Tick, tick, tick…
When George W. Bush surveyed wreckage of the I-35W bridge Aug. 4, the president came away impressed. Multiple municipal, county and state agencies responded and secured the scene immediately, and lines of communication ran through Minneapolis’ Emergency Operations Center with relative ease. Anyone who saw the site right after the collapse would have to marvel later that more people didn’t die.
Bush understood this. He convened a meeting, along with U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, of about 20 appointed and elected local officials in an office no bigger than a kitchen at the nearby lock and dam. In a display of unity from leaders sorely missing in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and Gov. Tim Pawlenty presented a memo detailing what had happened, and what the state and city required from the federal government.
“When we were together waiting for Air Force One to land, we remembered New York and New Orleans, and how bad the mayors and governors were to each other,” DFLer Rybak recalls of a conversation he had with Pawlenty, a Republican. “We said, ‘We’re going to do it different.'”
It worked. “The mayor said, ‘The governor and I have prepared a letter saying what we need,'” according to Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson, and gave it to Bush. “That ensured that (Bush) would have to be supportive.” As the meeting wrapped, Bush addressed Pawlenty and Rybak: “You people have it together here. We’ll get you what you need.”
Pawlenty and Rybak share little in common politically or personally except for a history of antipathy, but at the time there was a mutual understanding to focus on the pressing matter at hand: How to deal with such a disaster? The answer was, as Rybak puts it now, “to work together to get things done.” (Several calls to the governor’s office for this story were not returned.)
Now the unity has all but dissipated. In late October, Rybak finally spoke up on Minnesota Public Radio and the gloves came off. He accused Pawlenty of standing in the way of bills that would have improved transportation and infrastructure, said that state transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau should be removed from her appointed post, that the governor had not been as cooperative as promised and that he might actually run for governor himself. “I’ll tell you, there is a marked difference in your tone about the governor than when you were here last time,” said MPR host Kerri Miller.
The falling-out, according to several observers and Rybak himself, has to do with what they believe is the governor’s about-face on several issues since the hours and days after the disaster. For instance, Pawlenty initially made several statements on what he would do, including indicating being open to a special session, and looking at increasing the state’s gas tax for the first time in nearly 20 years. Rybak, believing that the governor was sincere in this newfound bond, in turn kept his mouth shut in the blame game. Together, in the national media glare, the two rose to the occasion in ways that were unimaginable given their previous political history.
“There was almost a conversion in regards to the governor,” says the state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.
“I think this was that (Winston) Churchill thing,” says Johnson of Rybak. “His finest hour.”
But now word around City Hall is that Rybak is feeling personally jilted. “After all the national media took off, Matt Lauer’s truck was packed up and drove off, all the promises from the governor went away,” says DFL Council Member Ralph Remington. “The gas tax, some transit funding, all of it went out the window, and it pissed off R.T., and a lot of us.”
What happened? Even those in Pawlenty’s own party aren’t sure. “It’s a mystery,” says state Rep. Neil Peterson, a Republican from Bloomington. “I don’t know that anyone understands the governor’s actions; we just don’t get that much.”
According to Rybak, Pawlenty even agreed to review some issues in the transportation bill that he vetoed in May during the regular legislative session. “It was a good bill,” says Peterson, who was part of a bipartisan coalition that put it together. Main points in the vetoed bill that garnered support on both sides of the aisle: raising the gas tax, dedicating a metro-wide sales tax to transit projects and upkeep, and raising some vehicle registration fees. Many hoped the collapse might actually sway the governor on some of these issues.
But soon enough, Pawlenty balked on the gas tax, and became coy about a special session to address the issue. The days flew by without much happening.
“When the bridge collapsed, it was a chance for him to move forward on these issues, but apparently he’s changed his mind again,” Rybak says. “I’m deeply, deeply disappointed.”
Rybak also claims Pawlenty agreed to restore some money to Local Government Aid (LGA), a program where the state gives money to cities so they can shore up their general funds — the longtime sore spot between the mayor and the governor. One of Pawlenty’s first moves as governor in 2003 was to significantly limit LGA funding. The moved plunged Minneapolis deeper into a fiscal crisis, and Rybak cried foul. Over the years, Pawlenty has insisted that Minneapolis frittered away much of its LGA funding, and Rybak has shot back that the city’s lack of police officers and rising crime rates were due directly to the lack of LGA money.
But restoring the money is apparently off the table.
“There was an upheaval in the Republican caucus,” says state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. “There are people that would rather see infrastructure crumble rather than raise any new taxes, and they got to him.” Hornstein and Rybak further claim that the governor received a letter from Washington, D.C., anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, admonishing him for considering the gas tax.
After flooding in southeast Minnesota, Pawlenty finally agreed to call a special session, but only if party leaders in the Legislature agreed to not bring up any transportation or bridge spending. This in effect delayed the topic until the upcoming session in February. There, the governor will find himself up against the same transportation bill that he vetoed in the spring, as Anderson Kelliher, Hornstein and Peterson all believe essentially the same bill will pass.
Only this time, because of the bridge collapse, the bill may have more support than ever. For starters, Peterson notes, Pawlenty has squandered some good will even among many Republican lawmakers for his conditions surrounding the special session calling for flood relief.
“He usurped the body, saying if you want flood relief, we’re not going to talk transportation spending,” Peterson says. Further, Republicans are hearing from constituents that something must be done to shore up inspections, roads and bridges. “It took a disaster to amplify the deficiency,” Peterson says. “Some of us are getting hammered out here because there’s no money.”
In other words, it’s going to be a battle that has the governor in the middle. Anderson Kelliher, Hornstein and Peterson all believe there may be enough votes to override any veto on the bill. “I don’t know why you would want to go into the next session without this being resolved,” says Peterson. “The bridge collapse is the 900-pound gorilla in the room.”
So it would seem that Pawlenty is playing his hand, and making a political gambit with the bridge disaster. Rybak recalls a helicopter ride he and the governor took over the span just hours after it collapsed. “The last thing I was thinking about was furthering Tim Pawlenty’s career and vice-versa, we were sincere,” Rybak recalls, adding that at times he defended Pawlenty when accusations flew at him after the bridge fell. “I can’t just stand by now and not say anything about his lack of leadership. I’m not going to sit by quietly. But I’ll keep a hand out in partnership.”
But aside from alienating his new partner, Pawlenty could suffer a greater loss: his political credibility.
On Oct. 25, a House subcommittee met to hear the wrenching stories of several bridge survivors, who are enduring physical and financial hardships in the aftermath. Ryan Winkler, a DFL representative from Golden Valley, plans to introduce a bill at the beginning of the regular session setting up a fund to compensate the survivors. With Pawlenty already signaling that he’ll veto any taxes to increase transportation funding, Winkler’s bill would seem to be ripe for the governor’s veto pen — a move that could taint Pawlenty as callous and as a failure in dealing with the many issues after the bridge collapse.
Then again, few in state politics are as astute as Pawlenty, and it’s worth noting that his approval rating went up immediately after the collapse. In other words, by appealing to a base of no-new-tax advocates in and outside of Minnesota, Pawlenty might well keep his national conservative bona fides as he trains an eye on holding a higher office. “If the veto gets overridden,” Peterson points out, “he can say to his base, ‘I stuck to my guns and these rascals passed it.'”
“It will be an issue in February and a political issue in November,” Peterson says. “He could have done something right away on it, and he didn’t. It’s amazing.
“I’m scratching my head over this,” Peterson continues. “The ball’s in his court now as far as whether we take care of the bridge and get the funding for other things. Why he wants to own that legacy is beyond me, because if nothing happens, it’s not going to look good in the long run.”
G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.