U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Nebraska native, was elected governor of Minnesota on Tuesday. This story was originally published when he was elected to the U.S. House in 2006.
WASHINGTON — Rep.-elect Tim Walz traded Nebraska’s Sand Hills for the lakes of Minnesota 10 years ago, but the high school social studies teacher remains proud of his Cornhusker roots.
“An awful lot of who I am was built on being a Nebraskan,” said Walz, a Democrat.
Walz, 42, was elected Nov. 7 to represent Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, which stretches across the southern portion of the state.
He defeated six-term incumbent Gil Gutknecht, who was first elected as part of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.
Walz refers to himself as a Minnesotan now, but he tries to get back to Nebraska a couple of times a year and remains a devoted Husker football fan. His campaign Web site boasts that he was named Outstanding Young Nebraskan in 1993 by the Nebraska Junior Chamber of Commerce.
Walz was born in West Point but raised mainly in Valentine, where his father was school superintendent. Walz said he enjoyed his time there — working on ranches, canoeing, hunting and fishing.
Midway through Walz’s high school years, his father was diagnosed with cancer, and the family moved to Butte to be closer to some of their relatives. His father died shortly after Walz graduated from Butte High School in 1982.
Walz said he learned important lessons growing up in Nebraska, including the futility of trying to keep anything secret.
“Everybody knew what you were doing, but it sure kept you honest,” he said. “You could be sure your neighbor would call your parents.”
Walz joined the Army National Guard at age 17. He retired last year with the rank of command sergeant major.
He graduated from Chadron State College in 1989, then spent a year teaching in China. After returning to Nebraska, he landed in Alliance, where he became a high school teacher and an assistant coach for the school’s football and basketball teams.
His former coaching colleagues from those days said they followed Walz and his campaign closely.
Rocky Almond, now the activities administrator at Alliance High School, was an assistant coach with Walz. He said Walz has always demonstrated passion in everything he does.
“When I think of Tim, I think of one word — energy,” Almond said.
Walz met fellow teacher Gwen Whipple in Alliance. The two were married in 1994, and two years later they moved to Mankato, Minnesota, where they taught at one of the local high schools. The couple have two children.
Walz became a coach with his new school’s struggling football team. Since then, the team has won two state titles.
“We brought a lot of that Nebraska football here to Minnesota,” he said.
Walz said his entry into politics came after he tried to take a couple of students to a 2004 appearance by President Bush. He said the students were turned away from the event because one of them had a John Kerry sticker on his wallet.
Walz said security also balked at allowing him to attend the speech and then kept an eye on him to make sure he didn’t cause any trouble.
Angered by the handling of the incident, Walz said, he went to work for the Kerry campaign, and that involvement eventually led to his run for Congress.
Differences of opinion can be good, compromises are important, and the prevailing “winner take all” mentality of Washington must stop, Walz said.
He talked about the importance of working with Republicans and said one thing about Nebraskans is that they are “very pragmatic people.”
During the recent lawmaker orientation week in Washington, Walz had lunch with fellow incoming freshman Adrian Smith, the Republican elected to represent western Nebraska’s 3rd Congressional District. Walz said he hopes to work with Smith on such issues as renewable energy sources.
Southern Minnesota has a lot in common with Nebraska, Walz said. He cited community values and a strong libertarian streak.
Walz said he never worried about being tagged as a carpetbagger in his campaign: “My opponent was from Iowa.”