Emotional session between Tom Emmer and servers produced lots of heat, sweat and anger but little light

The GOP's endorsed gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer, met with restaurant workers today in an emotional meeting to discuss his controversial remarks.
Minnpost photo by Terry Gydesen
The GOP’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate, Tom Emmer, met with restaurant workers today in an emotional meeting to discuss his controversial remarks.

There was heat — oh, so much heat and sweat and anger — but not a great deal of light today when Tom Emmer met with a restaurant workers at the Ol’ Mexico Restaurante in Roseville.

Thing is, this meeting between the Republican Party’s endorsed gubernatorial candidate and workers who felt offended by things he’d said last week regarding their wages and tips was likely only Round One.

There are two things that separate Emmer from most political candidates: He says what he thinks, and he’s not cautious about diving into the midst of the fray.

“I’m not like most politicians who head out of state or hide under their desk when something they’ve said has been misreported,” Emmer told the overflow crowd. “I’m here. Let’s talk about it.”

There was yelling at Emmer. And sometimes the candidate yelled back.

Passionate session
There was passion, and at one frightening moment late in this wild session, a young man leaped through a back door, up onto the platform where Emmer was seated and dumped a huge container of pennies over and around the candidate. The young man — yelling something about “Tips!” — raced back out of the room.

“Scared me out of my shoes,” Emmer admitted after this brief moment of chaos.

Then, he laughed. As so often is the case with Emmer, he talked about hockey.

“In hockey,” he said, “somebody’s always got your back.”

A portion of Wednesday’s discussion provided by The UpTake.

In this case, he said, he looked toward his spouse, Jacquie, who was seated just in front of the platform.

“She was laughing her head off,” said Emmer, shaking his head in mock indignation.

After she was done laughing, the candidate’s wife even helped a child scoop some of the pennies into his baseball cap. For the kid, this event had turned into a financial windfall.

It turned out that the intruder, Robert Erickson, was not protesting anything involving the servers. He later explained that he is upset about Emmer’s support of Arizona’s immigration law.

Emmer seeking positive outcome
As he typically does, Emmer attempted to turn this moment of vulnerability into a positive about his campaign.

He said that throughout the campaign he’s going to say things that might upset some people. But, in the end…

“Sometimes we have to agree to disagree, but we have to remember, we’re all Minnesotans. We gotta live together. … The poor kid who did that [dump the pennies]. Have a little courage. Come back and talk to me. Next time, I hope he comes in the front door so we can talk.”

Back to this bizarre session, which was all set off last week, when Emmer made a couple of comments about servers making $100,000 a year and the need to consider a tip credit, which servers and most in the media assumed meant some sort of reduction in the minimum wage paid to servers who receive tips.

Emmer repeatedly denied that he wants to “cut anybody’s wages.” But he also continued to say he’s interested in hearing about tip credits. How can you have one without the other?

“I won’t talk about that today” said Emmer after the session.

Restaurants workers listened intently during the session.
Minnpost photo by Terry Gydesen
Restaurants workers listened intently during the session.

Clearly, though, that was the rub in all of this, making it impossible for angry servers and the candidate to have a meaningful conversation.

Over and over, servers — some at the point of tears — talked about how hard they work to struggle to get by and how they can’t afford to see their wages cut.

And over and over, Emmer insisted, “I never said I’d cut your wages.”

Sporadically, there were shouts, boos and some applause, and then the same debate would start again.

“Why would you cut our wages?”

“I’m not going to cut anybody’s wages.”

Sarah Janecek, a conservative commentator and Republican Party activist, served as emcee (so to speak), carrying the microphone from one person to the next.

Sometimes, Janecek would throw out a plug for the Ol’ Mexico Restaurante.

“It’s happy hour! Two for one margaritas … But remember, tip as if you’ve paid full price for two.”

No typical campaign event
This wasn’t your typical campaign event.

Before the main event, the DFL and some servers, held a small event in the sweltering heat outside the restaurant.

At that event, servers talked of how hard they work and of how Emmer doesn’t get it. They then took questions from reporters.  Suddenly, though, Peter Roess, a stadium supporter who was wearing a purple Vikings cap, interrupted the reporters and started asking questions of the servers.

How did they feel about a new Vikings stadium?

They were perplexed.

“We’re here to talk about Tom Emmer,” said Ariel Lawson-Kohl, a server at the Day by Day restaurant in St. Paul.

Roess didn’t seem to care. He kept talking about a new Vikings stadium.

He wasn’t the only person at the Ol’ Mexico Restaurante with an off-agenda issue. Besides Erickson, the penny pitcher, a woman in the crowd inside the restaurant tried to broach the subject of the Arizona immigration law with Emmer.

She was shouted down by both those who support Emmer and those who are upset by him.

And many, many people were upset by Emmer. Clearly, this is a pol who can attract a crowd.

A server named Ann poured out her disgust with her belief that Emmer has “no understanding” of people who are struggling to get by. She went on for more than a minute.

Emmer looked at her the whole while. When she was finished, he turned to the crowd of more than 200 and said, “I’m going to mark Ann down as undecided.”

This crack, not surprisingly, drew mixed reviews. His supporters laughed. His detractors glared.

There was a substantial group of Emmer supporters in the room. And some of those supporters appeared to be servers.

One server, who said his name was Alex, said he’d worked in Michigan and Nebraska, states that pay below minimum wage to people who get tips. He claimed to make more money than he makes in Minnesota, saying, “People are aware, so they tip more.”

Most in the crowd hooted at that comment.

“Go back to Omaha!” yelled one.

On and on it went.

Emmer repeatedly said he does not support cutting the minimum wage, though at one point he did say he’s no big fan of minimums.

“I believe it frustrates the ability of the best people to make more,” Emmer said.

Everything pretty much came to an end, when the pennies were tossed onto the table, though Emmer did make it a point to go to meet with a group of people he called “my cheering section.”

Those people, off to the side of the room, had hooted the loudest at some of the candidate’s responses.

He talked with “the cheering section’’ for several minutes. He was animated and sweating. They were animated and sweating.

“I’ll never run, I’ll never hide,’’ he said as he left the restaurant.

Given his style, there’ll surely be more meetings like this with more groups of Minnesotans.

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

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 07/14/2010 - 06:41 pm.

    Politics aside, you have to give him credit for showing up.

  2. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 07/14/2010 - 09:08 pm.

    Yes, Mr. Emmer does have the courage of his convictions despite their wrongness.

    Reminds me of another tough and powerful hombre from the recent past … one GWB, who only last month again proclaimed that it is right to torture prisoners. I bet he probably still believes he is Mr. Compassionate.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/14/2010 - 09:58 pm.

    I was there Doug, there was nothing “frightening” about having a bag of pennies dumped on the table, and the guy didn’t run away, bouncers pushed him out the door, I have photos, he was out in the parking lot afterwords. It’s no big deal but it bugs me when you guys act like a little physical protest is some kind of near terrorism event. I remember when a anti-Hiawatha re-route protester through a pie at a state rep, you’d think someone tossed a grenade the way everyone talked about how “frightening” it was.

    Anyways I thought there were a couple interesting things about the event. First the structure itself, the “listening” session had some funny characteristics. It was a perfect venue design for a guy who really isn’t interested in answering a lot of questions. The mike travels around the room and there’s only one mike, so Emmer had to call it back when he wanted to respond. This effectively prevents any question and answer session from developing and Emmer gets to choose the comments he’ll respond to. I interviewed people afterwords and amongst the people critical of Emmer there was frustration that they hadn’t gotten any real give and take. They felt that his initial denial of his statements on Saturday was a cheap trick that sidestepped the issues they’d come there to discuss. Emmer was clearly frustrated that he couldn’t move them off of the minimum wage issue with his denial, which was downright funny at times, like when he said he’d voted to eliminate minimum wage before he voted to increase it to $9.50 an hour (a vote that was obviously meaningless since that MW never materialized). The sense I got was that folks simply weren’t buying his claim that he’s not interested in freezing or cutting minimum wage, they just didn’t trust him when he claims to have been misquoted or blames the media.

    Amongst his supporters there was frustration that he failed to neutralize the minimum wage issue. The complaint was that people were disregarding his claims and explanations no matter how many times he repeated them. Again, my sense was that people just don’t believe him when he denies wanting to reduce minimum wage, they think the real Tom Emmer is the one on tv last weekend.

    I don’t know how many folks in the room were Emmer supporters, but of the 13 or so people that spoke only three weren’t critical of him, the place was crawling with media, I guess I don’t what “substantial” means in terms of supporters. I’m sorry but Alex’s claim that he made more money in states without minimum wages because people tip bigger simply doesn’t strike me a credible claim for a variety of reasons. For one thing the guy only looked like he was about 21 years old and he claims he’s worked in five states besides MN. At any rate, our economic data show that MN servers make slightly more than the national average.

    Many of Emmer’s statements were simply perplexing. He voted to eliminate minimum wage before he voted to raise it, he wants to raise everyone’s wages but he wants meals to be cheaper, someone, not sure who, “misspoke” when Emmer talked about the $100,000 a year servers who were making more than the owners. And he thinks minimum wages keep people from making more money? No one I talked to was impressed by the outcome of this appearance. The big theme was he’ll talk to everyone and not run away, but most people weren’t impressed since they felt that he was dodging his own statements and being “tricky”. Odd that, three people actually used the word “tricky” to describe his conduct. His supporters weren’t impressed because although he was talking, they didn’t think people were listening.

  4. Submitted by scott gibson on 07/14/2010 - 11:14 pm.

    I will give credit to Emmer’s courage in facing, sort of, a hostile crowd. That’s something that handlers increasingly avoid with their candidates. Still, perception becomes default reality. The servers don’t believe Emmer’s denials, and that’s the important tidbit. Elections in Minnesota sometimes turn on such things. I seem to recall someone not immediately knowing what “E-85” was during the last gubernatorial race. It probably seemed insignificant to the lieutenant governor candidate, but farm folks felt otherwise. She certainly knew about “ethanol”. It think that slip might have been the difference in Pawlenty winning reelection (unless it was all those felons who voted for him). So if that hadn’t happened, Pawlenty might not be galavanting around the country trying to pass himself off as presidential material.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/14/2010 - 11:35 pm.

    Through a pie, ooops. Did I ever tell you about the time I went threw a big tunnel?

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/15/2010 - 08:20 am.

    “Before the main event, the DFL”, Paul Udstrand & Co., Oh, and some “servers”…

    I wonder how many “servers” were actually there.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2010 - 08:31 am.

    I’m sorry but I have a real hard time giving a candidate “credit” for showing up to his own campaign event. Emmer can’t avoid these people anyways, do you really think he could avoid these people? Do you really think they wouldn’t track him down on his “listening tour” if he refused to meet with them?

    This was a tactical play to get this issue behind him. The idea is meet these folks now, make a big deal out it, and maybe they won’t pop up everywhere from now till election day.

    Courage? Seriously? Maybe compared to Bush and Cheney who were notorious for avoiding even neutral crowds let alone hostile ones. If this looks an act of courage that tells us more about our expectations of mediocrity than Emmer’s bravery. Courage is about facing danger, there was nothing even remotely dangerous about this crowd, they weren’t even really angry, just emotional at times. Is this what we’ve sunk to? We praise our politicians for facing unsympathetic crowds once and while? Can any politician avoid unsympathetic crowds completely? Emmer’s a scrappy lawyer, and a career politician. It took less courage for him to face this crowd than it would to step onto a roller coaster.

    Emmer’s play was clever in a high school debate kinda way, but that’s as much credit as he deserves. He started with a statement that he didn’t say he wanted to reduce minimum wages- last Saturday. In a high school debate kinda way that’s true, but he’s not claiming to now be a champion of minimum wages, and he’s qualifying his statement with proviso: “during a recession”. At any rate his initial statement anticipated the complaints and created a forum for him to repeatedly deny the charge. That’s what he was there to do, his new message is: ” Tom Emmer doesn’t want to cut your wages”. At least not during a recession. Emmer’s goal here was to create a context where his critics would appear to be irrational, not listening. Like I said, clever but not courageous. This even was calculated and deliberate. You can give him credit for showing up if you want but I’m not gonna get that train. Bragging about showing up for his own scheduled event and painting that as a virtue rather than an inevitability, is again clever, but rather transparent.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2010 - 08:49 am.

    //I wonder how many “servers” were actually there.

    You have a very curious mind Mr. Swift. There was a huge contingent of media, campaign staff, security, and photographers, I reckon almost a third of the folks in the room. I’d say at least half of the remaining non media people were servers, if not more. One side of the room was more rambunctious, but there were a lot of servers that were stuck out in the main restaurant because they ran out of room in the bar and stopped letting people in. Critical comments from all over the room, they weren’t contained to just one side. Supporters did seem to be kinda clumped together by this table with former restaurant owners.

  9. Submitted by Tim Walker on 07/15/2010 - 09:29 am.

    Emmer, as quoted by Doug Grow above: “Sometimes we have to agree to disagree, but we have to remember, we’re all Minnesotans. We gotta live together.”

    I guess the Emmer supporter who wore a T-shirt saying “Liberalism is a mental disorder” didn’t get the “We gotta live together” memo.

    My point being that when it comes time to look for reasons why this election is so uncivil (and getting worse by the minute), one only need to look at the incivility of those who support this candidate.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 07/15/2010 - 09:48 am.

    “I’d say at least half of the remaining non media people were servers, if not more.”

    The Pioneer Press quoted one Nelson Inz, who is a teacher…I don’t think the union allows teachers to deliver cocktails to the students.

    I’m sure some genuine waiters and waitresses were there, and I’m sure some were angry, and some were supportive. I’m also sure there were plenty of rank and file leftists there for no other reason than to keep the temperature up.

    Are you a server, Paul? No?

    Didn’t think so; that’s what I’m talking about.

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/15/2010 - 09:54 am.

    Actually, this whole controversy is good for Emmer; it distracts people from that fact that he has refused to state a position on any major issue.
    If waitpersons’ tips is the most serious problem facing the state, we don’t need a governor.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2010 - 10:17 am.

    //Are you a server, Paul? No?

    Didn’t think so; that’s what I’m talking about.

    You’re so funny. No I’m not a server, I’m a photographer, I was there taking pictures. By the way, I suppose you think all the Emmer supporters were servers? Or is political affiliation only a liberal phenomena?

    Hey Thom if you really want to tilt your machine go look at the article I posted on Twin Cities Indymedia. Fine example of objective reportage I must say.

  13. Submitted by myles spicer on 07/15/2010 - 11:45 am.

    I give Emmer credit for nothing — especially for being courageous. His actions are strictly in the mold of Palin and Bachmann — saying outrageous things either by design or error — to get attention. Then making it a double header by either retracting, denying or modifying. At any rate, the technique gets media attention and a diversion not possible by running a campaign on the real issues.

    In fact, this is precisely what has happened. He has been on TV and radio consistently; meanwhile the Democratic and Independant candidates are mere observers, watching from the sidelines.

    Unfortunately, complicit in this sick situation is the media who is giving unwarranted attention to caca.

  14. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 07/15/2010 - 12:15 pm.

    #12 – Re your comment about this whole matter being a clever distraction by Mr. Emmer [sic]….

    I’m in full agreement. The way this whole mini-drama has been unfolding, one cannot help but notice the fault line between perception and reality. Mr. Emmer’s efforts to be in control (to manage, to rein in) the controversy he himself created are clearly not working. It would be wise now for Mr. Emmer to stop shoveling.

    On another front…. In all this hubbub, has anybody even asked why Mr. Emmer is attracted to this particular “Old Mexican” restaurant in Roseville. Why does he keep going there? Is the owner his pal? Or does Mr. Emmer have financial interests there? Aren’t there any inquiring minds out there who want to transcend this perception and move on to reality?

  15. Submitted by Elizabeth Halvorson on 07/15/2010 - 12:40 pm.

    Thank you Paul Udstrand for your detailed report on this meeting. It’s a great example of the service a message board such as this can provide.

  16. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 07/15/2010 - 12:46 pm.

    Talk about a backfire. You plan your own event to try to make things better, and you end up looking twice as bad as before. I mean ducking out the kitchen entrance.

    This could be in a public relations book for a chapter entitled: “Don’t let this happen to you.”

  17. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 07/15/2010 - 01:11 pm.

    Thanks Myles, I couldn’t agree more.

    There’s waaaaay to much credit given to those who “speak their mind”. That’s a nice start, but I’m more concerned that you actually use that mind to think first and if you speak in a way that’s respectful of others. Emmers fails on both those counts.

    He continually tells people they don’t understand his position or the media misrepresents it, but then he refuses to state his position. And this is a Candidate? How is that “courage”?

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/15/2010 - 02:38 pm.

    //On another front…. In all this hubbub, has anybody even asked why Mr. Emmer is attracted to this particular “Old Mexican” restaurant in Roseville. Why does he keep going there? Is the owner his pal? Or does Mr. Emmer have financial interests there? Aren’t there any inquiring minds out there who want to transcend this perception and move on to reality?

    J.J., it’s funny I was thinking the same thing and I was going to ask someone but ended up outside and then ran out of time.

  19. Submitted by Luke Soiseth on 07/15/2010 - 03:04 pm.

    It took some courage to show up, as many are saying, but of course if one is running for governor showing up and answering tough questions is hardly worth noting. What is worth noting is that we are still talking about this whole server controversy. Emmer had it wrong, way wrong, and that is a problem. How someone who wants to be our governor can be so shockingly out of touch with the regular folks of the service economy in that way is certainly shocking. But with deficits, underfunded schools, unemployment, and on and on and on, is his ignorance about the salary of servers really worth all this effort? And if there was a way to make this whole servergate even more ridiculous, penny boy pulled it off.

  20. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 07/15/2010 - 05:10 pm.

    Paul Brandon (#12) says, so very rightly: [T]his whole controversy is good for Emmer; it distracts people from the fact that he has refused to state a position on any major issue.”

    OR to detail how he would cut government spending by 20 percent.

    Not just potholes, but no more street and highway maintenance at all? Not just reducing the state’s share of the cost of higher ed, but shifting it all to students? Not just delaying payments to school districts but privatizing the public school system? Not just kicking people off state-sponsored health plans but killing the programs altogether? No more city parks and parkways? No more recreation centers and playgrounds? No walking paths on the river?

    People should think many more times than twice about how a Pawlenty-writ-large even-worse-anti-tax-anti-government governor would try to use his power.

  21. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/16/2010 - 08:16 am.

    I think people who are claiming that the server gaff and the penny attack are good for Emmer are over thinking this.

    I don’t see how how this is works for Emmer. No one is going to force him to discuss any details or issues in any event, clearly his whole campaign is geared towards avoidance of such discussions. This is another one of those Republican candidates that basically wants to keep his real agenda under wraps, it’s typical Republican politics for the last two decades. This is exactly what Pawlenty did only his style was different. While Emmer simply refuses to talk, Pawlenty sold himself as a moderate. Emmer’s problem is his base has been radicalized by the Tea Party so he can’t pretend to be moderate without risking their votes. He can’t be openly Tea Party without losing the moderate vote, so he’s simply keeping his mouth shut and prattling on about courage and freedom.

    Do these demonstrations and gaffs hurt Emmer or help him? I don’t think you can say they help him because as vacuous as his message is he still needs to get it out in order to get votes. I don’t think Emmer wins in November simply because he’s a Republican. If people can’t match a message of some kind to his campaign they’ll look elsewhere. These incidents are displacing his preferred message of courage and responsiveness. He’s not going to talk about issues because he’s not interested in governing and he just might realize that his agenda is unpopular. You can’t blame demonstrators and gaffs for distracting us from his positions when he’s not laying out any positions to begin with, and doesn’t look like his has any intention of doing so.

    You looks this week and what to you see? Despite his efforts people are convinced- correctly- that Emmer want’s to eliminate minimum wages; not a vote getting message. What image comes to mind when you think of Emmer this week? Not the image of him courageously facing critics and proclaiming his values while listening to a sometimes unsympathetic publi; that’s the image he obviously planned to create at Ol’ Mexico on Wed. I’m a photographer, I know a movie set when I see one. The image you probably come up with is one of the many images of pennies being dropped on his table.

    Emmer only wins here if you assume he wins by default even if he doesn’t get a compelling campaign message out. I think that’s an odd assumption to make.

  22. Submitted by Jim Roth on 07/16/2010 - 12:21 pm.

    Interesting report. I don’t have much to add except for the part about “having the courage to show up”. I remember President Bush II (reminds me of other types of imperial dynasties) always kept the dissidents away from his “public” appearances. And VP Cheney actually had a guy arrested who approached him at a ski resort and simply wanted to talk to him. But I don’t think, on balance, that politicians really deserve credit for showing up at events they set up. It just shows how low our standards have become.

  23. Submitted by Danielle Bethke on 07/16/2010 - 01:26 pm.

    I’ve been waiting tables for 23 years. I was one of the few servers who actually made it inside the main room before they stopped letting any more people inside. I was also the one who commented on how curiously coincidental it was that this meeting was scheduled at 3pm, a horrible time of the day for most servers to try to schedule anything. Not that it would have mattered; it seemed that the room was mostly pre-filled with media and Emmer supporters.

    I heard nothing in this “debate” but denial and back pedaling. How he was misquoted, and misrepresented, but yet never once stating what his real view was on anything.

    To shed some light on JJ’s question about Emmer’s facination with Ol’ Mexico: I was wearing the homemade “Bitter Waitress” t-shirt. When I went to the bar to get a drink, the bartender looked my shirt up and down with a blank expression, then couldn’t have been less friendly as he proceeded to get my drink. I left him a nice tip (duh!), then came back later to order some chips and guac, left another nice tip even after his second round of cold, unfriendly, yet speedy and adequate service. I was a bit puzzeld by his chilliness, until I was told later that this bartender was one of the owners, who are Emmer supporters/contributors.

    By the way, Paul U., the pie-thrower from years back, Bob Greenberg, was a guy I was friends with all through junior high and high school. Interesting fellow.

  24. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/17/2010 - 09:31 am.

    Hey Danielle,

    Yes, I interviewed Greenburg a couple times for an article I wrote about the re-route, got a couple photos of him as well, he is an interesting guy. Go Oaks!

    Back to the penny dump, I think it was coordinated with a woman over by you. I don’t know if you stuck around but the woman who made the immigrant comment was over in your area, and her last emphasis on the words “That’s my tip for you” or something like that seemed to be a cue for Espinoza to dump the pennies and echo the theme of tips as he did so. I’m pretty sure I saw him with that young lady out in the parking lot afterwords. Maybe we have a conspiracy here folks, maybe there was more than one dumper?

  25. Submitted by Jean Schiebel on 07/18/2010 - 02:55 pm.

    Personally I think the dumping of Penny’s was a childish stunt.
    Up until then it seemed very non partisan with the majority of Servers listening while Emmer buried him self.
    The next day all you saw on TV was the dumping.
    It helped Emmer..!

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