John McCain’s decision to pass up Tim Pawlenty as his running mate is a political disappointment for the governor. There have been other lows in his political career — but many more highs for the Republican governor who first walked on the state scene 16 years ago. In that time, the lawyer and wannabe hockey player has risen from a backbencher in the Minnesota House to governor and probably the most prominent Minnesota Republican office holder in the nation in more than a half century.
Here’s a rundown in rough chronological order of Pawlenty’s highs and lows.
High: In 1992, voters sent Pawlenty to the state House of Representatives just weeks after his thirty-second birthday. The trip to the Capitol followed elected service on the Eagan City Council. Those voters returned him to the House four more times.
High/Low: In 1993, Pawlenty and a handful of fellow House Republicans voted to add sexual preference (gays, lesbians, transgender and others) to the Minnesota Human Rights Act, an action that many regarded at the time as politically gutsy. Republican Gov. Arne Carlson signed the legislation into law, but Pawlenty later said he regretted his vote and subsequently had to answer to Republican delegates at the 2002 state convention.
High: After years of almost uninterrupted DFL control, Republicans gained a majority of the House in the 1998 election, and the caucus elected the affable, approachable Pawlenty majority leader, the second most powerful post in the House.
Low: In 1998, he mounted a short-lived exploratory run for governor.
High/Low: Pawlenty decided in 2002 to run for the U.S. Senate, but Vice President Dick Cheney telephoned and asked that he step aside to allow Norm Coleman to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone. The good trooper assented, and it worked out. Pawlenty then sought endorsement for governor against a much better financed candidate, Brian Sullivan.
Low: His campaign was fined $400,000 after the State Ethics Board concluded there had been an illegal coordination of campaign ads with the State Republican Party. The fine was charged against his campaign’s spending limits, a financial setback for his election effort.
High: Pawlenty won the general election, but with only a plurality of 44 percent in a three-way race. The DFL candidate was Sen. Roger Moe, who got almost 37 percent. Independence Party candidate Tim Penny picked up 16 percent. It was not the clearest mandate a governor could want.
Low: In 2003, about six months into his first term, his integrity takes a hit when it is reported that the cash-strapped candidate had been paid by Republican friend Elam Baer supposedly so Pawlenty could support his family and continue to campaign. Baer, an entrepreneur and head of a company plagued with consumer complaints, said he hired the attorney as a consultant at the going price. No charges came of it and the allegations faded by the time of the next campaign.
High: In 2003 Pawlenty faced a projected two-year budget shortfall of $4.5 billion. He proposed balancing it without a general tax increase. He did, but in the process many fees were increased, the state budget was trimmed and state aid to cities and counties was slashed. He was widely praised by fiscal conservatives and it is still considered a hallmark of his administration.
Low: DFLers pile on, contending Pawlenty’s parsimony resulted in the subsequent jump in property taxes. Pawlenty responded that local governments need to budget better. Voters didn’t buy it and in the 2004 election House Republicans lost 13 seats and were reduced to an ineffective majority of 68 votes.
High: In 2005, Pawlenty was stuck again with a budget shortfall. He refused DFL entreaties for a general tax increase and instead went with a 75 cents-a-pack hike in cigarettes. He insisted the increase be called a “health impact fee” so he could maintain his no-tax pledge. DFLers and others said tomawto or tomato, the semantic fiction would help discourage smoking, something dear to liberal hearts. The fee/tax passed.
High/Low: In 2006, Pawlenty was reelected, again by a plurality. His main opponent, DFL Attorney General Mike Hatch, had a political melt down just before the election, giving Pawlenty a decisive boost. But in the election, Republicans lost control of the House and Pawlenty lost leverage with the Legislature.
High/Low: On Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge across the Mississippi River collapsed. Thirteen died. As in the floods in southeastern Minnesota, the governor’s response was quick and his public image as an in-charge, caring official was enhanced even as his argument against increased funding for transportation infrastructure crumbled.
High: Pawlenty was elevated to chair of the National Governors Association for 2007-08, where he emerged as an articulate, bipartisan leader on educational and environmental issues.
Low: In the 2008 legislative session, Pawlenty vetoed a transportation funding bill that included hikes in the state gas tax which had not been raised since 1988. Six House Republicans joined DFLers and overrode the veto. The DFL Senate followed. The legislation also authorized metropolitan counties to increase the sales tax by a quarter cent to help finance transit. Five of them did.
Low: Pawlenty gave Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau double duty, naming her commissioner of Transportation in 2003. Senate DFLers were critical of her, and in 2008, voted against her confirmation. She lost her night job, but continues her constitutional day job as lieutenant governor. Previously, the Senate had denied confirmation to Commissioner Cheri Pearson Yecke, Pawlenty’s choice for what is now called the Department of Education.
High: When was the last time a Minnesota Republican was considered a national figure, one who was invited to Sunday morning television news shows and regularly interviewed by major publications? You’d have to go back to the Boy Wonder, Gov. Harold Stassen, in the 1930s and 1940s, to find a homegrown who so often captured the national spotlight. Chairing the National Governor’s Conference gave him a pulpit. John McCain has given him a church.
Low: The budget deficits keep coming despite Pawlenty’s record of fiscal restraint. Unless the economy turns around, he and Minnesotans again could be facing a two-year shortfall that could reach the amount he inherited in 2003.
Robert Whereatt writers about state politics and government. He can be reached at rwhereatt [at] minnpost [dot] com.