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Sen. Tarryl Clark: DFL's rising star soaks up the spotlight at the Capitol

Tarryl Clark on running for governor: "I've had enough people talk to me about it that I do think about it."
MinnPost photo by Raoul Benavides
Tarryl Clark on running for governor: "I've had enough people talk to me about it that I do think about it."

Mid-session Fridays are sometimes a ho-hum affair at the Capitol. But media conferences are held on that day to review the past week and preview the week ahead, something the DFL caucus often does by putting Tarryl Clark in front of reporters.

One Friday morning last month, Clark, a state senator from St. Cloud, readied to meet the press before a polished wood conference table in a hearing room. The media savvy Clark always banters with the assembled scribes, talking heads and camera jockeys before getting down to official proceedings. (She's also normally dressed in some shade of blue.) On this day, murmurs around the Capitol were that Gov. Tim Pawlenty had hopped a flight out of town, presumably to Washington, D.C.


Clark, who possesses a sharp tongue and tenacity, rarely misses a chance to take a loyal oppositional swipe at the governor, and she uttered something about a "super-secret" trip by  Pawlenty in a tone that suggested a wink and a nod: Surely you guys will report on this, right? Then she held court on the business at hand, for all of about 15 minutes.

Reporters nibbled a bit on Pawlenty's absence from St. Paul, and Clark was happy to offer some red meat. "The governor's focus may be a stumbling block," she said at one point. "Depends on whether he's here or not." And, later: "If his words were a bridge, I'd be afraid to cross it."

Her words were wry, with no hint of anger. And they had the effect of painting Pawlenty as, like Clark often puts it, an "absentee governor."

At the end, one rumor that was hanging in the air finally came as a question: Have you thought about running for governor?

"I have people talk to me ..." Clark said, before trailing off briefly. "I've had enough people talk to me about it that I do think about it."

That was, for the record, not a no.

Not a household name — yet
Don't worry if you haven't heard much of Clark. She hardly ranks with the semi-household names like Sviggum and Moe of recent Capitol eras of the past, or even her contemporaries like long-timers Rep. Phyllis Kahn or Sen. Dick Day.  Clark has only been in office since late 2005, when she won in a special election and was re-elected in 2006.

But increasingly, Clark is the face of the DFL at the Capitol. Though the party controls both chambers, and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and House Majority Leader Tony Sertich are high-profile, Clark often soaks up her share of the spotlight.

Part of that is by design, especially in regard to Senate politics. There, Sen. Larry Pogemiller is the majority leader, but Clark shares many caucus duties in her assistant leader role. And Pogemiller has a reputation for, to put it charitably, an obstinacy that in the past infuriated GOP leaders, Capitol insiders and Pawlenty. And it doesn't hurt that Clark is a politician from outside the metro area who happens to be a woman. From that perspective, her rising role makes political sense.

But Clark also possesses what many consider an ambition that is notable even by Capitol standards, and a gift for laying down spin with the best of them.

"I would not debate any of those points," says Sen. Geoff Michel, a Republican from Edina who has worked with and against Clark during her short tenure. "She's also bright and articulate. She's clearly the voice of that caucus."

"We view her as what she appears to be: a spokesman for the DFL caucus," adds Sen. David Senjem, a GOPer from Rochester who as the Senate minority leader is something of a counterpoint to Clark. "But she acts not unlike the rest of us in that she's just a member of the Senate."

For her part, Clark already displays a politician's insouciance on her aspirations. "I don't think of myself that way," Clark says at mention of her ambition. "If there's a way I can contribute that's different than what I'm currently doing, I should take a look at that. I'm quite happy doing what I'm doing now."

But Clark is hardly resolute in staying put in her Senate seat, or dismissive of a gubernatorial bid. "No, I'm not ruling it out. I don't know what I'm going to do, I'm not focused on that right now," she offers by way of not quite brushing the question aside. "It's an odd thing to be thinking about when we have a presidential election, to be thinking about running for governor."

And certainly the notion is premature; there's still plenty that can happen in the waning days of the session, let alone whatever the political landscape might look like two years from now. But at least one person thinks she's cut out for the job: Her mother, Sandra Donley, who lives just west of Phoenix. "I have said that to her before," Donley says. "'You could be governor, Tarryl.'"

A Republican background

But Donley's endorsement of Gov. Clark, to hear both women tell it, is hardly a foregone conclusion emanating from motherly pride. "I'm a registered Republican," Donley points out.

"I grew in a Republican family, and I voted Republican when I first started voting," Clark admits, saying that she was hewing to her family members' core beliefs. "They're pretty moderate. They believe that it's important to make investments, but they didn't like the idea of government being in people's lives, local control, values I still hold. Things I don't necessarily see the Republican Party doing."

A cynic might see a ploy here — a leader of the less-than-moderate Minnesota DFL Party trying to position herself as a moderate who can work both sides of the aisle, unite Minnesotans, yadda, yadda, yadda … But Clark appears sincere. Any time the Senate is in session, Clark can be seen consulting fellow senators from both parties. And in this session of trying to solve a nearly $1 billion state budget shortfall, Clark — and therefore her caucus — have focused on fiscal issues, while not exactly clamping down on spending.

"She's focused on measuring and benchmarking government, and could be considered Republican-like for good state government," Michel suggests, adding that Clark already walks "a fine line." "The tension Senator Clark has is her caucus is more liberal than her district. Things in St. Paul might not play in St. Cloud."

Given her background, Clark may well come by that straddling naturally. At the very least, she has plenty of first-hand experience in understanding voters in her Republican-leaning District 15, starting early in her own home.

Her father, Bob Donley, was in the Navy, and Clark was born on a military base in Norfolk, Va. Clark has three younger brothers, two of whom served in the Navy, she says, and that may account for her toughness to a degree. Clark is petite and young (46) for a power player. But she has a raspy voice of authority and efficiency, and laughs loud, Hillary-like, and often.

Until Clark was in sixth grade, the family grew up in Glenview, Ill., then headed west to the Phoenix area. Clark eventually went to college at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and it's not a stretch to say she shares some of the fictional attributes of that school's mascot, the Bulldog. As the school's men's basketball team made its improbable run into the NCAA tournament, Clark never missed a moment to brag to reporters.

(Full disclosure: I went to Drake as well, but not at the time Clark attended. Her parents and my father also went to Drake and knew each other, but have not remained in touch over the years. I did not know this going into reporting this story.)

Twenty years ago, Clark and her husband, Doug, who attended Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn., moved to Minnesota mostly because they didn't like the low-tax, low-service lifestyle in Arizona.

"Phoenix had all the disadvantages of a big city, but not so much of the advantages," Clark says, lamenting a lack of amenities like libraries and parks. "Minnesota's values really fit who we are. When I think about what Minnesota is about, we thought, what a great place to raise our kids, so we moved here."

Clark eventually earned her JD from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. Her husband worked for Legal Aid. The couple has two sons: Colin, 22, who works for the Central Minnesota Boys & Girls Clubs, and Nathan, 20, who is a student at the U of M.

Though Clark insists that through the years she had no political aspirations, in some ways politics may have been inevitable. "She's always been involved in leadership," her mother, who is still active in the real estate market in Phoenix, says, sounding off a list of school activities that Clark assumed over the years. "Tarryl and I are very similar in that we just jump right in a go for it."

'I was never going to run for office'

Clark's resume at the Capitol might be slim — though growing — but her CV otherwise shows a flurry of activism.  She's worked for Habitat for Humanity, the local Girl Scouts chapter, the Northwest Area Foundation, clerked in the Minnesota attorney general's office and most recently served as head of the Community Action Association, a consortium of community groups that aim to fight poverty.

"Predominantly on senior and public benefits issues," is how Clark frames her causes of interest. "What I found out there was families and kids, no matter how much they were trying to get their lives together, often ran into system barriers."

And this is how Clark eventually came to the political arena. Soon she was a vice chair for the DFL Party. Then she was registered as a lobbyist at the Capitol for the Community Action Association from February 1999 until December 2005, when she won her Senate seat. This experience, Clark says, not only showed her how things work at the Legislature, but also forged a number of bonds with lobbyists and lawmakers alike. Plus, it put her in touch with several organizers and activists around the state.

"I was never going to run for office," Clark insists.

But soon enough, that's what she was doing, first running for Senate in 2000 against Dave Kleis and challenging him again in 2002 for the District 15 Senate seat. Kleis won both times, but when he was elected mayor of St. Cloud in 2005, Clark ran again, this time against a conservative talk-radio personality named Dan "Ox" Oschner.

"Dave and I had the same ideals," Oschner recalls. "I thought I'd be a good fit."

Still, Oschner knew he'd have his work cut out for him because Clark was already well-known from other campaigns. "She'd been on the ballot so many times people thought she was an incumbent," Oschner says.

Oschner says that the quick month-long campaign didn't leave much time for him to get a feel for Clark's style, but he added that the two were respectful toward each other, while their respective parties flung the mud. "We had some great conversations," Oschner says. "She's articulate and bright and knows her politics."

Still, Oschner puzzles to this day over how Clark can manage to fit in with a conservative-leaning constituency. "Everyone talked about what a strong campaign she was running," he concludes. "But I never saw it. We cruised in opposite circles. I didn't see her. But somehow word got around."

The political conversion

In Clark's Capitol office, just off  the Senate chambers, there's a copy of the famous "We Can Do It" Rosie the Riveter poster from World War II. Except in this version, the Rosie flexing her arm is U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This is a far cry from Clark's roots.

"I voted for Ronald Reagan," Clark says, mock-rolling her eyes. "One of those things I don't like admitting."

Political conversions throughout life are nothing new, of course, and the generational flip-flopping within families seems to be a symptom that afflicts many politicians. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who represents Clark's 6th Congressional District, has spoken in the past about breaking ties with Jimmy Carter and her staunch Democratic upbringing, something that moved her to the spectrum of uber-conservative.

Clark doesn't see much problem with her brand of politics playing in St. Cloud. "Governor Pawlenty and I shared a lot of votes," she says of the voters who supported her in the 2006 election, and notes the same of her and Bachmann.

Clark's also eager to say her brand of politics plays well outside of her district. She quickly points out the common ground that she and Minority Leader Senjem have, saying that St. Cloud and his hometown of Rochester are similar — not in the metro area, but not rural either. She and Senjem, Clark says, both put policy before politics to solve problems on a local level, all the while eyeballing the state.

Senjem concedes there are commonalities, but stops short of aligning himself with Clark, of course. "Our relationship is cordial and needs to be because we find ourselves at so many of the same events," he says, alluding to the never-ending spate of news conferences and counter-news conferences they attend. "As far as Senate family, we don't show each other up."

But Senjem is well aware of the digs Clark continually takes at the governor, and adds, "I don't know if that's what the people of St. Cloud want."

Mainstreaming the DFL

Still, Senjem is also aware that having Clark out in front of the media scores a number of points for DFLers in this session as Democrats try to escape tags that they're too liberal..  "They're trying to show they represent mainstream views," Senjem says.

Clark puts her split role with Majority Leader Pogemiller this way: "We have different strengths and we certainly come from different geographic kinds of places. Balance has been a good thing."

For all of her moderation, she's still unrelenting on Pawlenty. "He is an absentee governor," she emphasizes at one point during an interview in her office, laughing.

It is uncomfortable, she says, calling the governor out so much.

"There's a difference between being partisan and calling something the way you see it. We do have some struggles going on with the governor," she says. "And I've worked with him before; back when I was doing my old job, he carried some legislation for me. He can be creative, he can be thoughtful. He could be a really great governor, and for whatever reason, he seems to be thinking that taking us on this march to mediocrity — as it seems like is happening — or maybe having his sights elsewhere is more important than what would be good for the state."

It's a broadside, and Clark knows it. She pulls back a little bit: Perhaps the governor would enhance his chances for higher office if he worked with DFL leaders rather than against them.

"I mean this sincerely," Clark says quietly. "If he did things a little differently, there could be a better outcome for the state of Minnesota."

It's not hard to think that Clark takes Pawlenty's partisanship a little personally, if for no other reason that she likely thinks of herself as a great persuader. And while speculation has run from her succeeding Pawlenty to taking on Bachmann to perhaps running for U.S. Senate someday, she says it's more important to her to unite Minnesotans of all political stripes. It carries political expediency, sure, but that doesn't mean Clark isn't earnest about it.

Who knows? She convinced her mother to do some work for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, and Sandra Donley, staunch Republican, reports that she grew to "love" the Democratic politician and his people.

"Some of the questions Tarryl asks are good questions," Donley says, sounding not-quite-ready to jump political parties anytime soon. "She's good at looking at the big picture. She'd always argue with my mother, saying, 'Are you voting for the party or for the candidate?'"

At the state level, the former happens a lot more often than you might think, which is how Clark got to where she is. But to achieve higher office? She'd have to make a more convincing argument. After all, this session's not over, and all that other stuff is a long way away.

G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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Comments (3)

I like Sen. Clark, but I think I'm going to be supporting Mark Dayton for Governor.

Clark is trying, and i give her and her caucus credit of getting the transportation bill passed - but it has seemed like a bridge needed to fall in a river for the legislature to get anything done - and so far, anything unrelated to that bridge hasn't gotten done.

Being the Majority leader, it is her job to know whether the budget the DFL wants has a chance of passing or not. If not, it is her job to leverage other objectives in exchange for the compromises on the budget the Governor requires.

The Governor has severely outplayed the legislature this session. We got the transportation bill, but but exposed ourselves to electoral consequences of the gax tax increase. We're not getting property tax relief (though we may still get), we're not getting significant healthcare reform, we're not getting early education funding, we're not getting U of M educations for less than 40k, and our tax system is not getting any more progressive. We are also not getting rail to St. Paul.

Against this backdrop of failure, I don't see how anyone from the MN House or Senate can be seriously considering running for Governor, except perhaps someone from the Range, who will enjoy some regional loyalty. Clark, in particular, being from the 6th district, seems like an unlikely choice to end the DFL's gubernatorial losing streak.

I say, pick someone who you know can win a statewide contes, because they've done it before. I say pick someone who has a reputation for being a nice person, not an attack dog. I say pick someone who is willing to show leadership, ask for sacrifice and promise that government will deliver, instead of someone who promises to deliver more without raising taxes (which comes off as pandering and as an insult to our state's citizens). Pick someone who has shown foresight of judgement. Pick someone who has a record of putting principals before politics and people before principals.

I say pick former Senator Mark Dayton.

Somebody has to have his number. The hostility that is
so well concealed behind the Pawlenty folksy facade is
leaking through in his jokes at the expense of his wife
lately. How the media plays Pogemiller as an angry
politician and gives Pawlenty a pass on his mean streak
is beyond me....

A moderate DFL'er and encouraged her Mom to work for Paul Wellstone? Nice spin-job G.R.