St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell says he won’t seek renewal of his appointment as chief. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
This week’s topics: Axtell’s exit; front-line failure; rockin’ warhorses
Welcome to Session/Law Sound-off, the weekly current events quiz where we approach smart folks from across the political spectrum and they tell us what’s on their minds. Their views are entirely their own.
Query 1: St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell says he is leaving his department next summer after his current term ends. According to a KARE-11 report, his departure is part of a trend that has seen nearly half of big city police chiefs leaving their jobs since 2020. What do you think is going on there?
Mary Kunesh, DFL state senator: I think that the struggle for our public safety people is real. The recent civil unrest has had a major effect both on the emotional part of their job, as well as their ability to do their job in a way that is meaningful for them and their community. I’m a teacher and teachers are often seen as the problem in society. I think that has now jumped over to our public safety members as well. So with the threat of less funding, less support and being oftentimes viewed as the problem—and not finding ways to really work with our public safety service folks as much as we should—people are just opting out. Much like teachers are opting out.
Annette Meeks, CEO, Freedom Foundation: I think it is a genuine reflection of the lack of support that the good guys in the big city police forces are feeling from both elected officials—especially elected officials—and the general public. I don’t think it’s a happy job to have these days.
John Kaul, retired long-time lobbyist, photographer: I think that the Minneapolis City Council and their allies and this whole campaign cry of defunding the police has demoralized law enforcement. I think that’s what’s driving it. Which is not to say there isn’t a need for radical reforms. But they must have hired Steve Bannon to do their messaging for them when they put together that ballot measure in Minneapolis.
Brett Corson, Fillmore County Attorney: I think, in all honesty, there is a lot of frustration. Some of the things I think would cause that would be just the lack of respect for the opinions of law enforcement or the chiefs. I think some of the trends as far as funding, of course, would be frustrating. Because in a big city, like in rural areas, we rely on law enforcement for lots of different things, including if there’s a child visitation dispute between parents or if there’s a dog that’s attacking somebody’s else’s dog and killing it. I think it’s just hard to tell your guys on the beat to engage the community, when they’re also being told that they’re not protected from liability for what they think is a good-faith action to help somebody or prevent somebody from getting hurt—and that they are personally on the hook and will lose their family and go to prison. I think it’s just frustration from a cumulative effect of lots of things.
Corey Day, public affairs consultant, former DFL executive director: I think right now the police force is quite discouraged. We’re seeing, like you said, numbers around the country are going down. I don’t doubt that’s the reason for Chief Axtell. I’m sure that he has hit that point with his pension and his retirement and maybe he just wants to spend his days on the beach.
Query 2: Back in September, some were confident that a special session would happen to distribute $250 million in COVID-19 financial relief to front-line workers. But on Wednesday, House and Senate lawmakers could not come to an agreement—so looks like no special session. You surprised by this development?
Kunesh: I’m not surprised. I did watch the hearing yesterday and I was hopeful that Representative [Ryan] Winkler’s offer to compromise would be acceptable, and be accepted. Yet the whole rigmarole around which offer to discuss or agree on, it was just a mouse, or a cat, or a dog chasing its tail. They went around and around and around on which plan to accept without really getting down to the issue of finishing this project that they’ve been tasked with. So I’m disappointed, but not surprised.
Meeks: [Laughs.] Imagine! There is politics at the Legislature! I’m not surprised at all. I think it is especially difficult, considering that these folks have not been meeting in person and talking things through in an open, honest way and trying to do what’s best with what limited funds they have right now. Very sad.
Kaul: Who is surprised by ineptitude in government anymore?
Corson: No, I’m not. I think it’s very difficult to decide how you would apportion the money and who are the most important people to get the money to. I know [lawmakers’] discussion was whether to make it a larger amount for a smaller group or do we try and spread it out to a larger group. But some people felt that then those funds would not be very meaningful. So it does not surprise me. Because deciding that is a very tough job. I think it just goes to point out the old understanding that we all know: For a body or a society to function, there are lots of very essential people. I would say all those people are essential.
Day: I really am, I’m really surprised. But the fact of the matter is that Republicans are playing politics with these folks’ front-line benefits. These are the people that we depended on when we were going through this pandemic. And the idea that the Republicans play politics with their benefits is just disgusting.
Query 3: Neil Young and Crazy Horse are releasing an album of new songs. Even ABBA is back with a new album. But that long-anticipated reunion of Ray Davies and the Kinks is not yet in sight. What old musical warhorses would you like to see get together to record some one-last-time tunes?
Kunesh: Gosh, you caught me off guard on that one! I’d love to hear Carly Simon again. I’d love to hear some of the good old ‘80’s bands get back together one more time. Let’s do Meatloaf! I got to sing the girl part with him once [on the song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”] when he came to Minnesota. So I’ve always kind of held that in the back of my heart.
[Editor’s note: We need look no further: Sen. Kunesh wins the Awesome Anecdote of the Week Award.]
Meeks: Billy Joel. I saw him once in concert. He’s one of the finest performers next to Elton John, who is really, really entertaining. Billy Joel is just a great composer and performer; he was just fabulous. Especially when he’d go out there as just him with a grand piano and an Asian rug underneath the piano. It was just magical. I felt like I was in his living room. So, yeah, I’d take some more good stuff from him.
[Editor’s note: For reasons best known to him, Billy Joel has not released an album of new material since 1993’s “River of Dreams.”]
Kaul: Puccini and Verdi. The most heavenly music ever composed was composed by Puccini and Verdi. Everyone knows that! [Laughs.]
[Editor’s note: We’re kinda partial to Schubert around here at Session/Law, but we’ll cede Mr. Kaul’s point.]
Corson: I’m an Eagles fan, I just like some of their tunes. I grew up during some of that time period when those songs were out there. I like Cheap Trick and that kind of stuff. Even Molly Hatchet. So there is just a variety of people who it would be fun to see out there.
Day: I’m a child of the ’90s, so anytime I could see any of my old hip-hop or R&B groups come back together, it would be awesome. I’d love to see Boyz II Men get back together as a whole group.
[Editor’s note: Sadly, that’s unlikely. Michael McCary, the bass singer from the classic Boyz II Men lineup, reportedly left the group because of persistent back spasms in 2002; he later was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But apparently, he never told his bandmates he was ailing or exactly why he was leaving and they were not happy when he did. So there are Beatle-y bad feelings among the Boyz, it seems.]