Rep. Tim Walz (D)
Minnesota 1st District
The Mississippi River flows majestically southeast from Minneapolis and St. Paul, cutting through rolling hills and, where it widens, forming calm lakes lapping at the bottomlands. It is one of the finest river landscapes of North America, exemplified by the river towns of Wabasha and Winona, with their 19th century stone storefronts and mountain-like rock outcroppings above the river. This far north, the westward tide of Yankee migrants thinned out. After the Civil War, most settlers following the railroads on the floodplains west of the river were Germans and Scandinavians, bringing their families to a terrain so much like the Rhineland and to the rolling uplands beyond, which resemble the northern European plain.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
Southern Minnesota is a borderland between Yankee and German settlements. Along the Mississippi River, tourism spiked upward (from a nearly nonexistent base) after the old St. Paul and Milwaukee Railroad was converted to a hiker-biker nature trail in the 1990s. “Historic” Bluff Country now draws sufficient visitors to support not one but two upscale bed-and-breakfasts, former jails converted to new use with Minnesota practicality. A little to the west is Rochester, home to the Mayo Clinic, founded in 1863 when English-born physician William Mayo set up a practice to examine inductees into the Union Army. Rochester, with more than 31,000 employed at Mayo, is prosperous and the growth center of southern Minnesota. Austin, a county away, is headquarters of the Hormel meatpacking firm, which was the site of a bitter strike in the 1980s. The huge plant produces “miracle meat” Spam, Hormel chili, Dinty Moore stew and, say critics, too much ammonia-loaded waste. This is one place where class-conscious politics survives, with some tensions over the recent influx of Hispanic workers. The farther west you go, the more frequently you find communities with a German heritage, like New Ulm, where the “Hermann the German” monument guards the town and the Concord Singers—30 men decked out in lederhosen, red vests and white shirts—are known as one of the county’s best male choruses. Farther south is dairy country, with a sprinkling of small industries. In tiny Ormsby, North County Seed breeds soybeans to match the wishes of its international customers.
The 1st Congressional District of Minnesota includes the state’s two southern tiers of counties, running along Interstate 90 just north of the Iowa border. It stretches 280 miles from the South Dakota border at Sioux Falls to the Wisconsin border at LaCrosse. Historically, this was a political borderland, with Civil War Republicans in the east and Farmer-Laborites more common in the west. Rochester had long been a Republican stronghold, though like many communities with large numbers of professionals, it has been trending toward the Democrats. Austin, with its working-class tradition, has long been solidly Democratic-Farmer-Labor. To the west, the population-losing farm counties between Mankato and the South Dakota border continue to vote solidly Republican. The district swung to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in 2008, 51%-47%.
Rep. Tim Walz (D)
Elected: 2006, 2nd term.
Born: April 6, 1964, West Point, NE .
Education: Chadron St. Col., B.S. 1989, MN St. U., M.S. 2001.
Family: Married (Gwen); 2 children.
Military career: Army Natl. Guard, 1981-2005.
Professional Career: Teacher, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD, 1984; Teacher, People’s Republic of China, 1989-90; Founder, Educational Travel Adventures, 1991-2006; High school teacher, 1989-2006.
The congressman from the 1st District is Tim Walz, a Democrat elected in one of the biggest upsets of 2006. Walz grew up in Nebraska and joined the Army National Guard when he was 17. When he retired from the military 24 years later, in 2005, he held the rank of command sergeant major. Walz earned his teaching degree in Nebraska, taught school in China for a year through a Harvard University program, and later established an educational travel company that helped high school students study in China. He and his wife moved to Minnesota in 1996 to take teaching jobs in Mankato. There he taught high school geography and coached the high school football team to two state championships.
|Tim Walz (DFL)||207,753||(63%)||($2,707,385)|
|Brian Davis (R)||109,453||(33%)||($1,094,278)|
|Gregory Mikkelson (Ind)||14,904||(4%)|
|Tim Walz (DFL)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (53%)
Walz got into politics relatively late in life—he was 42 when he ran for Congress. In 2004, Bush made an appearance in the area as part of his re-election campaign. Walz took two students to the event, where campaign staffers demanded to know whether he supported the president and barred the students from entering after discovering one of them had a sticker for Bush’s Democratic opponent, John Kerry, on his wallet. Walz suggested that it might be bad PR for the Bush campaign to arrest an Army veteran, and he and the students were allowed in. But the campaign kept a close eye on them. Walz said the experience sparked his interest in politics, first as a volunteer for the Kerry campaign and then as a congressional candidate in 2006. “I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it an epiphany, but it was definitely one of those things that pushed me into that,” Walz said.
Walz challenged six-term Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht, an affable conservative who won re-election in 2004 with 60%, 9 points better than Bush. The district had sent Republicans to Washington for 100 of the previous 114 years, and Gutknecht was not considered especially vulnerable in 2006. Walz was not a polished campaigner. His speaking style was didactic compared to the ease with which Gutknecht, a former auctioneer, handled a crowd. But Walz decried declining middle-class wages, tax cuts for the wealthy and Congress’s failure to hold Bush accountable on the Iraq War. He ran as a political outsider and painted Gutknecht as too closely tied to Bush.
By October, Republicans began to take the threat against Gutknecht seriously. Walz had raised $870,000 by then, keeping pace with Gutknecht, who had raised $1.2 million. Walz enjoyed independent support from VoteVets, a Democratic-oriented group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and labor support from AFSCME, the large public-employees union. National Democrats ran ads that criticized Gutknecht for votes against increasing military benefits while raising his own pay. Gutknecht sought to halt his slide by characterizing Walz as a liberal who was out of sync with this socially conservative district. Walz’s support for abortion rights and his opposition to a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage fell outside district norms, but his opposition to gun control was compatible with them. His military experience and football coaching gave an aura of authenticity to his campaign that made it harder to attack. On Election Day, Walz defeated Gutknecht 53%-47%. Walz carried Democratic areas around Mankato and Austin and won Rochester’s Olmsted County by more than 1,800 votes (52%-48%). He became the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress.
Arriving in the House, Walz was chosen by his peers to split the freshman-class presidency with Rep. Paul Hodes, a New Hampshire Democrat. Walz established a mostly centrist voting record. He voted against President Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq, but he opposed Democratic proposals to set a deadline for withdrawal. He backed improved security to control illegal immigration, but voted against building a fence along the border with Mexico. With a seat on the Agriculture Committee, Walz secured increased access to credit and conservation opportunities for farmers in the 2008 farm bill. His district had been among the leading recipients of federal largesse through the farm program. On another local issue, Walz lobbied to have a high-speed train route from the Twin Cities to Chicago go through Rochester. The train had been proposed by Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who wanted it to follow a route down the Mississippi River.
Walz was initially a top target for Republicans in the 2008 election. But the party’s preferred contenders decided not to run. National Republicans turned their focus to keeping their existing seats. Walz breezed to a 63%-33% victory, winning in all of his district’s counties.