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Lieutenant governor candidates working hard, but the winner’s ultimate reward: a hallway marked obscurity

A common thread among the lieutenant governor candidates is that they won’t be offended if you don’t know them. As a group, too, they seem more relaxed than those at the top of the tickets.

Quick quiz: See if you can match Gunyou, Meeks, Mulder, Robinson and Solon with their respective gubernatorial running mates.

A common thread among all of the lieutenant governor candidates is that they will not be offended if you can’t answer the question. They understand that even if they win in August and again in November, the lieutenant governor’s office is located down the hallway marked obscurity.

There are other common threads.

As a group, they seem more relaxed than those at the top of the tickets. Perhaps it’s because they have less to lose, less personal stake in election outcomes. Or, perhaps it’s because they’re less used to dealing with the media, therefore a little less leery.

Still more common threads.

When contemplating whether to join their respective tickets, most of the lieutenants were won over with variations of the way Tom Emmer, the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate, sold Annette Meeks on joining his ticket.

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“He said, ‘You can write all the books you want, or you can get in there and do it,’ ” Meeks recalled.

So, they’ve been doing it, working the campaign trail nearly as hard as those at the top of the tickets: John Gunyou (running mate of DFL-endorsed candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher), Jim Mulder (Independence Party-endorsed candidate Tom Horner), Robyne Robinson (DFL challenger Matt Entenza), Yvonne Prettner Solon (DFL challenger Mark Dayton), and Meeks (Emmer).

Although they gain little media coverage in the metro area, they frequently do attract the attention of newspaper editors in outstate Minnesota. They’ve sweated in parades and, especially in the cases of Mulder and Gunyou, have spent considerable time in conferences with mayors, city managers, city council members and county commissioners.

Here’s a quick alphabetical look at what the gubernatorial running mates have been up to:

John Gunyou
Currently the city manager of Minnetonka, he was challenged by Kelliher much as he was challenged years earlier by former Gov. Arne Carlson: “Put your ideas to work.”

John Gunyou

John Gunyou

Carlson’s finance commissioner couldn’t say no. He’s been spending most of his campaign time out of the limelight, talking budget issues with local government officials from across the state. A Kelliher-Gunyou administration, he said, would work hard to “rebuild the partnernship among all levels of government.” Those partnerships have been badly damaged by the Pawlenty administration, which tended to treat county and city officials as “lobbyists and adversaries,” not partners.

“We all serve the same people,” he said of the importance of rebuilding the bridges.

Gunyou said he’s neither big on promises, nor on directly soliciting political support in these sessions, which typically are followed by interviews with local newspapers.

“We’re trying to do this in a bigger-picture way,” Gunyou said. “We’re pointing out that there needs to be a seat at the table for local government when decisions are being made.”

Unlike the other running mates, Gunyou still is working his regular job as well as campaigning. He remains, on a half-time basis, the Minnetonka city manager.

“Two kids in college and a mortgage,” Gunyou explained.

Annette Meeks
She has been involved in politics and government policy most of her adult life, but never as a candidate.

Annette Meeks

Annette Meeks

“So far, so good,” said Emmer’s running mate, laughing.

Among other things, she said, she has learned that there’s nothing she can do about sweating in a parade on a hot summer day and that she’s no longer responsible for such things as arranging her own schedule and driving herself to events, as was the case when she headed the conservative think tank she founded.

“I feel a little like Miss Daisy,” said Meeks of having a young person driving her to appointments.

Facing no real primary pressure, it’s likely easier for the Emmer-Meeks team to laugh than it is for the others.

“One of the things Tom told me is that ‘If it’s not fun, we’re not going to do it,’ ” she said. “We are going into communities with the attitude that we don’t have all the answers. We’re humble about that, but we’re going to listen, and we’re not going to be afraid to push the restart button on some of the things that government does. We look at it as if we’re blessed to have this opportunity.”

Like Emmer, Meeks talks about how the ticket will start revealing its solutions to state problems in the fall, “after we’ve had a chance to truly listen” to what people are saying.

Again, because they face little concern about the primary, the Emmer-Meeks ticket has been spending considerable time campaigning with other members on the state ticket.

Only a few days ago, she was on a three-day bus trip with Emmer, secretary of state candidate Dan Severson, auditor candidate Pat Anderson and attorney general candidate Chris Barden.

“We had a Harvard guy [Barden], a military guy [Severson], a hockey guy [Emmer],” said Meeks. “Pat and I just sort of sat back and observed. It was crazy.”

Jim Mulder
A few weeks after he retired as the longtime head of the Association of Minnesota Counties, Mulder dropped his dream of becoming a great golfer and signed on as Horner’s running mate on the IP ticket.

Jim Mulder

Jim Mulder

“Two rounds,” said Mulder of his golf outings since accepting the Horner invitation..

Given his longtime involvement in government, Mulder didn’t go into his role with visions of grandeur.

“To be honest, I was kind of expecting the first question people would have is ‘Who are you?’ ” said Mulder. “There’s some of that. But you know what I think the most common comment has been? ‘Thank you for being willing to run.’ I hear that a lot. It doesn’t necessarily mean that people know who I am, and it doesn’t mean they necessarily support our ticket, but there is interest [in the political middle].”

Often, Mulder and Gunyou sound familiar as they talk about the need to help improve relations between state and local government. They even know many of the same local officials.

But the big surprise for Mulder has been the antagonism he and Horner receive from the extreme left and the extreme right.

“There is even more polarization than I expected” said Mulder, noting that some on the extreme right are especially upset that he and Horner are running.

“They see us as taking them on,” said Mulder. “They say, ‘You’re a Republican,’ ” said Mulder. “I say, ‘Not really. I’m a classic old-style conservative. I want to see us preserve the wonderful things we have.’ But the difference is [between old and new conservatives] is that I do believe in government.”

At the moment, the big challenge for Horner and Mulder is making sure they can garner enough attention among independents and moderates of both parties to ensure a victory in the primary.

That means that Mulder hasn’t just set aside his golf game, but he’s also set aside his Ph.D. dissertation.

He was working on the chapter about “the multiple levels of regressivity of property taxes due to state government mandates” when Horner called.

“It’s a real page-turner,” he said.

Robyne Robinson
She is the most nontraditional choice but also probably the best-known, given 20 years in metro television. Although the pundit crowd generally saw Entenza’s selection of Robinson as an act of desperation, she has been receiving warm receptions, especially in communities of color.

Robyne Robinson

Robyne Robinson

“Matt knows legislation and knows law,” said Robinson. “For me, it’s heart and soul.”

Robinson said that any doubts about entering the political arena have been quickly erased by the receptions she’s received, especially from young people. There was a “You’re our hero” comment from a young Somali girl. A huge hug from a Hmong child.

As that rare person of color on television, Robinson said, she is well-known in Minneapolis and St. Paul, where she’s been campaigning heavily. Her goal is to generate excitement in black, Latino, Hmong and Somali communities where primary voting turnouts generally have not been high.

“You’re going to see a turnout from areas that traditionally have been ignored like you haven’t seen before,” Robinson predicted.

What would her role be if Entenza ends up as governor?

“There would be an open-door policy for everyday people,”she said. “There are so many people in crisis and nobody hears them. We need to listen to their ideas. I want to be there for them.”

Yvonne Prettner Solon
The state senator from Duluth is completely at ease with Dayton, whom she has known for more than two decades. But then, most people she comes across in Minnesota feel as if they know Dayton, she said.

Yvonne Prettner Solon

Yvonne Prettner Solon

“He’s a real person. People feel they know both his pimples and his good qualities. They see him as genuine.”

Solon, well known in the DFL vote-heavy 8th District, has been campaigning most heavily not far from home. She spends little time worrying about the primary outcome.

“I feel confident about our mission and our message,” she said. “If you’re confident of those things, there’s really no need to be anxious.”

Solons says that both on the campaign trail and, if elected, at the Capitol, she has two areas of focus: seniors issues and the rural perspective.

If she ends up as lieutenant governor, Solon says her office will head a seniors’ help line, working to match people with needs to existing organizations. But the rural role also will be important.

“The rural perspective is missing from the other campaigns,” she said. “You can’t have everybody in the governor’s office from the metro area.”

She laughs when asked if there are days she wishes she’d said no to Dayton.

“It’s fun,” she said of the campaigning, “and it’s grueling. It’s too grueling to have time to be tired.”

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