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Chris Harte: The Star Tribune’s Maine man

By David Brauer | Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2007 Chris Harte, point man in Avista Capital Partners’ 2006 purchase of the Star Tribune, became publisher after Par Ridder was bounced.

Chris Harte
The Star Tribune Company
 Chris Harte

Chris Harte is a newspaperman by birth, a businessman by training, and publisher of the Star Tribune by accident.

It was Harte — the point man for Avista Capital Partners’ 2006 Strib purchase — who hired away St. Paul Pioneer Press publisher Par Ridder in March. By September, the coup had turned into a full-fledged disgrace; a judge bounced Ridder from the job for taking confidential information from St. Paul. Harte — who is not an Avista partner but has told Stribites he has a substantial investment in the paper — was thrust into the publisher’s chair.

Since then, Harte, who is also the newspaper’s chairman, has kept a low profile, granting few interviews. (We talked briefly before he questioned the focus of this piece, refusing to proceed after I declined to go off the record.)

However, Harte has made some high-profile changes. Just weeks after Ridder’s exit, he ousted longtime editorial page editor Susan Albright, who for 14 years had helmed a section that reliably promoted Minnesota’s high-tax, high-service model of government and reliably punished Pawlentyesque penury. In a statement, Harte attributed the move to a “professional disagreement” over his push for more local editorials, which Albright’s former deputy, Jim Boyd, termed “silly on its face. … National editorials were few; international editorials were rare. … Harte has demanded that editorials in the Star Tribune demonstrate ‘no sharp elbows.’ So local and bland is his prescription for his editorial page.”

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Robert J. White, Albright’s predecessor, says editorials “have turned out to be less conservative than I thought [they] would become, but they haven’t said a lot about a whole lot of things. … The tone is just more pacifying than more sharply edged.”

Opinions about the newspaper’s opinions are subjectivity squared. However, it’s hard to imagine Albright (who now writes for MinnPost and refused comment for this article) green-lighting a Gummi-soft interview with Lt. Gov./MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau, which the Daily Mole’s Steve Perry noted “lacked a single follow-up question” — including why Molnau wouldn’t talk to the paper’s news side. (Just a few days later, the legislative auditor publicly detailed since-fired emergency coordinator Sonia Pitt’s job description — which differed greatly from Molnau’s claim to the editorialists. They then blasted her for “obfuscation” and said her department did not pass the “smell test.”)

In the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse, former editorial writer Steve Berg, who now writes for MinnPost, told The Rake that Harte personally asked the staff to promote “other options” besides the paper’s long-favored gas tax.

Tax ideas in Maine
For a publisher and private equity guy, the 60-year-old Harte has a fairly public political record. In Maine, where he lived from the early ’90s to 2004, Harte has twice lent his name to groups wanting to cap or reduce government spending.

He is a co-founder and funder of the Maine Public Spending Research Group (MPSRG), whose mission, according to board chair David Flanagan, “is to identify and develop options for reducing government spending and, by doing so, to move Maine from one of the most highly taxed states to the median among the 50 states over the next 10 years.”

Like Minnesota, the Pine Tree State is a high-tax place bordered by lower tax neighbors: in Maine’s case, Live-Free-Or-Die New Hampshire. In 2004, citizens got a Proposition 13-like initiative on the ballot to limit property taxes to a flat 1 percent of assessed value. The measure was crushed, 63 percent to 37 percent, but did not dampen reform pressures.

For the ensuing 2005 legislative session, the Maine Chamber of Commerce proposed a 2.75 percent annual spending cap that would require two-thirds of the legislators to override. According to the Bangor Daily News, “Republicans … see the cap override as their best hope to end majority budgets in a Legislature controlled by Democrats for decades.”

As the 2005 session unfolded, Harte emerged as “one of the brain trusts” behind the Coalition for Reasonable Tax Relief, says Jed Rathband, a consultant to the group. (Several coalition members would later form MPSRG.) According to the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, the coalition supported the chamber’s spending cap and went further, arguing that the two-thirds override should be put in the Maine Constitution so only voters, not legislators, could reduce the override level.

The 2.75 percent almost certainly wouldn’t have kept up with state government’s rising wage, health care and energy costs. The Portland paper also noted that the coalition opposed any exemptions, such as for fast-rising jail costs, which county officials argued would deepen social-program cuts in a tax-limited environment.

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Flanagan labels the coalition’s effort “moderate” because even advocating tougher spending caps was less drastic than permanent Proposition 13-like tax limits. However, the coalition’s ceiling proved too strict for Maine legislators. A looser state spending limit, tied to income growth plus population growth, became law, and the limit can be changed by a simple legislative majority. (A similar formula also capped local property tax increases, also with a majority override.)

‘Why would you focus on that?’
Harte downplays his work with the groups. He said he has not been a director of MPSRG since moving his residence to Austin, Texas, in 2004 (his wife lives in their Maine home), but he acknowledged co-founding the group whose Web site says it began in April 2005.

When asked for more details on his involvement, he responded, “Why would you focus on that one thing than the many things I’ve done, most of which I’ve spent far more time and energy on?”

He then listed his national and state board memberships with the National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy and Outward Bound — less-controversial causes that jibe with longstanding Strib editorial positions. He also noted his involvement with Maine’s Casinos No!, a group that opposes racinos. While that may chill the Canterbury Park crowd, the paper has long opposed the notion in Minnesota.

Harte’s spending limit advocacy, however, is a major departure from the Strib’s editorial beliefs, held for decades under Cowles family and McClatchy Co. ownership. (John and Sage Cowles are major funders of this site, and Cowles-era publisher Joel Kramer is MinnPost’s CEO and editor. Kramer is also founder and board chair of Growth & Justice, which advocates higher taxes on wealthier Minnesotans as well as certain spending increases.)

I told Harte that such an issue difference was natural to ask about, especially since he ousted Albright. He asked if I had interviewed other editorial board members about their personal beliefs. I replied that I hadn’t, but most were veterans whose beliefs were well known; he’s the new boss with the public political history.

Harte then said, “Let’s be clear about what’s going on here …” before catching himself and asking to go off the record. Preferring to keep things public, I said I wasn’t comfortable with that, and the interview ended.

History and donations
Harte was born into the Harte-Hanks newspaper empire, grew up in Texas, and went to prep school at Andover. According to the Strib’s website, he has a Stanford undergraduate degree and a University of Texas M.B.A., and has published newspapers in Akron, Ohio; Portland, Maine; and State College, Pa. He also served as a corporate executive for Knight Ridder newspapers, which until last year owned the Pioneer Press.

One of Harte’s Andover classmates was George W. Bush — Harte told the Maine Times he remembers Bush as a jester who organized pickup baseball games.

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As it turned out, the men would have Andover, Maine and Texas in common, but after prep school, the two took different political paths. In 1972, Harte worked on Democrat Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign, and over the years, has been a party contributor. His donations peaked between 2000 and 2002, the year he flirted with a run against Maine Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Since then, Harte has sided with moderates in battles with Democratic liberals.

His most recent federal campaign contribution was $2,000 to Joe Lieberman’s ultimately unsuccessful 2006 primary fight against anti-war insurgent Ned Lamont. Lieberman had earned the sobriquet “Bush’s favorite Democrat” for embracing the president and the Iraq War. Running as an independent, he beat Lamont in the general election. This was Harte’s only 2006 Senate donation; he made no post-primary contributions. He also gave $1,000 to Hank Johnson’s successful primary fight against Georgia Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney. McKinney had courted controversy by battling with Capitol security guards and by accusing George Bush of having prior knowledge about the 9/11 attacks; she is now a Green Party presidential candidate.

Low public profile
The billion-dollar question remains: Is Harte bringing his Maine paradigm to Minnesota?

Flanagan can’t speak for his colleague, but notes there are key differences between the two states. Both are high-tax places — “I know Chris will be cognizant of that” — but Flanagan says Minnesota is wealthier and people spend a lower share of their earnings on state and local taxes, according to Congressional Quarterly statistics. Therefore, he concludes, Minnesota can better support its spending levels and is at less of a competitive disadvantage than Maine.

Albright’s successor, Scott Gillespie, offers only a slim window into Harte’s thinking. “Neither one of us decided whether there should be a significant shift in the institutional voice of the newspaper. We’ve talked a lot more about the overall balance of the editorial pages — in terms of commentary, letters, cartoons … to make the whole wide spectrum of readers feel that their views are represented some of the time. We’ve spent a lot more time on that than institutional editorials.”

Does that mean the previous regime had too many liberal elements? “I think that there’s probably a greater perception of that than reality,” Gillespie says. “But we have to make sure we do a better job of showing” opinion-section diversity.

While former editorial page editor White criticizes the softer, more parochial editorials, he praises the quality of the non-editorial op-ed pieces edited by Eric Ringham.

I never got to ask Harte if he even cared about influencing Minnesota issues. (Private equity firms often don’t put deep roots in a community, preferring to prep distressed properties for resale. Avista has not reconstituted the Star Tribune’s foundation, for example.)

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Gillespie says Harte — who like most publishers has a seat on the editorial board — is interested in state affairs. He says his boss is “still trying to learn the state and the people and its history. He hasn’t been on the local speakers’ circuit, but I know he’s had a lot of one-on-ones.”

Perhaps the first glimmers of editorial change are nothing more than a mirage that will dissipate as Gillespie and Harte settle in. If not, there’s no law that says the Strib can’t move to the middle — for private, corporate or policy reasons. Long before the Strib was a gleam in Harte’s eye, Strib publishers were demanding conservative elements; the McClatchy era saw Katherine Kersten’s hire and, Boyd says, the corporate-mandated Conservative of the Day. Harte may only be striving for balance if he pushes the Strib away from sharp-edged taxophilia, but his time in Maine indicates he’s a natural for it.

David Brauer covers media, Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County politics. He can be reached at dbrauer [at] minnpost [dot] com.