Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Senate panel observes Columbus day

Kevin Featherly//July 10, 2020

Senate panel observes Columbus day

Kevin Featherly//July 10, 2020

Law enforcement guarding the Capitol complex thought they had more time on June 10 to protect the Christopher Columbus statue, officials told a Senate committee Wednesday. But protesters showed up earlier than organizers on social media suggested they would.

Once the crowd of roughly 75 people was assembled that evening, law enforcement was again taken by surprise. The monument came down far easier than anticipated, rendering moot officials’ two-pronged plan to protect it. It was yanked to the ground just as the commanding officer, State Patrol Capt. Eric Roeske, was calling in 35 armored troopers to secure the scene.

Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said he thought protesters would need a truck to drag the heavy bronze statue to the ground. Instead they easily pulled it down by hand using ropes.

“I didn’t think they could possibly do it with just the human beings who were there,” Harrington said. “That’s a misjudgment on my part. It’s a misjudgment I won’t make again.”

With the controversial explorer face-down on the pavement, officials said, a decision was made not to arrest anyone. That avoided deploying chemical irritants on the crowd, a move that might have escalated an already volatile situation, officials said.

“That was going to be a very difficult dilemma for our folks on the scene,” State Patrol Col. Matt Langer told Senate oversight committee members Wednesday. He said he personally found the no-arrests decision “frustrating,” but supported it.

GOP senators on the joint “lawlessness review” committee, vexed by the crowd’s destruction of public property, found the officials’ explanations unsatisfactory.

“It appeared as if we were tolerating some degree of lawlessness,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, co-chair of the joint oversight committee.

The Columbus statue was the lone topic of discussion by the joint Transportation/Public Safety oversight committee, which is probing Twin Cities rioting, looting and destruction between May 26 and June 10.

‘Ulterior motives’

Contrary to suspicions expressed by several Republicans, both Langer and Harrington insisted that neither Gov. Tim Walz nor Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan ordered them to stand down and allow the monument to be wrecked.

“I can tell you that that is not true,” Harrington said. “It didn’t come from them, it didn’t come from me. There absolutely was no order given.”

But Republican senators found that difficult to accept, partly because of Flanagan’s recent public statement that she shed no tears over Columbus’ fall. Republicans continued to press both law enforcement leaders—the only testifiers during the roughly five-hour hearing—on the point.

“People really think there was an ulterior motive here,” said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, citing his conversations with constituents. “I’ll tell you blankly—people think that a decision was made above you to stand down. And I believe that happened somewhere.”

Whether it will quell the controversy is anyone’s guess, but arrests related to the statue incident may come soon. Harrington told senators that two suspects were referred late Tuesday to Ramsey County Attorney John Choi for possible felony damage-to-property charges. At least two others are being investigated as persons of interest, he said.

A spokesman for Choi said Thursday that staff attorneys are examining the case. But she had no immediate timetable for a charging decision.


‘Somewhat argumentative’

As they have since the committee’s first hearing on July 1, Democrats tried to steer the conversation away from the destruction that flowed from the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd and toward the killing itself, and the police tactics that led to it.

Democrats were given some latitude to express such opinions, but were occasionally rebuffed by the committee’s leader, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, after other senators accused them of impugning personal motives. Newman has claimed primacy over the panel because the jurisdiction of the Transportation Committee that he chairs includes the State Patrol and Capitol security.

Newman did his best to limit conversation to the statue and Capitol security, and at times urged members to refrain from political speeches. Still, Republicans were given a bit more latitude than DFLers to get political—particularly when it came to hinting that the Walz team conspired in the incident. But a GOP member also got shut down at one point for straying too far in that direction.

That happened after Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, sided with a Jasinski proposal to repair the statue and replace it on its pedestal. Then, he said, opponents could properly petition the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board—which Flanagan chairs—to have it removed.

“So you really think the process is going to be followed when you have the lieutenant governor saying she really didn’t mind it being torn down?” Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a former sheriff, asked Osmek. “I think the process is probably going to be somewhat tainted.”

Newman stepped in, telling Ingebrigtsen that he was being “somewhat argumentative.”

Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, an attorney and member of the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus that has pressed hard for police reforms, said she found the committee’s focus on Columbus misplaced, even alarming.

She said she worries the debate suggests the Capitol—ringed by a barricade fence for more than a month—could go into a kind of permanent lockdown, marked by a constant show of heavy police presence. Minnesotans don’t want that, she said.

She questioned why Republicans are so upset over troopers’ handling of the statue incident when no one got hurt, the statue was recovered and suspects are identified and under criminal investigation.

“In this case, there was discretion,” she said. “There was de-escalation. We usually ask for that and we’re questioning that today.”


Tight ship

Newman plans as many as six oversight hearings total during July—though the special session expected to start Monday could delay some of those. The third meeting, examining the state officials’ response to the chaos of late May, was underway as this issue went to press.

As of Tuesday night, the committee is operating under new rules. An email was sent from Newman to committee members laying those out.

They were prompted by controversy during the July 1 hearing over who would be allowed to speak. It was only after extensive cajoling by DFL senators that Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, a POCI Caucus member who sits on neither the Transportation nor Judiciary-Public Safety, was finally allowed to address the meeting.

With Newman’s new rules in place, such confrontations are unlikely to be repeated.

Under those rules, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is the only Democrat allowed to suggest witnesses or video to be shown to the committee. Dibble is the Transportation Committee’s ranking DFLer. Opening statements will no longer be allowed by any senators.

Participation is strictly limited to members of the joint committee; other senators will not even be invited to the testifier’s table. Meanwhile, members must attend in person to participate. And Newman’s email indicates that he plans to run a tight ship.

“The germaneness of questions, statements or motions will be decided and ruled on by the chair,” the email said.

Sen. Susan Kent, the DFL’s Senate minority leader and a member of the committee, protested the move. “These guidelines are a blatant attempt to silence people,” she said in a written statement issued late Tuesday.

Newman’s approach is unusual, particularly in refusing outside senators the right to participate. In most legislative committees, lawmakers with subject-matter expertise, or whose districts are affected by the topic of discussion, are welcomed to testify.

Newman was asked Wednesday why he has adopted the restrictive format. He said that because the committee is “informal,” it is covered by neither Senate nor Mason’s rules. So he had to set out his own rules.

Because the committee has so many members—25 in total—he said he felt compelled to limit input only to members of the committee. Otherwise, Newman said, the discussion could too easily stray off topic.

“Katie, bar the door when you start allowing any other Senators to come in,” Newman said. “It would detract or prohibit the other Senators actually on the committee from participating. The Senators that are on this committee are perfectly capable of discussing these issues.”

Top News

See All Top News

Legal calendar

Click here to see upcoming Minnesota events

Expert Testimony

See All Expert Testimony