Steve Grove, the prominent commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, recently did just that.
On the day after Gov. Tim Walz’s mask mandate announcement, DEED sent emails to numerous businesses and industry leaders, encouraging them to send letters of support for the mandate to the governor’s office. Included in the emails were letter templates with no disclosure of their origin in a state office. These actions were a blatant endorsement of a political figure and a disturbing instance of misleading the public, using tax dollars.
Even Professor David Schultz, an often-neutral political voice, was quoted in the Star Tribune saying this action raised ethical red flags. The Legislature must act to right these wrongs.
It is common for state agencies to maintain and encourage a stance on policy. However, four of the five form letters sent by DEED contained outright praise for the policymaker. Each began with, “We applaud Governor Walz for issuing a mask requirement” and proceeded to explain their support from the perspective of business owners, educators, parents, and health care professionals. In sending these letters, the commissioner of DEED destroyed any semblance of nonpartisanship that publicly funded state agencies should have. Soliciting praise for Gov. Walz is not a legitimate function of our state agencies.
I know many business owners, especially in rural Minnesota, who are either neutral or do not share the commissioner’s support of the policy. They should not be pressured to praise the governor for it.
Additionally, template letters sent from a state agency should unequivocally have some disclaimer or notice of origin. Letters of support are frequently used by lobbying agencies, activist organizations, and campaigns, but disclosure is important so people can place a political message in its proper context based on its source. Connected to a public entity, it is a tricky tactic that brings up questions of legality.
The letters were customized for specific groups in Minnesota communities, as shown in this portion of Commissioner Grove’s email: “(To) make this work — we need your help. … Your support for wearing masks is critical toward ensuring adoption. As respected leaders in your communities, we need your voices to ensure we mask up, so that we can continue to reopen our economy.”
This targeted, ill-defined, and concealed stratagem was paid for by the people of Minnesota. We pay for state resources, and now we apparently also pay for lobbying activity on behalf of our governor.
The people of Minnesota should not have to be left wondering if their tax contributions are being used for pseudo-campaign purposes. That should be separate from an agency’s service to Minnesotans. We should be able to trust state agencies and their commissioners to be transparent and to provide services for the entire state’s good.
The state Senate has not “confirmed” Commissioner Grove, meaning it has not given explicit permission for him to continue in his position. Perhaps, upon review of his service, the Senate should not. If the legislative body votes in the negative for a commissioner’s confirmation, a search for a new person to fill that role would begin.
The letter debacle has made one thing very clear: The governor is receiving consistent advice from a commissioner whose goal is to garner support for the administration rather than promote sound policy and run the department with complete integrity. Perhaps, in the interest of better advice to our governor, someone with more balanced goals should assume the role of DEED commissioner.
Sen. Andrew Mathews, R- Milaca, represents Minnesota Senate District 15.