With the eyes of a burning city and rattled nation on him, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota tried on Friday to channel the anger of people enraged over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.
“The ashes are symbolic of decades and generations of pain, of anguish, unheard,” Mr. Walz said, looking visibly shaken at a news conference in St. Paul.
Gesticulating forcefully out of evident frustration, the governor called Mr. Floyd’s death on Monday, and the smoldering unrest in Minneapolis that has followed it, “one of our darkest chapters.” Mr. Floyd, 46, died after a police officer pressed his knee down on Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.
Friday’s news conference was a critical moment in the national spotlight for Mr. Walz, a Democrat, the morning after peaceful protests against the Minneapolis Police Department turned into looting and firebombing that burned down a police precinct.
In an unusual turn of events, a governor who spent 24 years in the Army National Guard before retiring in 2005 found himself on Thursday having to deploy the Guard to try to keep the peace.
“I understand clearly there is no trust in many of our communities,” he said. “And I will not patronize you as a white man without living those lived experiences about how very difficult that is. But I’m asking you to help us: Help us use a humane way to get the streets to a place where we can restore the justice.”
Mr. Walz also apologized for the arrest of a CNN news crew by the Minnesota State Patrol early on Friday morning, calling their detention “inexcusable.”
“I failed you last night,” he said of the press.
The local authorities should have been better prepared to maintain order, and state law enforcement should have stepped in sooner when it became obvious that matters on the street had turned chaotic, Mr. Walz said. He blamed the violence on “anarchists.”
Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota, criticized the governor for taking too long to step in.
“Our governor was nowhere to be found when we had cities in dire need, under attack,” she said. “His inaction waiting to call in the National Guard until it was already night three and more damage was being done — in my opinion, he wasn’t leading from the front.”
Mr. Walz, 56, was elected in 2018 after representing a rural district in southwestern Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives for 12 years. The district eventually became so conservative — President Trump won it by 15 percentage points in 2016 — that Mr. Walz had to reinvent himself as a more progressive Democrat to run for governor.
Nowhere was his policy shift more clear than on guns. As a congressman, he had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. As a candidate for governor, he embraced some gun control measures — while arguing that he could still appeal to rural Minnesotans and bring them back to the Democratic Party.
“He crosses a lot of boundaries, much better than almost anybody I know in politics right now,” said R.T. Rybak, a former Minneapolis mayor and longtime friend.
Mr. Walz, who was born and raised in Nebraska, grew up hunting birds after high school football practice. He began his campaign for governor a few days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 that killed 58 people.
Mr. Rybak recalled a Farmfest in 2010 in which Mr. Walz, who had voted for the Affordable Care Act, took on an audience of angry supporters of the Tea Party movement.
“He stood four square with every single value of why every American should have health care,” Mr. Rybak said. “And he won over much of the audience, too.”
His brand of centrist politics made Mr. Walz a natural ally of Senator Amy Klobuchar’s when she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. During the coronavirus pandemic, he has faced criticism for reopening Minnesota’s economy too slowly — even as confirmed cases continue to rise in the state — and for limiting churches to 25 percent capacity.
On Friday, Mr. Walz tried to balance his call for more police to restore order on the streets of Minneapolis with empathy for African-American communities protesting institutional racism and excessive use of force by the police.
“Thank God a young person had a camera to video it,” the governor said of Mr. Floyd’s death. There is probably “not a person here or listening today,” he said, who does not wonder “how many times that camera’s not there.”