This week’s Sounding Board (left to right): Fritz Knaak, Ember Reichgott Junge, Kevin Burke, Amy Koch, John Kriesel
This week’s topics: Political intimidation; Suni and Simone; Trump’s ‘reinstatement’
Query 1: MinnPost published a story this week about a fall 2020 voicemail message from Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka to then MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop, which Bishop considered politically intimidating. In it, Gazelka urges her to “do your job” and approve the Enbridge Line 3 permit. You’ve heard the recording. Did you find Gazelka’s phone call inappropriate?
Fritz Knaak, attorney, former GOP senator: Let’s just say I would call it ill-advised. I mean, certainly, Paul Gazelka has every right to express the position of his caucus and he had every right to do so with a member of the Walz administration. But I would state that, as a practical matter, he would have been much better off making that statement in public at a press conference or something like that. In other words, where it’s on the public record. Her job was still up for review by the Senate and Gazelka makes a private phone call, really urging her to grant the permit. You don’t want to get into that kind of position. It’s not illegal. But you’re opening yourself up to an argument from opponents of the permit and of the pipeline that would say you were exercising improper influence on a decision that was supposed to be based on the merits.
Ember Reichgott Junge, attorney, former DFL state senator: Absolutely, it crosses the line. There may be grounds for an ethics complaint here to determine if [Gazelka’s] actions as a whole created threat or intimidation. While advocacy from legislators is normal, a commissioner’s job is to run an efficient agency, follow state and federal law and implement the governor’s policies as allowed by law. Normally, commissioners’ qualifications are confirmed within their first months of office, providing independence to do their jobs. By intentionally delaying confirmations, Sen. Gazelka is forcing political loyalty—similar to how President Trump forced loyalty with his attorney general and other cabinet members. We cannot allow that in Minnesota. No commissioner of any party should be required to report to two political bosses of differing views with their job on the line.
Kevin Burke, former Hennepin County District Court chief judge: I would not have left a message like that. It seems to me that if you really were concerned about the issue, you either send a letter which explains what your position is and what you want. Or you say, I would like to talk to you. It’s a little bit like email: Voicemail loses nuance. It’s not what he intended, it’s what her reaction to that was. I don’t think it was his wisest move.
Amy Koch, former GOP Senate majority leader: Not in the least. That’s is his job and that’s him doing his job. And by the way, that was a really nice conversation—he was pleasant as could be and he was just being factual. The constitution requires that the Senate work with the administration. The administration must work with the legislature. If you’re not interested, as part of the administration, in working with the legislature, then get out. That’s not a threat, that’s just reality. That’s just politics. That’s just life. It’s like saying “I’m going to be in politics,” or “I want to run for governor,” and not talk to the press. It is ridiculous. It is as much a part of your job as anything. You deal with it.
John Kriesel, Iraq war veteran, former GOP House member: I don’t know, I would have phrased it maybe a little different. I wouldn’t have mentioned the political stuff. But he’s in politics, I am not. I didn’t think it was inappropriate, really. I mean the “do your job” part was maybe somewhat insulting, perhaps implying she they wasn’t doing her job. But beyond that, I think this is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things to be concerned about.
Query 2: St. Paul’s Suni Lee won gymnastics gold after teammate Simone Biles dropped out of competition at the Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health. Social media blew up over Biles’ decision. Many said what she did was the mark of a brave champion, others said Biles buckled under mental pressure and let her teammates down. Where do you fall on that arc?
Knaak: You know what? The decision of an athlete to compete is solely that of the athlete. I can’t even imagine the kind of pressures that they’re under, especially somebody who walks in with expectations like that. I don’t fault her one bit. It’s her call. It’s sort of like when a tree falls in the woods, sometimes the seedlings underneath get to grow into big tall pines. If this meant a gold medal for somebody else—and especially a Minnesotan—I’m delighted.
Reichgott Junge: I think Simone Biles is a champion in all ways. Her leadership on the mental health issue will help so many people in this country, whether they be athletes or otherwise. My only regret is that she couldn’t determine this prior to her designation as an Olympian, because another person could have had her spot on the team. But otherwise, I think she did what she had to do. I give her great credit. And it also opened the door for the future champion Suni Lee, who will now have many years of great competition.
Burke: I definitely don’t think she let her teammates down. That decision must have been incredibly hard for her to make, because she spent much of her rather young life going for the gold. There was a plausible reason to think that she might have actually successfully competed. I think that the idea that she buckled does a disservice to her and other young athletes as well.
Koch: I would say her decision to go to the Olympics wasn’t the right decision. Maybe looking back, she would say it was the wrong decision. I don’t think she’s a hero because of it and I don’t think she’s terrible because of it. Maybe somebody should have worked with her and helped her to make the decision not to go in the first place and leave that berth for somebody else, because there are so many other girls lining up to go. But she certainly can continue and will continue, I’m sure, to be outspoken in the world of gymnastics. I think more her real bravery came in exposing that world of gymnastics. I think what she has done when it comes to that scumbag Larry Nassarand the Béla Károlyi Ranch and all of the [sexual abuse] that was being done to these gymnasts is a very good thing.
Kriesel: I think I’m pretty in the middle. I can understand both sides. We discussed it on KFAN yesterday at length. I would never understand the type of pressure that she’s under. But when we’re talking mental health, the important thing is to be able to have a conversation about it. I’m not saying that people should be criticizing her, because they shouldn’t—we don’t understand the situation she’s in. But we should be able to have a discussion about it. And unfortunately, I think it’s just a part of the current environment we’re in that, if you use the right buzzwords, it’s supposed shut down the debate. And then it defeats the purpose of free speech, really. I believe she is the greatest of all time. But when you withdraw from the Olympics, which is their Super Bowl, I think it is fair for people to ask questions and want to know more.
Query 3: Former President Donald Trump seems to be on board with a wild theory that a vote audit in Arizona will trigger some sort of legal process and that he will be “reinstated” to the presidency, perhaps as early as August. Just last weekend, Trump said in Phoenix, “The courts are gonna do a lot” about the “criminal” way that Election 2020 was conducted. Your comments?
Knaak: I think it’s B.S., and I’m getting a little tired of the argument. There was no meaningful fraud in this election. What got everybody set off was the fact that, because of the pandemic, people started getting, let’s just say creative in how votes were gathered and how the counting was conducted. My point is that you’ve got a very uncomfortable electorate, and he is playing off that—as is the other side, by the way, in my opinion. He’s making what I consider to be very much a demagogic argument that this is all fraud and the election was wrong and it’ll all come back to us. And I’m not buying that for a second right now. I do election law. I don’t see fraud. I understand that we really do need to take a look at these laws, even though the Democrats don’t want us to. But that’s not the same thing. I think Trump loses credibility to a certain point, when he keeps bringing this up again and again and again.
Reichgott Junge: It’s ludicrous. Speaking of mental health, I hope those with influence around Trump can start addressing his mental health issues. It is clear he is living in an alternate reality, given the recent interviews we’ve heard. Unfortunately, it is not just his own life at risk. It is the lives of millions of people as he continues to stoke division in our country. These audits are especially unnerving, because election workers are being attacked and they are resigning. Who can blame them? Who wants to put themselves through this for future elections?
Burke: I’m quite confident that Joe Biden is the president and will remain the president.
Koch: No, of course not. Stop it! Stop it, Mr. Trump. There’s no proof of this, there’s no court that has upheld any bit of this. It just continues to confuse people and anger people, and it is for his own purposes. It’s for his own self-aggrandizement that he uses people and lies to people. Enough.
Kriesel: I think this is a perfect follow-up question after discussing mental health. I think he is tremendously mentally ill. Unfortunately, there is a small but vocal segment of people who identify as Republican who take every word he says as the gospel. That’s why he keeps doing this. He doesn’t care about the country, he doesn’t care about the Republican Party. He cares about himself. It’s only to keep his name in the spotlight. My hope Is that he just goes away and we never hear his name again. He is a disaster and a bad person. I consider myself a pretty moderate or reasonable Republican, but because of Donald Trump and the things he has done and said, people stereotype people like me. It’s very unfortunate.