Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Mr. Walz goes to Washington"

Winona Daily News (MN):
Just before midnight Tuesday, Meredith Salsbery stood clutching three cell phones.

She was wedged in a throng of staff, volunteers and well-wishers who had flooded a third-floor room of the Mankato Holiday Inn. They were anticipating victory.

Salsbery’s boss, DFL candidate Tim Walz, paced behind a small bar. His wife, Gwen, stood close by. A member of incumbent Rep. Gil Gutknecht’s staff had called minutes earlier asking for Walz’s phone number.

In the three days leading up to Tuesday’s election, Walz visited 21 towns in Minnesota’s 23-county 1st Congressional District. He knocked on doors, rallied supporters and listened to voters’ concerns in a frantic finish to a two-year marathon to gain voters’ trust. Now, he stood on the verge of representing more than 615,000 Minnesotans in Washington.

After 22 months of campaigning, they waited for Gutknecht’s concession call.

“I just want the call,” Gwen Walz said. “I just want the call.”

“We’ve got 72 hours,” Tim Walz said to a group of 10 volunteers gathered in the basement of his Rochester campaign office. “We’ve got a plan. We’re gonna get in done. Let’s do it.”

Walz, a 42-year-old global geography teacher at Mankato West High School, had just arrived after driving almost three hours to shake about a dozen people’s hands in cafes and restaurants in Plainview, Minn.

Outside in the office parking lot, he shook more hands and thanked volunteers as they arrived.

“I wanted to run a campaign where people could take personal ownership,” Walz said.

A few minutes later, Walz was joined by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to knock on the doors of probable voters. Rick Kahn, a volunteer staffer and adviser, carried a list the campaign had created through “micro-targeting” of voters. Kahn, a student and close friend of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, delivered a fiery eulogy at a public memorial after the senator and his wife died in a plane crash.

“There are a lot of people that make up their mind a couple of days before the vote,” he said.

In recent weeks, major polls had declared the race between Walz and Gutknecht a dead heat. But the Walz campaign felt for two years that they knew something the polls and Gutknecht did not. Voters wanted change.

“He ought to talk to some of the IBM employees and ask them what their raises have been in the last 10 years,” Bruce Buchardy, an IBM employee, said when Walz and Coleman stopped at his house in Rochester.

“When you talk to people around the district, there’s a fear about where this country is heading,” Kahn said as he walked to the next house.


Walz estimates he averaged 90 hours a week on the campaign and drove more than 130,000 miles. He says he is driven by the people he met along the way.

At the 101 Main Restaurant in Mankato, hostess Glenda Williams was seating Sunday breakfast customers. “There’s a frightening widening gap between the people that have and those who do not,” said Williams, a single mother of two. “And the tax policies in place now are making things worse.”

Gwen Walz joined her husband for the day’s events. The couple met as teachers in the same Nebraska school. They shared a room with a temporary partition, and Gwen complained that he talked too loud. Tim went on unpaid leave at the end of March to focus on his campaign. The couple spent their savings on the campaign and lived off Gwen’s income as a school administrator. In the early 1990s, when Tim and Gwen tried to have a child, doctors gave them a 1 percent chance of conceiving. Five years later, Gwen gave birth to a daughter, Hope.

Two years ago, most people didn’t think there was much hope for a Democrat — much less a political novice — to win in Minnesota’s 1st District, where George Bush won the district twice and the Republican Gutknecht had just won for the sixth time with more than 60 percent of the votes.

But Walz was developing a nascent interest in politics that was fueled by something other than raw political calculation: anger.

In 2004, Walz, a command sergeant major in the National Guard who had served overseas the previous year, took a group of students to a rally for President Bush at the Mankato Quarry in St. Peter, Minn. A Bush campaign worker turned them away because the students were identified as John Kerry supporters. Walz was eventually let in, only after he pointed out his recent service and the publicity that would come from barring him.

In January 2005, Walz filed as a candidate for Congress.

Tim Walz is the candidate, but the campaign is a team effort. The core staff are almost all in their 20s with little previous campaign experience. Some of the staffers still call him Mr. Walz, like they did when he was their teacher.

“It’s a little bit corny, but we actually believe we are doing something to help our country,” said Kerry Greeley, who is in her 40s and the oldest member of the staff. She joined in March as campaign manager and previously worked on Kerry’s presidential campaign.

“People are so hungry to believe politics can be run this way,” Walz said.

On the road to Waseca, Gutknecht’s “Heartland Express” tour bus passed Walz’s campaign minivan going the other direction.

“We went under the radar and didn’t really get noticed until a few weeks ago,” Greeley said. “Gil took us for granted. He saved his money. He could have come out and defined Tim. Instead, he did nothing. By the time they took us seriously, we were almost caught up on money.”

Later that morning, more than a hundred volunteers greeted the minivan at the Plaza Morena Mexican Restaurant in Owatonna. Similar crowds were repeated in Austin and Winona.

“There’s this energy,” Rick Kahn said. “Communities are saying ‘OK, we’ve had enough of this. Let’s do something.’”

Bill Webster, a Mankato resident, attended a jammed campaign rally at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.

“They always said Gil fit the district,” he said. “Now we have one that fits the district better.”


The last day of campaigning began well before sunrise. The candidate and staff were optimistic. They had called thousands of potential voters, knocked on more than 10,000 doors, and the weather on Election Day was predicted to be mild, a strong indicator for good voter turnout.

But they knew they still had a formidable opponent.

“They are smart about winning elections, so I am concerned about that,” Walz said.

At a coffee stop in Hanska, Walz spoke with Sharon Smith, the owner of the Troll Hus Cafe.

“Look at my health insurance,” Smith said, jabbing her finger on the bar. “I can’t make a living. It burns you out. The promises are never kept.”

As Walz left with his coffee, Smith yelled after him, “Make the changes that need to be made.”

The sentiment was the same at the Stray Cat Coffee House in St. James.

“I think people want change badly, but they don’t trust that it will happen,” said owner Marilyn Hedlund.

Deb Elliot, who lives on $16,000 a year in disability payments, gave her last $17 dollars to the Walz campaign.

“I think we have to keep in context here that not everyone is wealthy,” said Elliot, who broke her neck in a 1989 automobile accident. “One thing happens, and you go from being safe and secure and stable to being absolutely terrified.”

“God they want to win so bad,” Walz said. “I want them to know we did everything we could.”

Just after 9 a.m., Walz received a phone call from his staff. The Gutknecht campaign had issued a news release claiming their office had been vandalized and implicating the Walz campaign. The Rochester Post Bulletin and Minnesota Public Radio were about to run the story.

“Running for office is a brutal undertaking,” Kahn said.

In the final day of the campaign, Walz visited 12 towns throughout the western part of the district and talked to dozens of supporters.

“There is that same sentiment everywhere we go that people just want change,” Kahn said.

As the day came to an end, Walz headed to his final campaign stop in Medelia. He called Gwen from the minivan. “I will have no regrets,” he said. “I don’t think we could have run a better campaign.”

Walz leaned his head back in his seat. Stump speeches and a cold had made his voice hoarse. Just above the two- lane highway, an orange harvest moon was breaking through the clouds.

“Look at the moon,” he said.

Up the road at a Medelia nursing home, a mock election was complete: 45-45 tie.


Chris Schmitter, the campaign’s field director, spent Election Day glued to his laptop, monitoring voter turnout in the campaign’s command center at the Holiday Inn.

The information he was getting from his monitors at polling places around the district indicated high voter turnout.

By 4 p.m., voter turnout in Winona County was 183 percent what they expected — good news for the campaign. By 11 p.m., precinct results were consistently showing Walz with a 53 percent to 47 percent advantage, and people began putting their arms around each other.

“Isn’t that what politics is all about,” Kahn said later. “A real faith in the possibility of what can happen when people get together and believe.”

Walz took the phone from Meredith Salsbery, and the room leaned closer. Gwen Walz stared at the floor. After a brief conversation, Walz hung up and said simply, “It’s over.”

And a room full of dreamers yelled for all the world the hear.

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