Caryn Sullivan: The risky optics of Tim Walz’s empty lectern

If he answers questions about his performance, he’s often angry and defensive. And now he’s avoiding situations where he’ll be called upon to explain or defend his record. 

Scott Jensen debate empty lectern
Dr. Scott Jensen stood next to an empty podium at Sunday night's debate. (KSTP screenshot)

When KSTP hosted “Debate Night” with statewide candidates on Sunday, the lectern reserved for Gov. Tim Walz was empty. According to KSTP, Walz declined multiple invitations to participate in the only debate to be broadcast in the metro area. It was a stunning visual for a governor who held daily press conferences during COVID but has largely been invisible during his reelection campaign.

The event began with attorney general and secretary of state candidates facing off. Then, standing at a lectern, GOP gubernatorial candidate Dr. Scott Jensen fielded questions from four reporters for 30 minutes. Hardly softball questions, they nevertheless allowed Jensen to present his vision and views without being interrupted or challenged by Walz.

The optics were terrible for a governor who has a history of ducking and hiding when times get tough. Until now, Walz’s most notable disappearance was in May of 2020, when he was nowhere to be seen as “peaceful protesters” looted the Twin Cities in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Jensen was pressed on some of his positions during the pandemic and whether he would follow the recent CDC recommendation to add COVID vaccinations to the childhood vaccine schedule. He was unequivocal. As governor, he would not require children to get the COVID vaccine to attend school or daycare anywhere in the state. That decision would be the province of parents.

We can only speculate as to Walz’s response.

Polling shows inflation, crime, and abortion are top issues for voters. If Walz had appeared at the debate, I would have liked to hear him answer questions about his handling of COVID.

Initially impressed by Walz’s response, I lost confidence as he made one arbitrary decision after another. I’m not the only one. Memories of life during the pandemic linger — and even haunt some voters.

They’re parents of school-age children who resent that public school students had to learn remotely while private school students continued to learn in classrooms; and that kids had to wear masks when they returned to school and sports.

They’re restaurant owners who followed directives, installing plexiglass and outdoor heaters only to be told they couldn’t open after all.

They’re small business owners who remember how Home Depot stayed open but Ace Hardware had to close.

They’re people of faith who couldn’t attend services at their churches, synagogues, and mosques but remember how politicians and celebrities sat side-by-side at George Floyd’s funeral.

Some of the most wrenching stories come from people who couldn’t see their loved ones in person. A woman I’ll call Molly offers a poignant account of how her elderly mother spent months eating meals alone in an efficiency apartment. She had no visitors, just limited encounters with staff. Though she survived COVID and was vaccinated, she couldn’t exercise or get physical therapy. In short order she transitioned from a walker to a wheelchair.  After losing precious time with family, she went into hospice before passing away last year.

To be fair, COVID was unprecedented. Like every other leader, Walz had to make difficult decisions during a difficult time. But other governors granted more latitude to their constituents, allowing them to decide what precautions to take. Other governors didn’t have their executive powers wrested away from them.

It’s time for a quick history lesson. After electing a president who barely campaigned, Americans are dealing with the highest inflation in 40 years. Millions of people have entered the country illegally. Democrat policies allow criminals to escape meaningful consequences. Just last weekend, a three-year-old child was shot in Minneapolis. Amid forecasts of a particularly cold winter, heating fuel is being rationed in Northeastern states — in October.

America — Minnesota — is not well.

It’s important to know who we’re voting for. It’s important for politicians to do more than talk about accountability and transparency. Gov. Walz, a former teacher, seems not to have learned that lesson. If he answers questions about his performance, he’s often angry and defensive. And now he’s avoiding situations where he’ll be called upon to explain or defend his record.

To his credit, Jensen puts himself out there. He admits he doesn’t have every answer and he doesn’t do everything perfectly. But he’s traversing the state, meeting with constituents, taking questions, and inviting bold new approaches and ideas.

By keeping his head down and running his campaign on Twitter and Facebook, Walz is rolling the dice. Yes, his most loyal constituents will vote for him. But independent voters who believe elected officials must earn the job or who recall the empty lectern when they cast their ballots? I wouldn’t bet the governor’s mansion on them.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not represent an official position of Alpha News. 


Caryn Sullivan
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A retired attorney and author of the award-winning memoir, "Bitter or Better: Grappling With Life on the Op-Ed Page," Caryn Sullivan has inspired readers with her thoughtful commentary for the past two decades. To learn more about Caryn’s work or to connect, visit