An Antiwar Freshman Leader Faces His Constituents
T im Walz-- the newly installed president of the freshman Democratic congressional class -- was among the 30 members swept into office in November as reformers, vowing to change what they called a culture of corruption and to end the war in Iraq.
But after seven months in office and especially last week's raucous march to the summer recess, the affable former high school teacher is returning home to a skeptical electorate in Minnesota with little progress to report on the war. Like the rest of his colleagues, between now and November 2008 he will have to prove to his constituents that they made the right choice to hand control of Congress to the Democrats.
And he's trying not to sound worried as Republicans circle his seat.
"My constituents are thoughtful and pragmatic people who focus on outcomes rather than ideology," he said. "They want good government and ethics reform. . . . They need to have their faith restored in government. We can't just sound good."
Walz, 43, was a popular geography teacher and military veteran when he launched his new career as a candidate with an eye toward the 2006 election. As Reps. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.) scoured the country for moderate Democratic challengers who could be credible speaking on the war in Iraq, no one came knocking on Walz's door. But he was certainly what they were looking for: He had spent 24 years in the Army National Guard before retiring, not happy with the direction in Iraq and willing to say so.
He said running for office hadn't really occurred to him until after he volunteered for the campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and some local Democratic leaders, impressed with his organizational work, approached him about taking on six-term Republican Rep. Gil Gutknecht. But they might have been the only ones who thought he could win. Minnesota's 1st Congressional District was pretty low on the Democrats' target list. Gutknecht seemed fairly entrenched in the district, which runs along the state's southern border with Iowa, and had even started publicly articulating doubts about the war.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, led by Emanuel, didn't offer any help until October, when the race had tightened and party leaders began providing money and other help. Walz was relentless in his campaign, convincing voters through his plain-talking approach that he could offer a fresh set of eyes and a strong voice on Iraq.
"I joked with Rahm that he better not take credit for my race," Walz said.
Walz became freshman president in an unusual power-sharing arrangement with Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.). Both wanted the presidency and decided that, rather than square off against each other, they would split the year. Hodes took the first half, and Walz assumed the job three weeks ago.
Electing a freshman class president has been a tradition for at least three decades in the House, enabling junior legislators to exert influence as a group. This year, they pushed for passage of the ethics bill.
Walz got his first chance in the spotlight right after arriving in Washington. In January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) chose him to make the rebuttal to the president's weekly radio address. And he wasn't shy about referring to the war in Iraq on the floor as a "failed policy" soon after taking office.
He said that if the Democrats want to stay in control they'll have to make good on all their pledges and said that last week's passage of ethics legislation was one of those promises that had to be kept. As for the war, he concedes that he continues to have a "sense of frustration" because the Democrats have not been able to do more to alter Bush's strategy. "But every veto, every threat of veto from the president," he said, pushes the administration further from the wishes of the American people.