Minnesota Republicans target Jan Malcolm, the state’s top health official

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Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm has become one of the state’s most recognizable officials in the past 19 months, bumping elbows with Vice Presidents, getting vaccinated (including a booster) in front television cameras and spending hundreds of hours on airwaves on the fight against COVID-19.

She is also at risk of losing her job.

Republicans controlling the state Senate are threatening to reject his confirmation in Gov. Tim Walz’s administration, as part of a nationwide trend by conservatives targeting public health officials over vaccine decisions, mask and business closures.

“There is no one in the country who holds this position who will win popularity contests, one side or the other,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, who served alongside of Malcolm in the administration of former Governor Jesse Ventura. “Some are criticized for not doing enough, some are criticized for doing too much.”

Threats of rejection prompted Democrats in the governor’s office and State House to take action to protect Malcolm. They halted plans for a special fall session to send aid to frontline workers and struggling farmers after the summer drought, fearing Republicans were also on Malcolm’s agenda. .

“It’s ridiculous. I hope it slows down a bit,” Walz said Wednesday as the state rolled out its plan to immunize children ages 5 to 11. He cited extensive preparations for the vaccination plan as a primary reason to hold on to Malcolm, who Democrats praised for helping guide Minnesota through the pandemic.

“I know if I’m on the phone for countless hours, hundreds of hours have passed before it gets sent to me.… This is the job that is handled by Jan Malcolm,” Walz said. “I have never hesitated once. I still gain more admiration and admiration every day for the work the commissioner has to do.”

Malcolm declined to be interviewed for this story through a spokesperson, who said it “focuses on the state’s response to the pandemic, not speculation.”

Malcolm has advised three administrations, starting as Ventura’s health commissioner. She was recalled by former Gov. Mark Dayton in 2018 after a backlog of complaints of elder abuse led Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger to resign. She cleared the backlog in eight months, earning her bipartisan applause.

Weaver worked alongside Malcolm in the Ventura administration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the public feared another attack was brewing. She led the health side while he ran the state’s public security agency.

“It’s easy to panic. People are already on edge, but she never did,” said Weaver, former Republican lawmaker and chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “It’s so important to have a calm, thoughtful and clear leader. I don’t know how many press conferences she’s had, but she’s never been afraid to stand in front of these cameras and give her best opinion. . “

He said it’s a commissioner’s job to give advice to his boss, but governors ultimately dictate the terms of any policy. Republicans nonetheless viewed Walz’s commissioners as actors in an administration that they said significantly overstepped during the pandemic.

Last year, Republicans dismissed two members of the Walz cabinet in special sessions: Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink and Trade Commissioner Steve Kelley. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency commissioner Laura Bishop resigned in July before another expected Senate rejection.

A former defender for Malcolm, Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said he changed his mind as the state began rolling out its vaccine. He worries about the potential side effects of the vaccine and doesn’t think Malcolm has done enough to warn people of the risks.

At a “medical freedom rally” on Capitol Hill in August, he told a crowd of around 2,000 that he no longer thought she should stay in her job. The crowd applauded.

“You don’t have to be anti-vaccination to question your safety,” Abeler said. “When I decided to make my statement, I wanted to spark a conversation about safety.”

Since then, medical freedom rallies have been held monthly in St. Paul, and more and more Senate GOP members have spoken openly about the possibility of dismissing Malcolm – including the new majority leader in the United States. Senate Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, who was elected in September to lead the caucus.

Others cited concerns about a possible vaccination warrant and a passport system requiring proof of vaccination as reasons to take a closer look at Malcolm’s appointment.

Senate Health and Human Services Speaker Michelle Benson R-Ham Lake declined to comment and Miller was unavailable for comment. But in an interview last month, he said Walz had “shut people down” on many COVID-related decisions, including launching a vaccination records app.

“For me that excludes people from the conversation because the conversation with people takes place [by] go through the legislative process, ”he said.

State employees must be vaccinated or tested to work in person, and the state has an app for people to store their vaccination records. There is no vaccine mandate or statewide passport system in place.

Regardless, Abeler said many Republicans feared that a vaccine passport system was still on the way. “If we can find a way to assure people that we are not going to do this, it would make a lot of people feel better,” he said.

The possible rejection of other commissioners is also discussed behind the scenes, but only Malcolm has been publicly named. The Senate has the constitutional power to confirm or deny the appointment of commissioners, a power that has been used sparingly in the past. Senate Democrats have dismissed two of Pawlenty’s commissioners during his two terms.

Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman said Republicans were using Malcolm’s appointment as leverage for changes they want to make to the State Emergency Powers Act, which Walz used to institute mask warrants and shutting down businesses and schools to slow the spread of the virus.

“It’s not part of Minnesota history. We’ve seen unconfirmed failure here and there, but we’re way beyond scorecard balance,” said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “The Republicans in the Minnesota Senate have gone to extremes in the way they use Commissioners’ confirmations.”

Democrats can delay action against Malcolm while they wait to call a special session, which only the governor can do. But Malcolm’s appointment could be considered during the regular legislative session, which meets in January. Miller said confirmations should be on the table.

“Fasten your seatbelt for the regular session,” said Senatorial Minority Leader Melisa López Franzen, DFL-Edina. She believes the narrow Republican majority would struggle to muster enough votes to oust Malcolm – especially with his members in Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic, which has partnered closely with the administration to fight COVID.

“I hope that by then we will have things under control,” said López Franzen. “But it puts undue strain on someone’s livelihood and job.”

Editor Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.

bbierschbach@startribune.com

651-925-5042 • Twitter: @bbierschbach


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