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Molnau or Metzen: Who should be governor if Pawlenty becomes VP?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty

The closer that Gov. Tim Pawlenty comes to becoming Sen. John McCain’s running mate, the closer Minnesota comes to having “Gov. Carol Molnau.”  Of course, she has always been “a heartbeat” away, but now there is serious chatter about “what if?”

One long-shot theory says we have a choice between Molnau and Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul.

First and foremost, there have been significant signals to those in and around the Pawlenty inner-circle that relations between the governor and lieutenant governor have been strained for some time — so strained that there were significant discussions in 2006 about whether she would be on the ticket again.  Ultimately she was, and then while also serving as commissioner of transportation, the I-35W bridge fell down.

That is when Molnau became a liability to Pawlenty.  It’s also when Molnau’s unpopularity among DFLers became a political cancer. Before that, she was an asset among more fiscally conservative GOP activists and an annoying reminder of the personality conflict between the governor and the Legislature, especially on transportation for DFLers. 

A Minnesota Public Radio News/Humphrey Institute poll in early February showed that only 25 percent of Minnesotans approved of her job as transportation commissioner, while 43 percent disapproved. That put her job approval rating at MnDOT lower than President Bush’s approval ratings. Since then, she has done little to try to improve her standing, among legislators or Minnesotans.

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau

Ever since the Minnesota Senate effectively fired Molnau as transportation commissioner in late February, she has served largely in a ceremonial role as lieutenant governor. That’s a tough position from which to move into the Governor’s office. Her crusty personality also doesn’t lend itself to becoming likable quickly among Minnesotans or trustworthy among legislators.

Speculation, theories abound
The speculation about the prospect of a Gov. Molnau has some senators weighing strategies of how to deal with the promotion of one of their own to fill the lieutenant governor’s office.  (If Molnau becomes governor, the president of the Senate automatically becomes lieutenant governor.)

One widely circulated theory is that Metzen, the current Senate president, would step down temporarily, and that the DFL-controlled Senate would nominate a Republican to fill that office and then move up to Lieutenant governor. One name being floated is Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, a former journalist. Robling is respected among her peers, and her Senate district includes Molnau’s old House district.  Also, she is not one who people think of as aspiring to higher office.

In short order, the press would no doubt dig out footage of Molnau “touching” Gov. Jesse Ventura during a controversial appearance on the “Almanac” couch. And stories about her keg-tossing, arm-wrestling prominence, as well as the stormy relations between the Legislature and Gov. Molnau, would produce tension very quickly.  Robling might soften that, but the often gruff and terse Molnau could be a major political liability if the GOP wanted to keep the governor’s office in 2010.

Sen. Jim Metzen
Sen. Jim Metzen

Take into account that Molnau will likely inherit a budget deficit, and as a fiscal conservative who would be unlikely to raise taxes, the 2009 legislative session would be a war over taxes and spending.  Imagine dueling press conferences of Molnau and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, each appearing more bitter and biting than the other.  All while “Sister” Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher would have the job of trying to make things civil. If successful, she’d probably qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It’s clear to most who have observed Molnau, including some inside the governor’s inner circle, that she would be politically ill-equipped to handle the position under these conditions.  It’s not that she isn’t smart enough, or capable, but she just doesn’t have very many personality traits that would lend themselves to success in this situation.  Add to that the likelihood of some significant flight to Washington among the governor’s key staff, and it could be an ugly sight.

That’s why my working theory is a little better for the process — and for fun — were Pawlenty to be elected vice president.

Considering that Metzen is from South St. Paul, Pawlenty’s hometown, and the two are known to get along well, why not have Molnau resign to make Metzen lieutenant governor?  Then if Pawlenty wins, Metzen becomes governor.  Pawlenty looks like a bipartisan player, DFLers have to deal with his budget deficit all on their own, and Metzen wouldn’t likely run for governor, giving everyone an open seat to run for in 2010.

It’s a long shot, but considering that the governor and Molnau don’t get along, Molnau would only incite and reignite the venom we felt during transportation battle, and serious contentiousness is bad for the state.

The answer is the usually lovable Gov. Metzen.  Consider it a South St. Paul thing or Minnesota Nice redux.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Chris Dolan on 08/13/2008 - 10:38 am.

    Interesting and creative theory. While I think you are correct that it would be a savvy political move in the long term, the rank and file republicans would never get over the idea that the Republican Vice President let the Democrats get the governor’s mansion for the first time since Rudy Perpich as he quickly left the state. Too much of a risk for Pawlenty as he takes the national stage with aspirations of being at the top of the ticket in 2012 or 2016. A better move for the Repubs would be to convince Molnau to step down herself. Good luck with that!

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 08/13/2008 - 11:04 am.

    A new low in an almost incomprehensible “what if” piece. We have IF Gov. Pawlenty is chosen; IF he is elected; IF Molnau attacks the legislature, we then have the “he said, she said” of potential debate the might happen. If things fall a certain way.

  3. Submitted by Fritz Knaak on 08/13/2008 - 12:06 pm.

    Actually, I expect we’ll be getting a lot of creative thinking by Democrats about how to deal with a Governor
    Molnau who owes them a few pokes in the eye for what they so gratuitously did to her a few months back.

    Carol’s a big girl, and I doubt she’s as vindictive as Democrats are afraid she would be (and they, themselves probably would be: hence the worry).

    She also was an easy target for them to use to diffuse the blame that they themselves share for infrastructure underfunding. Keep in mind, the Dems have controlled the Minnesota Senate since this 55-year-old Republican was in high school.

    I’d actually be looking forward to how this will play out. More importantly, I think Carol Molnau would have active Republicans in this state 100% behind her in whatever she chose to do.

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