr. Walz goes to Washington

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Election ’06 is over and done with. Tim Walz predicted a bright, sunny day for 11/8. And if you live in southern Minnesota, it’s true — both literally and figuratively.

On the campaign stump Tim Walz would often close with something like this:

When you wake up on November 8th the sun will be shining. There will be a new Congress, and the nation will once again have found its balance, its center. Just think about what the rest of the world will say on November 8th… “America is back!”

While there were 435 seats up for election in the House of Representatives this year, only several dozen were deemed “competitive”. The race in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District did not start out that way, but gradually it began inching its way up the ladder of notice till finally, in the week before the election, many political observers considered it a toss-up.

As an insider to all this — I was the DFL candidate who challenged Gil Gutknecht in 2004 — I had a unique perspective. The saga of Tim Walz’s ascendancy from an apolitical high school geography teacher and career National Guardsman to member of Congress could fill a book… and may yet some day.

The beginning has already been well established for those willing to read. Put simply, in August of 2004 Republican campaign staffers tried to deny him entry to a George Bush rally in a quarry just north of Mankato. Their reasoning? He was in the company of two students who had been previously identified as Democratic Party volunteers.

Having just returned from military duty in Italy in support of the forces in Afghanistan, this rebuff did not sit well with Tim. The students ended up leaving, as they did not want to cause problems. But Walz insisted on staying, which he was finally allowed to do, albeit under the watchful eye of GOP operatives.

This was the crucial event that started everything in motion. And this is why Tim, in his victory speech before a crowd of 300 in Mankato Tuesday night, said, “They should’ve let us into the quarry.”

Everyman goes to Congress
Walz has been dubbed “everyman” and “Mr. Smith”. He is a little of both and yet he is neither. He is an everyman inasmuch as he is a perfect fit for the district. He grew up on a farm in the Midwest (specifically Nebraska). He is a teacher, which is a profession that is highly regarded in education-conscious Minnesota. And he has a military background in a region that has offered up many of its citizens to regular military service, the reserves or the National Guard.

When I ran for Congress I was a replacement for the original candidate, who had to drop out for health reasons. I received the nod by default, as I was on an ad hoc committee to find a suitable replacement to step in. There were a number of excellent possible candidates in the district, but none could or were willing to step forward to face the inevitable drubbing against a well-entrenched congressman, especially with only four months till the election.

I happened to have the time and the stupidity, so I took the mantle.

During the short time leading up to the election of ’04, I sometimes campaigned on the same dais with Tim, as by then he had signed up to be a spokesman for the Veterans for Kerry. And his wife, Gwen, had been co-opted into campaign service too, traveling with the Military Moms, supporting the troops and calling into question the war. I remember seeing them both on the stump — together and separately — and thinking that either one should be running for Congress, not me.

The election ended, and of course we were all stunned that our efforts had seemingly gone for naught. The Republicans had won an impressive victory across the nation. We were stuck in a never-neverland between disbelief and wondering what to do next. It was in that post-election climate that Tim asked to meet with me.

He, Gwen and I met on a cold, overcast day at Bagel Brothers (now defunct) on the Mankato hilltop. He said some of his fellow veterans had asked him to run for Congress, and he asked if I was going to run again. He said if I was going to run, he wouldn’t do it.

Suddenly a little voice was telling me, “It’s still your turn! You put all this effort into your run. You were just getting your name out. You were just beginning and suddenly it was over. People said you did a great job, considering the lack of time and money….”

Thank God my gut and intellect overpowered that little voice. For I realized, of course, that Tim was the candidate I had been seeking all along. I had found him, a man energized by the idiocy of those in charge of our government. A man who, although rough and unpolished, could speak before a group with passion and ideas and a true belief of what America ought to be. We shared the same ideals, and yet he was so truly representative of the district.

I said, “Tim, it’s all yours. Let me know what I can do to help.”

I don’t know what Tim was thinking. Was it “This is too easy,” or “What have I gotten myself into?”

Of course, it wasn’t easy, which Tim soon learned. From that January meeting till this November — 21 almost 22 months he spent marching in parades, shaking hands, speaking before groups, and — the most difficult — making phone calls and asking for money. The pundits said it couldn’t happen. Unseating an entrenched incumbent who had won both his previous elections by 25 points. No way.

Yes, way

Contrary to what some media have said, this is not a saga of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. First of all, Tim Walz bears no resemblance to Jimmy Stewart. Second, he’s been elected, not appointed. Third, his destination is the House, not the Senate.

But there is one similarity between Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith and Tim Walz, and that’s called popular support. Jeff Smith’s base was thousands of boy scouts; Tim Walz’s is hundreds, perhaps thousands of volunteers, a true grassroots movement. People joining up like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle desperate to come together towards a single wholeness.

And Tim will be the first to admit that he is not the puzzle itself, but just the most visible piece.

No, this story is not Mr. Smith Goes to Washington but Mr. Walz Goes to Washington. Unique, exciting, and for many unexpected.

Tim Walz knows that winning the election is not the goal, but merely a step toward creating a better, more responsive, more citizen-focused government. He has merely finished the first act. And now the second act begins.

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