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Sen. Scott Newman
Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, presides over the first hearing of the joint Transportation-Judiciary oversight committee that is looking into the rioting in Minneapolis and St. Paul in late May and early June. (Image courtesy of Senate Media Services)

Senate oversight committee off to heated start

A five-hour Senate oversight committee hearing Wednesday to examine Twin Cities rioting left Republicans and Democrats pretty much where they were when they started.

Republicans want to tackle the lawlessness of criminal rioters who damaged well over 1,000 businesses after George Floyd’s death. Democrats want to talk about police reforms that could keep deaths like Floyd’s from sparking civil disturbance.

The GOP is likely to get its way.

A joint Transportation and Judiciary oversight panel on Wednesday inaugurated a series of what could be six information-only hearings, to be held over three weeks. Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, the panel’s chair, made clear Wednesday that he does not intend to allow discussions to stray toward DFL priorities.

“The best I can tell you is that the agenda is still developing,” Newman told Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, after Dibble warned him Democrats will use the hearings to discuss police reform.

“I would anticipate that law enforcement will be involved in a future hearing,” Newman said. “But it is not going to be on the agenda, the types of policies that I think you want to talk about.”

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said that as he watched neighborhoods burn on television in late May, he thought of Article 1, Section 1 of the Minnesota Constitution, which mentions public safety as government’s paramount mission.

“Did we live up to the protection of our citizens?” he said. “It’s rightful that we have a discussion about what occurred and how government responded. We all enjoy a right to be protected. It’s in our law.”

The hearing got off to a shaky start. Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, a member of the Transportation Committee, asked to make a statement, but Newman refused to allow it. Little is neither a committee chair nor a minority lead, Newman said, and he wanted only senior members to make opening statements.

Little said his piece anyway, asking to give up his seat to Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus whose Senate district was among the worst affected. That was refused. Nor was Torres Ray initially allowed to speak, though Newman later relented.

The combined committee has 23 members, but only one POCI Caucus member is among its ranks, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina.

The committee is examining civil unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul, from May 26 to June 10. Most of the serious civil disturbances were over by May 30; the latter date apparently loops in the June 10 destruction of a Christopher Columbus statue on the Capitol grounds.

The committee heard testimony from six business owners affected by the riots. Of those, four were white—and DFLers took note. Franzen, who is Puerto Rican, estimated that 70% of business owners along the Lake Street corridor are Hispanic. But none was asked to appear.

“I don’t see my people represented in terms of my ethnicity, my background, my race,” Franzen said. “If we’re going to continue to leave people behind, it’s not going to work. We’re never going to get above and beyond this.”

Michael J. Shoff, owner of Shoff Chiropractic at 2621 E. Lake St., in Minneapolis, was among the testifiers. He said the business he ran for 29 years was destroyed on May 28. However, he acknowledged that he is an “atypical owner” for the area, which is “very multicultural.”

Lonnie McQuirter, the African-American owner of the 36 Lyn Refuel Station at 3551 Lyndale Ave S., in Minneapolis, talked about how he and a friend, Matthew Kernan—a licensed gun owner—stood guard to protect his business from arsonists by standing on its roof. The men were perched there for five days, both said, and the business survived.

“I just couldn’t let things go without taking any action,” Kernan said. “I’m glad I didn’t have to pull the trigger on anything.”

When she was finally allowed to speak, Torres Ray pointed out that a number of the people arrested for arson afterward came from outside the Twin Cities, from towns like Andover, Staples, Brainerd and Long Lake.

“That is what these hearings need to be about—the people who came to cause so much damage and terror in our district don’t live in our district,” Torres Ray said. “That’s what Judiciary needs to investigate and I hope you do, Sen. Limmer.”

Newman reiterated as the meeting closed that he wants the committee to focus on just one of the topics that surfaced after George Floyd’s death—and police reform is not it.

“This issue that I am trying to shine a light on is the rioting, the looting, violence and the criminal activity that you folks have had to live through,” he said with a nod to the business owners at the testifier’s table. “It’s just absolutely unimaginable.”

No legislation was heard and no votes were cast Wednesday and none is expected in future hearings. The committee was expected to meet over three weeks, beginning with Wednesday’s hearing. The next meeting is not yet on the legislative calendar.


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