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Will personal political agendas in Minnesota get in the way of good government?

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is set Tuesday to unveil his plans for fixing the state’s big budget deficit. His vision is sure to conflict with views already expressed by DFLers. Some politicians, including former Gov.

Al Quie
Pogo Press
Al Quie

There was a blizzard outside his home in Marine on St. Croix in January 1982. Gov. Al Quie was inside, praying up a storm.

“Prayer and struggle,” recalled Quie.

Could he both run for re-election as governor of Minnesota and get the state’s massive budget crisis of the time resolved? He prayed all day and prayed all night, and when he wasn’t praying, he was struggling.

He finally reached his decision: He would not seek a second term as governor.

“It helped to step down,” Quie, now 85, said the other day. “It gave me credibility. It became clear I was putting the business of the state ahead of my personal ambition.”

Credibility may be in short supply on both sides
Such credibility, partisans on both sides suggest, is in short supply at the Capitol these days in both the executive or legislative branches.    

And that’s problematic at a time when Gov. Tim Pawlenty is preparing to give his long-awaited speech Tuesday on how he proposes to fix the state’s $4.8 billion — and growing — budget deficit The governor, along with several of his commissioners, will outline his budget plan at 1 p.m. at the state’s Harold E. Stassen Building, which houses the Department of Revenue.

The governor already has made it clear in his State of the State address, on his radio show and in op-ed pieces for state newspapers that he wants to balance the budget by cutting business taxes, doing some magical budget shifting and by cutting down the size of government. He repeatedly has said, “NO NEW TAXES.”

Pawlenty’s problem is that every time he moves his lips, DFL legislators hear this: “I’m starting my 2012 campaign for president.”

For example, after Pawlenty’s State of the State speech, Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, was seething.

“I have to assume that speech was more about his running for president than it was about being governor,” she concluded.

Many other DFLers seem to share her belief.

Personal political ambitions complicating factors
But DFLers aren’t the only suspicious pols in the Capitol. Republicans also are saying that other office-holders’ personal political ambitions are getting in the way of good government.

“About a third of the people in their (the DFL) caucus are running for governor,” said Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, the House minority leader.  It was his way of dismissing criticisms DFLers have of Pawlenty.

To date, Seifert’s comment was a little bit of an exaggeration. Only a couple of DFL legislators — Sens. Tom Bakk and John Marty — have officially formed exploratory committees. But many, many others can be seen running up and down the hallways with their fingers in the political winds.

The problem, according to Quie, is that personal ambition makes solving problems all the tougher.

Start with the simple stuff.

Every time the governor says, “No new taxes,” he paints himself into a smaller and smaller corner. Sure, he gets cheers from the Republican base that he will need if he actually does hear Washington calling his name.

Quie, it should be noted, tends to think the governor is right in his basic approach to the current budget problem. When he was governor, he pushed hard to balance the budget with no increases.

But Quie says this about good political leadership: “You never hesitate to change your mind. Sometimes, somebody does have a better idea.”

DFLers with eyes on the governor’s office have the same problem Pawlenty has. They can’t risk offending core constituencies. They can’t say, for example, that maybe the governor is right. Maybe the best approach to the budget problem is to take a 15 or 20 percent whack out of the Health and Human Services budget.

Doing the right thing
Is it possible to be running for higher office while working in a lower office and still do the right thing?

Quie thought about that for awhile, before concluding: “You can try to do it. You can try to put your ambition aside and tell yourself, ‘I’m going to do what’s right.’ But if you’re running for office, you can’t really get it out of your subconscious. It always pops up, ‘If I do this, what will happen when I’m running for election?’ ”

There are obstacles beyond personal ambition that even the most well-meaning politicians will have to deal with in these coming weeks.

The respective parties will put tremendous pressure on any legislator who even considers taking a step toward the “other side.”

Remember, for example, how the Override Six were castigated by their own Republican Party a year ago, when they followed their sense of what was right and voted with DFLers to override Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation bill.

In both the Senate and House, DFL and Republican caucus leaders have made strong appeals to their members to “stick together” this session.

“That’s a problem with this party business,” said Quie. “You get into this whole demonizing thing at a time when you really need to be building trust. What I’d try to tell people is that you belittle yourself if you engage in that game.”

The session wasn’t even a day old when the game began in the Senate. Senate Republicans tried to attach amendments to every little housekeeping resolution that was presented. Each Republican amendment was defeated by the DFL majority, of course. Nonetheless, some of the Republican senators left the chamber feeling pretty pumped up. They felt they’d proven they weren’t going to be kicked around.

“I thought that was silly,” said Quie of the first-day game-playing.

But he’s also upset that DFLers were too quick to criticize the governor’s broad outlines in his State of the State message.

“The DFL side believes you tax the corporations to help those folks who are in poverty,” said Quie. “What we say you do is empower poor people by creating jobs. We both want the same thing, so there has to be a way to come together.”  

This budget mess will be solved, because by law, it has to be. But to get the job done right, Quie said, the legislative leaders and the governor need to spend considerable time together.

“You need to reach into people, get to know them, find out what drives them. Only then can you learn to trust the people you are working with,” Quie said.

So, how does the old governor think that trust-building is working out so far?

“They have some work to do,” he said, laughing.

By the way, Quie and legislative leaders of his time did battle through several special sessions. But they balanced budgets. In the end, both sides made concessions, with Quie even signing off on a tax surcharge.

There were angry partisans on both sides, but when Quie turned the keys of the governor’s office over to his successor, Rudy Perpich, there was a budget surplus.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.