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‘Jeff from town’: How a former Hormel CEO came to be a Democratic candidate for a U.S. House seat in southern Minnesota

Jeff Ettinger doesn’t have the typical resume for a first-time DFL candidate. Yet his campaign has gained early traction.

Jeff Ettinger
Jeff Ettinger argues a southern Minnesota Congressman should be “more balanced, moderate or pragmatic.”
REUTERS/John Gress

Jeff Ettinger, in some ways, is an unusual candidate for the Democratic party.

The former CEO of Hormel is running for U.S. House in a special election for southern Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District after the death of Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, following a career in which Ettinger earned tens of millions leading the Austin-based meatpacking giant.

He’ll be competing with seven others for the DFL nomination in a party where many criticize the environmental, labor or animal welfare record of Big Ag, as well as the gulf between the pay of top executives and average workers. And Ettinger also has a history of supporting Republicans, like Mitt Romney for president in 2012.

It’s a resume that some opponents argue won’t sway voters in the May 24 primary or Aug. 9 general election. Yet his campaign has gained early traction. He has won the significant endorsements made so far in the crowded primary race against more liberal candidates, and has raised by a wide margin the most money of any Democrat.

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Ettinger’s supporters say his credentials reflect a centrist with business and philanthropic experience, and a person with deep ties to the area who can appeal to voters in the Republican-leaning 1st District.

“I would agree that it might be surprising to have Jeff in the race as a DFL candidate,” said Democrat Jeanne Poppe, who represented Austin in the Minnesota House for 15 years and led the state House’s agriculture committee before losing to a Republican in 2020. “I think he’s exactly the kind of person we need to help be the crossover candidate.”

From CEO to congressional candidate

Ettinger, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, moved to Austin to join Hormel in 1990 — a few years after the bitter P-9 strike at the plant. At first, Ettinger was an attorney for the company, but he worked his way through several parts of the business on his way to becoming CEO in 2005. He held the position until 2016.

As Hormel CEO, Ettinger presided over company expansion, buying brands or striking deals to market and distribute products like Herdez salsa, Wholly Guacamole, Muscle Milk, Skippy peanut butter and Justin’s nut butters. Hormel also bought Applegate Farms, a meat producer that markets its attention to environmental and animal welfare concerns.

When Ettinger left the CEO job, the Star Tribune wrote that Hormel had doubled its sales and more than quadrupled its market value under his leadership. Ettinger estimates the company added about 3,500 jobs while he was CEO.

Since then, Ettinger has led the Hormel Foundation, a nonprofit created in 1941 by Hormel founder George A. Hormel and his son Jay, which now gives millions each year to Austin causes, like education scholarships or food donations. Ettinger said he’s also done charitable giving himself, including by paying for dozens of college scholarships for students in Austin.

Ettinger has been involved in politics, mostly as a donor, but is a first-time candidate. In an interview from his house in Austin, he said he was inspired to run for office because of the “extreme partisanship polarization, the hostility, just the lack of respect and ultimately lack of results” in politics.

But Ettinger was also frustrated with Hagedorn, who died in February of kidney cancer, saying Hagedorn listened only to those who agreed with him. Those concerns culminated in a “gut punch” to the district, Ettinger said, when Hagedorn wouldn’t vote to certify the 2020 presidential election after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters.

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Ettinger said being a CEO and a congressman are different, but that his experience at the company — and the foundation — is relevant. He said he’s familiar with agriculture thanks to Hormel, and has knowledge of healthcare and helping people gain job skills. The company pays for line workers to get free mechanical training at Riverland Community College for instance, Ettinger said.

Ettinger said his top priorities would be “education and job skills,” helping people get jobs with good wages in manufacturing or similar industries through training at high schools and colleges. The Hormel Foundation offers scholarships for local high school graduates to attend Riverland. “I would like to see more of a tech or community college approach where the federal government helps,” Ettinger said. “In general though, I’m less in the camp that ‘everything needs to be for all’ .. I think we need to focus our resources on people in need.”

The congressional hopeful said he wants to help family farms, saying existing regulations and programs have led to a “get big or get out” mentality, and wants tax law to help those who want to transfer farms to young people. He also believes there should be more programs aimed at green, regenerative and organic agriculture.

Politically, Ettinger said he looks in part to Tim Penny and Tim Walz — Democrats who represented the 1st District — arguing a southern Minnesota congressman should be “more balanced, moderate or pragmatic.”

Ettinger said he would have voted to impeach Trump twice and for the COVID-19 stimulus bills, though he wished they would have been more income-tested or focused on people who lost their jobs.

Ettinger says he also would have voted for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. And he hopes the climate provisions of the stalled “Build Back Better” act are resurrected, though some elements of the ever-changing bill went beyond his philosophy of focusing spending on people in need.

A political evolution

One reason Ettinger’s candidacy might surprise some is because of his shifting views on Republicans and Democrats.

Federal election records show personal donations to Walz going back to 2008, though the majority of his donations before 2018 were to the GOP — including Norm Coleman’s Senate run against DFLer Al Franken in 2008, Romney in 2012, as well as Trump foe John Kasich and the U.S. Senate GOP campaign in 2016.

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In 2018, however, Ettinger started donating more money, and the vast majority went to Democrats. He gave $10,000 to the Minnesota DFL before the 2018 midterms, donated $500,000 to a Political Action Committee supporting Klobuchar’s 2020 run for president and later donated to Joe Biden’s campaign. Locally, Ettinger gave $50,000 to a PAC supporting Walz in 2018. (His most recent donation to a state legislative campaign was $500 in 2018 to GOP Rep. Dave Baker of Willmar.)

Much of the shift away from Republicans was spurred by an aversion to Trump, who he called divisive, disrespectful and “the antithesis of a leader,” and the direction of the Republican party.

Ettinger said he felt Obama, in some areas, was pretty “hostile to business.” If he had a do-over, Ettinger said he’s not sure he would pick Romney, but he also praised Romney for standing up to Trump.

The Trump dislike runs deep enough that Ettinger donated last year to Wyoming’s anti-Trump Republican U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, and Ettinger said he’d be “hard pressed” to support a Republican who pledges loyalty to the former president.

“I have supported both (parties),” Ettinger said. “But I clearly feel especially at this time as a more moderate person that the Democratic tent seems more welcoming and open to that and Republicans seem to be actively purging themselves of all their moderates.”

Criticisms of CEO-as-candidate

Regardless, Ettinger has still been criticized by other Democrats for his background at Hormel and for his political positions. 

One critic is fellow DFL 1st Congressional District candidate Rick DeVoe, who owns an independent bookstore in Red Wing. DeVoe said voters resent the pay of top executives and are sick of “corporate malfeasance.” He argued Ettinger won’t connect with average workers or people in rural America. As for Ettinger’s moderate stances, DeVoe said Republicans run against the Democratic brand not individual candidates, painting anyone and everyone as socialists — even if the ex-CEO’s top YouTube result is an interview on CNBC’s “Mad Money” about a $775 million company acquisition.

DeVoe has a more progressive platform that he said “speaks to the values of fairness.” His big idea is a federal jobs guarantee paid for by taxes on the rich and he supports Medicare for All. Ettinger wants a public option and supports the government negotiating drug prices to lower costs.

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DeVoe also contrasts his background with Ettinger’s, touting a history of political organizing and 17 years of work as a union member insulating industrial pipes and tanks. He first came to Minnesota to work at the Pine Bend refinery in Rosemount. DeVoe said the election is about inspiring the DFL base, which in his view isn’t interested in Ettinger. DeVoe’s website says he’s the “Real Deal Democrat” in the race.  “If you run a CEO you’re not going to turn out your base, you’re just not,” DeVoe said.

Another outspoken Ettinger foe is Richard Painter of Mendota Heights, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who was the top ethics advisor for the George W. Bush White House. Painter, who is running in the 1st District primary, didn’t criticize Ettinger for supporting Republicans given his own GOP background. But he said Republicans are good at portraying candidates as a reflection of the “average Joe,” and he said a former corporate CEO will be a bad candidate.

“I don’t think that’s really the definition of a moderate, is a multimillionaire,” Painter said. “That’s not exactly what the average voter is looking for in the Democratic party.”

There are other wealthy business people successful in the DFL like U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips and former Gov. Mark Dayton. But Painter — who is also also running on a more liberal platform that includes tuition-free or low cost college — said he wants to see Democrats move away from the trend.

Republicans are also hammering Democrats on rising inflation. And as Biden blames oil companies and meat producers, Painter said running someone who led Hormel will draw heavy criticism from the GOP. Hormel is also currently a defendant in a lawsuit that alleges several large meat companies were part of a price-fixing scheme. Smithfield Foods and JBS have both settled in the case, in which Ettinger is referenced, though not as a defendant. Ettinger, a former antitrust attorney, forcefully rejected allegations of price fixing.

Ettinger in turn criticized Painter for not living in the 1st Congressional District. Painter plans to move to Faribault permanently if he wins. It’s legal to live outside boundary lines, but Ettinger said “I don’t think you can just move here for an election and kind of parachute in and say ‘I’m here to save you.’ ”

Other candidates in the DFL primary have very different backgrounds than Ettinger. Candice Deal-Bartell is the founder of a child care business, and Sarah Brakebill-Hacke was homeless and spent time in foster care before graduating from Yale and attending Cambridge. She is focusing on increasing access to basic needs.

Ettinger’s response

Ettinger wouldn’t estimate his net worth, though the Star Tribune listed his total compensation in 2016 as nearly $36 million. That was the second highest in Minnesota at the time, but it was also significantly more than his $5.7 million in 2015.

Ettinger doesn’t have a salary at the Hormel Foundation and he volunteers to teach business at the University of Minnesota. He also serves on an economic expansion council created by Walz. Ettinger does have some deferred income from Hormel and makes money on the boards of Ecolab and The Toro Company, positions Ettinger would give up if elected.

His house in Austin is not ostentatious. The five bedroom home was built more than 80 years ago and Zillow estimates it’s worth about $460,000. Ettinger said he and his wife own “some other homes,” they bought when their kids were in school in different places, but they’re deciding if they still want them. And he claims to not live a jet-setting lifestyle, spending at least 85 percent of his time in Austin.

When asked if he would support a wealth tax like President Joe Biden’s proposal to charge billionaires, Ettinger said government should focus on closing loopholes that allow some wealthy people and corporations to pay minimal amounts of tax.

Ettinger also said he is more than just a former executive. He lived in Austin long before he held Hormel’s top job and has been active in the community since, through the foundation and otherwise. “Hopefully they view my time as CEO positively,” Ettinger said of voters and Austin residents. “I think most would view me as I’m more than just a CEO; ‘Jeff from town’ I guess.”

At Hormel, Ettinger said he aimed to have a “respectful, constructive” relationship with the union and was able to reach “mutually agreeable contracts.” Ettinger and the company have a profit-sharing program for workers that was enhanced under his tenure to include a stock option for employees. And he said the company’s board was one of the most diverse at an earlier time than a lot of other big businesses.

Rena Wong, organizing director for UFCW Local 663, which represents Hormel workers, said Ettinger is a “decent guy,” who was “always responsive to workers” and the union. She said Ettinger and his wife are active in the community and support good causes that workers benefit from. Wong said the union is still consulting members on potential endorsements.

“I think when people think about Austin, and they think about Hormel, they always think back to that strike,” Wong said. “A lot of the history there is colored by that. But when Jeff was CEO we didn’t have that experience with him.”

When it comes to animal welfare, Ettinger said he tried to listen to PETA and the Humane Society and make changes where he felt like they were warranted. The company hired activist and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin as a consultant.

Picking up endorsements

Although big names in the party like Walz haven’t endorsed anyone in the DFL primary, several mayors across the district like Worthington’s Mike Kuhle favor Ettinger. Some former and current DFL legislators from southern Minnesota are also supporting Ettinger. Ettinger has raised the most money so far of any DFL candidate, and he said he does plan to inject some of his own cash into the race.

Tom Stiehm, a former cop who was Austin’s mayor from 2006 until 2020, has endorsed Ettinger, and said he is well known in the area. Democrats will support Ettinger “basically because of his work for the foundation,” Stiehm said. “It’s been a real boon to the city of Austin.”

Stiehm, who is running for Minnesota House as a Democrat, said he believes Hormel has treated workers well and the foundation has set a good example by including and helping immigrants who have moved to the city, which has become much more diverse since the 1980s. Stiehm said Democrats in the area try to distance themselves from Twin Cities liberals, and so Ettinger’s bipartisan credentials and Austin history will play well. “Most of the CEOs when they retire they get out of town,” Stiehm said. “Jeff I think is the only one still living here.”

Poppe, the former Austin representative, said it’s not a harmful thing in the DFL to represent business in a positive way. Ettinger has lived in the same house for 30 years, is known in the community, and understands the diversity of the large 1st District, Poppe said.

Many expect voters in 2022 to favor Republicans, especially in the 1st District where Hagedorn won two terms over Democrat Dan Feehan. Yet Poppe argued that Ettinger is electable. 

Hagedorn only won 48.6 percent of the vote in 2020 and Feehan was likely hurt by a candidate for the Grassroots Legalize Cannabis party. Republicans are choosing from a slate of 10 candidates in their primary, which includes far-right hopefuls, other more moderate conservatives, and the polarizing, scandal-plagued former state GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan who was married to Hagedorn. There are two candidates who filed to run for Minnesota’s two marijuana legalization parties in the 1st District special election.

Poppe said others might pick Ettinger apart for his CEO work or for supporting Republicans. But, she said: “I want a DFL candidate to win.”