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Capitol Retort: Backup player; prison outbreak; quarantine reads

Kevin Featherly//April 9, 2020

Capitol Retort: Backup player; prison outbreak; quarantine reads

Kevin Featherly//April 9, 2020

Editor’s note: Answers are edited for length and clarity. Any instances of agreement are accidental.

Question 1: The president refers to the federal government as a “backup” to states and has been criticized for failing to take such steps as fully utilizing the Defense Production Act, issuing a federal stay-at-home order or centralizing distribution of emergency medical equipment. What do you think about the how he’s handling things?

Corey Day, former state DFL executive director: By no means do I blame COVID-19 on the president. But his response is the reason why we are here where we’re at right now. So I think he has handled it poorly. I think the fact of the matter is that this was a car we saw coming down the road and the president just refused to stop it. I think his late response and his poor response hasn’t done anything to make the American public feel better. He hasn’t shown any leadership during this time.

Peggy Scott, former GOP House Civil Law committee chair: I’m a state’s rights person. He is trying to decentralize these operations as much as he can. I mean, there are some things that I think the federal government would have to do. But the states should be having their own plan, because each state is different, right? Some states are not going to be nearly as affected by this virus as others. So to that extent, I think it is important to have the states be in charge. That said, I did hear this morning that New York said they needed additional beds and Trump made the call and they got them.

Dave Ornstein, former Bloomington city attorney: It’s absolutely terrible. All of the capabilities of the federal government need to be focused. This is the worst crisis that we’ve faced in our time, clearly. Most of the people that are still alive in this country are post-World War II. But even then there wasn’t an invasion on our shores, other than the limited Pearl Harbor bombing. This affects everybody in the country. The Defense Production Act should have been invoked and all of the powers authorized by that act should have been implemented immediately. It’s clear that the Trump administration is guilty of malfeasance in not preparing for this in January, at a minimum.

Nick Zerwas, former GOP House member: I think some of his moves as of late—like ordering private producers to work with him as much as possible to help with some of the medical equipment manufacture—seem like they’re great. However, I am concerned, like I think everyone else is concerned, about making sure that we do enough here for our country and that the president isn’t too shy about using the power that the federal statute has given him.

Gov. Tim Walz, center, talks with communications director Kayla Castaneda on Sunday before the State of the State address over YouTube from his residence in St. Paul. (Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune via AP, Pool)
Gov. Tim Walz, center, talks with communications director Kayla Castaneda on Sunday before the State of the State address over YouTube from his residence in St. Paul. (Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

Question 2: Even before 20 presumed and confirmed COVID-19 cases popped up in the Moose Lake prison [as of April 3], Gov. Tim Walz suggested that if the Legislature doesn’t act, he might use his emergency peacetime powers to release some prisoners to community supervision—those with less than 180 days left on their sentences, for example. Would that play well with Minnesotans?

Day: I do believe that we have to do something. I mean, right now the number one thing that we need to achieve is figure out a way to curb this virus. I trust the governor. I feel like the governor has handled this situation brilliantly thus far. He’s standing up as a leader in this nation right now; people are looking at the way he is handling this as an example of how to do it. It’s that military background coming out when it comes to just taking charge. So I trust the decisions our governor makes. [Editor’s note: Walz retired in 2005 after 24 years in the Army National Guard. His rank at retirement from the 1-125th Field Artillery Battalion was command sergeant major.]

Scott: It depends on what they are in prison for and how long they’ve been there. It certainly gives people a lot of alarm. There is already kind of a movement for counties and cities that have jails, if possible, to cut down on the populations so it doesn’t spread. But at the same time, you just can’t let people off [from prison]. I don’t think that’s something that the governor should have the authority to do without legislative approval. I don’t think most Minnesotans would be OK with that.

Ornstein: I think under the circumstances, most Minnesotans realize that the public impact is not going to be limited to just the people in the prisons. It’s going to impact those who are working in the prisons and potentially, when prisoners are released, outside in the communities as well. There is also a humanitarian issue. Particularly, for nonviolent offenders, it should be a no-brainer.

Zerwas: I think it depends on how narrowly it’s crafted. You have to look at folks who are at the end of their sentences in facilities that are at great risk of being overrun [by the virus]. That type of executive order, if narrow enough with the appropriate community supports and supervision. is probably appropriate, depending on the conditions within the prisons. But it can’t be like “Get Out Jail Free” card. This needs to be reserved for truly emergency scenarios within specific facilities, if moving people amongst facilities isn’t safe or prudent to do.


Question 3: Assuming you’ve had time to crack a book since this pandemic thing cranked up, what’s been your go-to quarantine read?

Day:  I unfortunately have not had time to read during this process. My go-to thus far has been podcasts. I think there has been some very interesting podcasts and I’m kind of catching up on some of those. I love the true-crime podcasts. But one of the most interesting things is listening to folks who cover sports and different topics try to figure out other things to talk about. You’re seeing a lot of creativity out of a lot of these folks, finding other ways to approach subjects that right now just aren’t in play, such as football, basketball or baseball. So I would say podcasts have been kind of my guilty pleasure.

Scott: I had to go to my own library for this, to read a book that I haven’t read but my husband had. It’s a Tom Clancy book called “Net Force.” I’m maybe a third of the way into it and it’s kind of hard to get into. The federal government doesn’t really have this “Net force” and it has to do with virtual reality. And I’m just not into that. I’m into reality—nothing virtual! I maybe have to go to a different book. I could go to a Clive Cussler or something. But I’m one of these people that, if I start a book, I want to try to finish it.

Ornstein: I would highly recommend two books that I recently finished. One is “Tightrope,” by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. The other one is by Erza Klein—and I have to say, my brother [Norm Ornstein] wrote the book review in the New York Times on it. It’s called It’s called, “Why We’re Polarized.” It’s really well done, with good social psychology and sociology background analysis, citing a bunch of really good studies. I would suggest those two.

Zerwas: I’ll be honest, I have not cracked open a quarantine novel. But what we have done, maybe against our better judgment is, gone back and re-watched “Outbreak,” “Pandemic” and a few other movies. And then we ordered from Amazon the “Pandemic” board game and we’ve been playing that. But unfortunately, the virus keeps winning!

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