While her husband is on the big-league political speaking circuit these days, Mary Pawlenty continues to make the rounds to small venues.
On Thursday, for example, Pawlenty spoke to a group of about 40 women from the Women’s Empowerment wing of the Burnsville Chamber of Commerce. Her speech, delivered in a casual tone without notes, was part biographical and part about the role of a First Spouse. But mostly it was a strongly feminist message, delivered in a soft voice.
Her hero, as it turns out, is not exactly the sort of person who would rank too high among the conservatives Gov. Tim Pawlenty is trying to appeal to these days. It’s former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
“I think of people telling her, ‘Go be a legal secretary and see how that turns out for you,’ ” said Pawlenty. “Instead, she turns out to be one of the most amazing women in our history.”
Another favorite of the former Dakota County judge is Sue Grafton, author of a series of mysteries involving private detective Kinsey Millhone.
Admitting she’s “a little thin in depth” when it comes to what she reads, Pawlenty said she loves Grafton’s character because “she is this amazingly independent woman. She’s fierce, confident, has clarity of thought. You root for Kinsey. And I’m rooting for you [the women gathered to hear her]. You’re strong women in business.”
And still another hero, Dorsey Whitney attorney Greg Weyandt. Weyandt was at now defunct Rider Bennet in 1987 when Mary Anderson returned from a confidence-shaking year as an attorney in Houston. On return, she married the future governor and she worked with Weyandt, who she said, set “the gold standard” as a mentor.
“When I would do something positive, he’d let me know,” said Pawlenty. “Maybe it was just a little note, ‘Good job.’ I lacked a measure of confidence at the time. … He cured me of a fear I had of public speaking. He empowered me. We’d go to meet a group of clients and he’d talk first, then, introduce me. He’d say, ‘Here’s the brains of the operation.’ He’d go on and on and by the time I’d stand up I was saying to myself, ‘Well, I’m OK.’ ”
Even his corrections of her work were done with kindness, she said.
“In short, I’d ask you to take Greg Weyandt’s model and transfer it to the women you work with.”’
‘It’s not a sprint’
Over and over again, she urged the women to help other women.
Gender equality, she said, “is not a sprint, it’s a relay. We keep passing the baton to the next woman.”
It wasn’t until she got to the question-and-answer period, did she get to the nitty-gritty of her husband’s ambitions.
She had set the stage by explaining what the “first lady” of Minnesota does. Her passions are her work helping families separated by military deployment through an organization she founded, the Military Family Care Initiative. (“Every time I think I have a life with stresses,” said Pawlenty, “I think of those families who have a spouse in Afghanistan.”)
She also teaches school children about the three branches of government. (There was no chance to ask her about her thoughts on the big state Supreme Court unallotment case.)
And she is a huge supporter of The Heart Health Initiative.
Anyhow, this led to THE BIG QUESTION from the audience: “What kind of a first lady of the country would you be?”
“Oh my,” said Pawlenty, as women in the room both laughed and sat forward in their chairs. “How do I answer those sorts of questions?”
She talked about her husband’s first race for governor in 2002.
“I remember going for a walk,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh dear, he could actually win. My life might change. I might lose my anonymity.’ ”
She laughed at the memory.
“I have a really effective way to handle things I can’t control,” she continued. “It’s called denial.”
She was a judge at the time of that first gubernatorial race. She said on Election Day in 2002 she went to work as normal, not voting until her lunch break. She talked to her clerk and court reporter before heading to the polls.
“I told them, ‘He’s gonna lose and everything going to go back to normal.’ At the time, I really did think he’d do this and get it out of his system. … That sounds like an unsupportive spouse. I don’t mean it that way. It’s just that in politics especially it doesn’t make sense to look around the next corner. … He has not made a decision [on whether to run for president], and I don’t go there.”
That seemed to satisfy the Empowerment Women, who applauded when one woman in the audience, who knows the Pawlentys through their kids, talked of how “graciously” the Pawlentys have handled raising their daughters, who are now 13 and 17.
This seemed to be a pretty pro-Pawlenty crowd, judging by the adjectives being used to describe the First Lady’s husband.
“Adorable,” said one woman of the governor. “Beautiful,” said another.
Still, a woman did want to know if the governor might have some quirks that get on the First Lady’s nerves.
“He actually has a lot of quirky habits, but I don’t think they’re out of normal for guys,” she said.
“He doesn’t screw the cap on things,” she said. “He’ll take something out of the refrigerator, put it back but just give the cap a little twist, so you think it’s on. You pick it up, thinking it’s on tight, then….It’s like it’s a practical joke or something. I think, ‘Dude, after 23 years of marriage just turn the cap tight.’ ”
The women in the room nodded empathetically.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.