Question 1: It’s not unlikely that a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial will come before this is published. As we speak on April 16, we know only that Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, has rested his case. He called just two witnesses, canceled a third and seems to have convinced his client not to testify on his own behalf. How do you assess Nelson’s performance?
Sarah Walker, co-founder Second Chance Coalition: What I would say is that Nelson has a very difficult case and he’s a well-respected attorney. You can’t change the facts. The reality is that he was given a very difficult case and I fully expect that Chauvin will be convicted.
Brian McDaniel, attorney, conservative lobbyist: I went into watching it on TV with certain kinds of preconceived thoughts on how it might go. I think the prosecution did an absolutely exceptional job of making their case—to the point that my views on what might ultimately happen did move slightly toward the prosecution’s case. I don’t think Eric Nelson did anything poorly. But I think that he could have made Chauvin’s case more strenuously, with more overwhelming medical testimony in his favor.
Jeff Hayden, DFL ex-senator; Fredrikson & Byron government relations consultant: I think he was tasked with an untenable situation. And though I am not a lawyer, I would suggest that he is trying to salvage as much as he can, recognizing that the evidence is pretty clear and convincing, from my vantage point as a layman, that Chauvin was guilty of murder.
Rob Doar, political director, Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus: People been really critical of him. But I think, objectively, with what he has, he has done about as good of a job as he can. He’s not that the bulldog-type attorney. He’s very much a calm, reasonable, facts and figures type of attorney. I think that with the facts and figures he had available, he has done pretty well.
Question 2: After Officer Kim Potter’s shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka promised Senate hearings to at least weigh DFL police accountability measures. But he also said it is “absolutely not” necessary to pass new legislation to meet the moment, suggesting that what’s really needed is better public awareness of the reforms that passed in 2020. What do you think about that?
Walker: I think that it’s tone deaf to the moment we’re in. The issue of police violence and accountability is not going to go away without significant structural reforms. I’ll say this: I think that he’s playing politics with the lives of the people of color who are most affected by the policing issues.
McDaniel: I think that Sen. Gazelka is correct that you shouldn’t pass legislation because it feels good, or just because an issue is on the front pages. But I also believe that not holding hearings, not giving the community and, frankly, the law enforcement community the ability to speak would also be a mistake. Having hearings on these measures is what is appropriate.
Hayden: If that is what he actually believes, and we’ll take him at his word because that’s what we did when I was in the Senate, then he is tone deaf. He needs to spend a lot more time in communities of color to understand the outrage—how mad they are and how scared they are. We absolutely only nibbled around the edges last year and we need significantly more reforms in the police department. There is a good amount of people in the community that I live in—which is the community where George Floyd was killed—who sincerely now believe, more than ever, that we need to abolish the police. It’s not exactly where I’m at. But short of [recognizing] that, I think Senator Gazelka is completely tone deaf.
Doar: I think there is a pretty big delta between what happened in Brooklyn Center and what can be addressed with new laws or new training. There is not an easy fix. I think people are going to want things done immediately to address the moment. But to find actual solutions is going to take a lot more time and a lot more collaboration and less political sniping.
Question 3: Gov. Tim Walz and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt joined those criticizing union members who booted 50 Minnesota National Guard members from the St. Paul Labor Center, where troops were stationed as part of the Brooklyn Center civil unrest response. The state AFL-CIO said union members viewed Guard members as “military symbols of oppression.” What’s your reaction?
Walker: Well, first of all, I fully respect the service of all the National Guard members. I think they’re in very difficult spot. I do think that we are on the verge of looking a little bit like a police state, with driving through Uptown and having to encounter armed vehicles. I think this is a significant tension. I would also just say that there is also a growing divide that you’re going to see in the labor union community, between far-left progressives and who are part of the union and more moderate union members who live and work outside of the Cities.
McDaniel: My reaction is that all of us can have our own opinion on what is appropriate in response to what is happening in Brooklyn Center, and what may be happening in the next week or so in Minneapolis. But under no circumstances is this the fault of the National Guard members who are following orders. They are our neighbors, our teachers, our dentists and our legislators, and they are only trying to keep us safe. So being the wokest people in the room is not what the ultimate goal should be.
Hayden: I understand what the governor is trying to do and I think he believes he has a mandate to do that, from the very people in this community who suffered from the last civil unrest. However, I think it does suggest that a lot more dialogue is needed and there needs to be a lot better relationships in the community with the people on the ground, to understand what is the plan of action, how does it work and why he’s doing it. It really appears to me that, short of that, people are going to take [armed presence] on face value. And they’re not OK with it.
Doar: I think the governor is certainly walking a fine line, with both his National Guard experience and his union backing. But I think the way those Guard members were treated was really shameful. Even if those were the views of the AFL-CIO members, there are better ways to go about handling it. Jeering and chiding members who are following orders and serving their state is really unbecoming of any professional organization. [Editor’s note: Shortly after these interviews were conducted, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka issued a written statement: “I am disgusted some union activists kicked out National Guard members protecting the public from their union building on Wednesday. Senate Republicans continue to be proud of Minnesota’s National Guard and their continued commitment to protect Minnesotans and our communities.”]