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Well, that didn’t go as planned.

An annual rite of the Minnesota Legislature, a Forum News Service event featuring the governor and the four top leaders of the Legislature, became something else. What is usually a sometimes dry recitation of legislative agendas, predictions for the session and even pledges to work together quickly devolved into a heated debate over violence, hate speech and political rhetoric in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

By the time it was over, Gov. Tim Walz had left the teleconference after declaring his disappointment with GOP leaders for comparing Trump supporters’ violent speech and actions to threats by a now-state representative and riots that broke out after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

GOP leaders pushed back, though at one point the DFL leader of the House told the GOP leader of the House to “quit lying.” By the end of the hour-long virtual panel discussion, an already challenging 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature had become more challenging. 

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The friction started immediately, with the first question to the Legislature’s two Republican leaders: Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt: Did they think there should be action taken against the half-dozen state House members who took part in a “Storm the Capitol” rally in St. Paul as mobs were breaking into the U.S. Capitol?

Gazelka said none of his members attended and defended peaceful protests, drawing the line at “rhetoric that threatens violence.”

“Frankly, I don’t care whether it’s a city council member or a president or a lieutenant governor or a governor or a legislator,” Gazelka said. “Anyone who isn’t condemning violence that we had throughout the summer, month after month, destruction of public properties, tearing down of statues, ruining (police) precincts or the federal Capitol, all of us should say is un-American, period.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka

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Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka: “It concerns me on both sides when people take this to extremes.”

Daudt agreed that protest is a basic right that must be defended, “but we also need to speak out against violence, against rioting, against looting, by whoever does that.” He also said the St. Paul rally last week was peaceful, and that the House members who attended have concerns about the election results.

“There was nothing here that happened that was violent as far as I know or even incited any violence,” Daudt said. 

He said he has spoken out strongly against what happened in D.C. last week but he said people on the other side of issues need to be listened to. 

Daudt said he thinks Joe Biden is the legitimate president-elect of the United States and doesn’t think there was significant voter fraud in Minnesota, but also said: “Why do they feel so passionate that they would want to gather together in protest?”

While both GOP leaders seemed to be comparing the St. Paul rally to protests and riots after Floyd’s killing — not the invasion of the U.S. Capitol — DFL leaders said they were hard to separate since both were attempts to call into question the legitimacy of an election.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said the St. Paul rally speakers used violent rhetoric, speaking of the need for casualties, and threatened going to the homes of Walz, legislators and judges. She said the House will investigate the six members who attended the rally: Susan Akland, Steve Drazkowski, Mary Franson, Glenn Gruenhagen, Eric Lucero and Jeremy Munson.

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“You absolutely have a right to free speech but that stops at incitement to domestic terrorism,” Hortman said.

While agreeing, Gazelka again referenced the protest at the Hugo home of Minneapolis police union leader Bob Kroll, during which John Thompson, then a candidate for the state House from St. Paul, threatened to burn Hugo, saying “Blue Lives ain’t shit,” and appears to yell at young white girls watching from an open garage, calling them “racist motherfuckers.”

“It concerns me on both sides when people take this to extremes,” Gazelka said. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman

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House Speaker Melissa Hortman said the St. Paul rally speakers used violent rhetoric, speaking of the need for casualties, and threatened going to the homes of Walz, legislators and judges.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said the rhetoric from the right has been encouraged by the myth of a stolen election, which has been encouraged by GOP leaders at both the federal and state level. “We have a responsibility to deal with facts, to deal with truth,” Kent said. “We can listen to their questions but we can’t perpetuate this — for political purposes — mythmaking,” she said.

Both Gazelka and Daudt had said people with concerns about the election should be listened to.

Walz had been on the teleconference for more than 20 minutes before he spoke. When he did, he unloaded. “I’m incredibly disappointed in this conversation,” Walz said, holding up a photo from D.C. of a noose strung on a gallows. The election, he said, was investigated and litigated and found to be free and fair.

“How do we find common ground when we have people who won’t say the election was fair?” Walz asked. “Just because you’re angry with the result of it isn’t an excuse for what’s happened.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt

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House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt agreed that protest is a basic right that must be defended, “but we also need to speak out against violence, against rioting, against looting, by whoever does that.

“The United States Capitol was stormed by people who were intent on killing the Vice President, the Speaker of the House and our other legislative leaders at the urging of the President of the United States.”

And Walz said he took “umbrage” with statements that what happened in St. Paul was okay, because, he said, “the result of that, and that language of taking the governor and his family prisoner, and that ‘there may be casualties,’ resulted for the first time the State Patrol entering the living quarters and removing my 14-year-old son to a safe location.”

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Many people who looted and burned property in Minneapolis and St. Paul have been charged with crimes and are being prosecuted, Walz said. But there are lawmakers and others who are afraid to go to work because of threats made against them by people who think President Trump won the election.

“I did not expect this conversation to veer into a condemnation of a House candidate who was roundly criticized, or an idea that we’re gonna pretend that what happened is, in any way, equivalent to what happened last Wednesday,” Walz said. “Now we’re gonna say that both sides do this, but you know these people are angry because this election was rigged.” He accused the Republicans of engaging in “epic gaslighting.”

Daudt and Walz engaged in a back-and-forth after Daudt repeated that the country needs to “spend more time trying to understand the other side.”

“I’m not going to spend any time trying to understand a person who killed a Capitol Hill Police officer, tried to destroy our democracy,” Walz said. “I’m not going to spend any time trying to figure out how a president of the United States …”

“Governor,” interrupted Daudt, “I have spoken out about that many times on this phone call … I can’t speak out in stronger terms that that is absolutely wrong. You and I agree on that. I would appreciate if you don’t try to insinuate that I or anyone associated with the Minnesota House or the Minnesota Senate in any way condones that behavior.”

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent

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Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent: “We have a responsibility to deal with facts, to deal with truth. We can listen to their questions but we can’t perpetuate this — for political purposes — mythmaking.”

“You don’t need me to make that connection,” Walz said. “The public will make that connection. The fact of the matter is a president that your caucus fully supported asked for a rebellion against the United States. But we’d rather do bothsidesism.”

Hortman said she wondered how GOP lawmakers could suggest that Walz have conversations with people who aimed suggestions of casualties at him and his family. According to the Associated Press, one of the speakers at the St. Paul rally — Alley Waterbury of Woodbury — asked Walz to “please take time to meet with us one-on-one, because if you don’t, you’re going to make us do things we don’t want to do. We’re going to come for you, but we want to talk to you first.”

“I think we have to be realistic about holding people responsible for hate speech and not expect the governor to ignore the fact that people are saying on the Capital premises that there should be a civil war and there should be casualties and by casualties they mean him,” Hortman said. “To ask him to turn around and turn the other cheek and hug this person close and say, ‘Why is it that you don’t think we had a free and fair and legal election,’ is completely unrealistic.”

She said Republicans need to decide, “whether they are the party of QAnon or they are the party of Lincoln and Reagan.”

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After Walz left the teleconference, Gazelka said Minnesota leaders have to tone down the tone of the rhetoric. “You can call me if you think I’m gaslighting but I’m just trying to condemn it all,” Gazelka said. “What happened in D.C. was tragic from the top all the way down. And yet, the process worked. But we should be looking much broader. There’s a lot of stuff going on and if we don’t figure out how to do it together we’re in serious trouble.”

Update: Monday afternoon, hours after the forum, both GOP leaders issued statements condemning the language used at the St. Paul “Storm the Capitol” rally that included appearances by six House members.

“Today we learned threats against the Governor last week led to an evacuation of the Governor’s residence. We also learned there are threats targeting state capitols across the nation,” Gazelka said. “Threats against elected officials, public or private property are not acceptable. Any threat made to intimidate democracy is reprehensible, no matter who it comes from.

 “That’s why I made comments this morning that we all must ‘lower the tone.’ You may feel angry, or feel you have been wronged, but that is never an excuse for violent language or destructive behavior.”

House Republicans issued a letter signed by all 59 of its members, including four who attended the rally, criticizing some of the statements and calling for an investigation. They are Reps. Eric Lucero of Dayton, Mary Franson of Alexandria, Glenn Gruenhagen of Glencoe and Susan Akland of St. Peter.

“We, the undersigned members of the Minnesota House of Representatives, unequivocally condemn the violence and violent rhetoric at the events in Washington D.C. and Saint Paul on January 6. Those who participated in criminal destruction of property and assaults on our law enforcement officials at the United States Capitol should be arrested and prosecuted, and those who made threats of violence at the rally in Saint Paul should be investigated and held accountable.

“We must all come together and affirm that violence, destruction, and threats — no matter the context — should be condemned and have no place in our political process.”

Two other attendees caucus with the five-member New Republican Caucus. They are Reps. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa and Jeremy Munson if Lake Crystal. That statement said that those who attended heard no threats or violent rhetoric. They then repeated the comparisons to Thompson’s statements last summer and to rioting and arson following the death of George Floyd.