What went wrong: How Minnesota lawmakers failed to act on police accountability

The Minnesota Legislature was poised to become the first in the U.S. to make major police accountability changes with the national spotlight on the state after the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis.

Instead, lawmakers adjourned their eight-day special session this weekend without passing a single change.

In an attempt to get the upper hand in negotiations, Republican and Democratic lawmakers tied the police accountability issue to virtually every other topic -- from construction projects to tax relief to coronavirus aid. In the end, they all failed. What follows is how it happened:

No negotiations for days, then 11th-hour talks

The Democratic-led House and Republicans who control the Senate did not start serious negotiations over police regulations until Friday afternoon, which Senate GOP leaders had pledged would be the last day of the special session.

There wasn't anything magic about Friday's deadline. It was simply a deadline picked by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, and Gazelka followed through on his vow to adjourn with or without a deal.

The first meeting of House and Senate negotiators was tense and ended badly, multiple people in the room said. One person said it was an "alpha-male" setting between lawmakers leading the police negotiations.

Key Senate Republicans had not read the House's police bill by Friday afternoon, people in both parties told FOX 9. The House passed the legislation in the early morning hours of Friday, though the final version was mostly identical to the measures House Democrats had released publicly days before. (The Senate had passed a set of more limited changes on Tuesday; the Senate's proposals were not controversial but seen by House Democrats as ineffective.)

The delay and tension forced the issue late into Friday evening, when the Senate and then the House made counteroffers to each other's proposals. The "offer meetings" were private sessions followed by news conferences where both sides talked up their generosity and criticized the other party's unwillingness to compromise.

But by the time the Senate adjourned at 6 a.m. Saturday, the two sides were still "weeks and weeks away from doing something on criminal justice reform," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said.

House Democrats were asking the Senate GOP not to adjourn. Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she thought lawmakers could strike a deal by Tuesday.

Lack of communication

There were few people in the fenced-off Capitol on Friday night, a product of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent unrest. There were even fewer who knew what was going on.

That led to one of the night's more memorable scenes: Democratic Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent approaching Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt around midnight and asking, "Do you know anything?"

The two out-of-power leaders were largely kept in the dark. (The entire Capitol was in the dark for several minutes early Saturday morning, when the lights shut off as Democrats were about to hold a news conference, casting eerie shadows throughout the building.)

The lack of communication and relationships between the two parties was made clearer the next afternoon, when Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged he didn't think the Senate would adjourn -- even though Gazelka had been saying for a week that he'd do just that.

"I have to be candid with you, I did not actually think they would leave last night," Walz, a first-term Democrat, told reporters. "The desire to take that ball and go home in the midst of all this is pretty shocking."

Walz said he would be "naive" to think the Senate wouldn't do the same thing if he immediately called lawmakers back for another special session. In Minnesota, governors call special sessions but lawmakers decide when they'll end.

Divided Legislature in an election year

The biggest question is, will it be any different if Walz calls another special session?

Several people in the Capitol last week remarked at how lawmakers appeared to be talking past each other instead of to each other, and both parties were trotting out campaign-style messaging about the other side. Republicans, for example, highlighted their desire to block measures to "defund police" -- even though legislative Democrats had not proposed any such bills.

The Legislature's geographic divide looms large in the debate. Only two of the Legislature's 94 Republicans -- state Sens. Paul Anderson of Plymouth and Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes -- represent districts that include areas within the Interstate 494/694 loop.

Click here for a map of House and Senate leadership. 

GOP members frequently said how popular the police are in their home districts and that the police accountability issue is confined to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Democrats said Republicans did not understand the concerns of constituents in the cities.