Latest actions again raise the basic question: What does Gov. Tim Pawlenty really believe?

There seems to be little agreement among politicos on whether Gov. Pawlenty's decisions are based more on principle or politics.

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
There seems to be little agreement among politicos on whether Gov. Pawlenty’s decisions are based more on principle or politics.

What does Gov. Tim Pawlenty really believe?

The question has surrounded the governor for eight years but never loomed larger than in the last week, when he’s made decisions that could cost Minnesota about $1 billion in federal money.

In his latest move, the governor issued an executive order “to stop Minnesota’s participation in projects that are laying the groundwork for a federally controlled health care system.”

That’s the potentially billion-dollar decision and it seems to fly in the face of a couple of points Pawlenty repeatedly has made during his two terms:

• He constantly has complained that Minnesotans are getting back just 72 cents on every dollar being sent to Washington.

• In trying to address the state’s huge budget deficits, the governor repeatedly has stated that the health and human services costs are “unsustainable.”

Pawlenty only governor to reject health dollars

Yet, now he’s become the only governor in the land who says he will reject dollars that seemingly would address both of these problems.

Was this decision based on core conservative beliefs, or was it simply pandering to the most conservative base of his party as Pawlenty continues to pursue presidential ambitions?

Not surprisingly, opinions are divided.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak likely echoes the belief of many moderate to liberal Minnesotans who don’t really believe that Pawlenty is as conservative as he has been portraying himself.

Mayor R.T. Rybak

MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Mayor R.T. Rybak

“I always worked on the assumption that he doesn’t believe many of the things he’s said,” Rybak said. “I think a lot of people have cut him slack over the years. They say, ‘Ah, he’s just playing politics.’ But this most recent thing [the executive order], if he doesn’t believe it, that’s a lot of cynicism.”

DFL legislators have pointed out that the executive order is more a grand gesture than a meaningful act. Given the governor’s lame-duck status and the way legislation was written in the last session, the likelihood that the state actually will lose out on much money is small.

Still, it’s a huge decision for a governor to make, which brings back the question: Does Pawlenty actually believe what he says?

David Hann is a Republican state senator from Eden Prairie. Although he says he doesn’t know the governor well, the Hanns and the Pawlentys attend the same church, and Hann has had several chances to speak with Pawlenty both inside and outside the Capitol.

Hann, who sought his party’s gubernatorial endorsement, believes that Pawlenty is a real-deal conservative and that he’s not “pandering” to a national base.

Some conservatives unsure about his views, too
Hann noted that it’s not only Minnesota moderates and liberals who question Pawlenty’s sincerity. Many conservatives do, too.

“During the [Republican] state convention, many conservative delegates expressed their doubts about the governor’s conservatism,” Hann said. “I would always disagree. You never find totally uniform beliefs, but I would always say he consistently has stood for conservative beliefs. What some of the conservative delegates objected to is his rhetoric. He isn’t bold enough in what he says, not as in your face as some would like him to be.”

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer is much more to the liking of those conservatives than Pawlenty.

State Sen. David Hann

State Sen. David Hann

Laughing, Hann said, “When I was doing the governor thing, I was often accused of being Pawlenty-esque. Because I’m not an in-your-face person, I was seen by some as being moderate. But I think sometimes the stage-craft of politics is not always helpful. If your goal is to govern a majority, if your goal is to get people to consider what you have to say, I think it makes more sense to be thoughtful in your approach.”

What of the executive order to build a symbolic wall around Minnesota when it comes to federal health care? Does that make sense, from a conservative perspective?

Hann believes it’s absolutely a good decision, which also will appeal to conservatives.

He uses the analogy of an alcoholic when talking about federal funds the state would receive for health care.

“They’re selling an alcoholic liquor by the drink,” Hann said. “Here’s one more little thing we [the feds] are giving you. More and more people are giving up on the idea of a limited federal government.”

But it should be noted that even the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce wants Pawlenty to take at least a little sip from the federal medical reform cup. The chamber’s president, David Olson, “strongly encouraged” the governor to request the $1 million planning grant to do market research on a “possible” health insurance exchange. Olson pointed out that by requesting the $1 million, the governor wasn’t accepting the concept of the exchange but only getting money to study the impact such an exchange might have. The exchange, Olson wrote, might be beneficial to the state’s small businesses.

It’s not yet clear what the governor is doing in this case. The initial grant request deadline was Wednesday, although it would be possible for the state to file for an extension.

Phil Krinkie, a former Republican legislator and now head of the conservative Taxpayers League of Minnesota, is a bit more nuanced on Pawlenty’s most recent executive order.

Phil Krinkie

Phil Krinkie

Krinkie certain of Pawlenty’s conservative core values
For starters, Krinkie believes that Pawlenty is — and always has been — a conservative to the core. He also believes that Pawlenty has been “mapping” a possible path to the White House for two years.

But this decision to reject even early-stage “Obamacare,” is both philosophically comfortable and strategically advantageous for Pawlenty, Krinkie believes.

“He’s astute — he’s got a game plan [for higher office],” Krinkie said. “When you’re in the league he’s playing in, you respond to the current situation. National polls show that people have a negative opinion of Obamacare. So what’s a guy going to do? You adjust to what’s on the field.”

This executive order is perfect for what Pawlenty needs to do politically, Krinkie said. For starters, polls currently show former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney leading the Republican field. But Romney’s big weakness among conservatives is his establishment of a state health care system in Massachusetts, similar to what the feds have in mind for the nation.

This, then, is the perfect political maneuver for Pawlenty, Krinkie said. He’s taking on something that, for the moment at least, is unpopular, and he’s exploiting a weakness of a major opponent.

In all of this, Krinkie said, Pawlenty is not doing anything outside his own convictions.

“He has intellectual integrity,” Krinkie said.

But he also has considerable political flexibility.

For example, though he was a frequent critic of federal stimulus programs, he never turned down the huge amounts of money that prevented the state’s budget from being a bigger mess than it is. When asked about criticizing the federal programs he was accepting, Pawlenty typically would say that if the money didn’t come to Minnesota, it merely would go elsewhere.

He’s been flexible on other issues as well. For example, when he was chairman of the National Governors Association, he was almost as green as Al Gore. But when his term in that position ended, he did a 180-degree switch on some of his environmental positions.

For example, once a propopent of cap-and-trade legislation, by 2009 he was an opponent, calling such federal proposals “misguided and very burdensome on our economy.”

These latter-day Pawlenty environmental views seem to fit more comfortably with the views of the conservatives in his party.

Greiling sees major shifts to right
Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, joined the Legislature in 1992, the same year that Pawlenty was a freshman representative from Eagan. That Tim Pawlenty was a moderate Republican, Greiling said. In one of the most dramatic votes ever in the Minnesota Legislature, Pawlenty supported a bill that expanded gay rights.

State Rep. Mindy Greiling

State Rep. Mindy Greiling

“People rose above partisan politics,” Greiling recalled. “People voted their conscience, not what was popular.”

Pawlenty has since said he “regrets” that vote, and as governor, he’s vetoed bills that would do such things as allow public entities to give gay employees with partners such benefits as family insurance. He’s an outspoken foe of gay marriage.

“He’s just turned further and further right,” Greiling said. “I’ve never believed he believes in many of the positions he’s taken.”

She calls Pawlenty a Dorian Gray, who is the Oscar Wilde character who trades his soul for everlasting beauty.

Laughing, she said Pawlenty not only seeks perpetual physical attractiveness — “he’s got a different hairstyle every time you turn around” — she believes his ambitions have caused him to sell his soul to the farthest right segments of his party.

“When he first was running for governor, I remember Mark Olson [a former state legislator] running around asking, ‘How’d he vote on this, how’d he vote on that?’ Mark was very conservative, and I know that then the conservatives really didn’t believe he was one of them … I don’t believe the Tim Pawlenty of then would have believed much of what the Tim Pawlenty today says.”

The perpetual question remains: What does Pawlenty really believe?

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

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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/03/2010 - 09:41 am.

    OK…let’s cut through all the crap and say what Pawlenty’s actions are all about. They are clearly and simply the damaging of our state on the alter of presidential aspirations ideology. this is fairly obvious and well known.

    What is less known — and FAR more important to Minnesotans is what EMMER thinks and believes, and how he will act on these issues!

    Pawlenty is already in our rear view mirror (although he can still wreak more havoc on our state); Emmer is the future, and likely an extension of Pawlenty’s philosophy. Therein lies the danger. Is anyone listening?

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/03/2010 - 10:14 am.

    King Timmy believes in NOTHING, except that he’s destined for bigger better things and whatever means he must pursued to justify that end are completely excusable.

    He has sold his soul, and the well being of the citizens of the state of Minnesota, to his own ambition.

    It does not bother him in the least, in fact, I suspect he now relishes these opportunities to punish the citizens of Minnesota for not worshiping the ground he walks on after two destructive and self-serving terms as our governor.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/03/2010 - 10:14 am.

    I think people have always confused Pawlenty’s tone with his actions. As Governor he’s been flat out right wing, he’s just not angry about it. I don’t know what he believes, the thing that’s always frightened me about Pawlenty is that he follows through on what he says whether he believes or not if he thinks it’s politically advantages. The guys spooky. I don’t think he cares, he may not believe anything, he just says and does what he thinks he needs to in order to win conservative votes.

  4. Submitted by Sherry Gunelson on 09/03/2010 - 10:31 am.

    Pawlenty does not seem to care about his MN legacy. I firmly believe that once he loses his bid to run for President he and his family will move out of Minnesota.

    In the mean time he will do whatever is best for him. As usual.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/03/2010 - 11:14 am.

    “What does Gov. Tim Pawlenty really believe?”

    If you don’t believe in yourself, how can you expect anyone else to?


  6. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/03/2010 - 11:20 am.

    myles spicer writes
    “Emmer is the future, and likely an extension of Pawlenty’s philosophy.”

    Emmer is Pawlenty without the self-marketing ability. Pawlenty’s success has largely relied on his ability to portray himself as a moderate, reasonable guy. That’s certainly how he won his pluralities in 2002 & 2006. Of course, that the DFL nominated some zeroes didn’t hurt. But back to my point: Emmer lacks the ability to market himself as a reasonable, moderate guy that’s just trying to do the best thing for Minnesota. Instead, Emmer is an unapologetic conservative – which is fine, but is unlikely to attract enough independent voters to win election; and may very well turn off any remaining moderate Republicans (do any exist anymore – or have they all bolted the party?).

    Emmer’s biggest advantage right now is in voter enthusiasm. While that’s often a good indicator in national elections, I am skeptical that the metric applies as well to MN. While DFL & Independent voters might not be as enthused as Repubs, I suspect they are enthused enough to put an end to Pawlentyism in Minnesota in November.

  7. Submitted by Steve Marchese on 09/03/2010 - 11:30 am.

    It’s long past the time when anyone could say with a straight face that Pawlenty takes positions based upon any principle other than his own ambition. There isn’t even the pretense of principle in any of Pawlenty’s pronouncements about his latest decision. It’s all talking points straight out of a “made-for-Republican-primary-voters” script.

    Time will not be kind to this governor. He leaves no legacy other than his complete pandering to the worst elements of his party and government by sound bite made for repeating on any of a number of right-leaning media outlets. What a waste of eight years!

  8. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/03/2010 - 11:40 am.

    Tim Pawlenty believes he’d like to be president.

  9. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/03/2010 - 11:46 am.

    You mean he still lives in Minnesota?
    I thought he had moved to Iowa, with a lake house in New Hampshire.

  10. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 09/03/2010 - 12:00 pm.

    While Pawlenty may wish to be president, I find it hard to believe he’s clueless enough to think he can truly win the nomination. He certainly is trying to make his case as a bona fide conservative by giving his state the shaft in order to show his token opposition to “obamacare” (whatever that means), but I think he knows his only chancce for a spot on the repub ticket is as VP. Despite all his trips to Iowa, his support hovers in the 1% range. Don’t see him leapfrogging the others in front, since they’re also running around showing just how much they despise the islamic foreigner who will soon establish a caliphate…

  11. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 09/03/2010 - 12:19 pm.

    Most interesting in this article is the MN Chamber’s response. Just as they opposed Pawlenty on his veto of the transportation gas tax bill, they are now coming around on the possibility that the current system of health care kills small business development and that there might be a better way. It is hard to believe that the business community as represented by the MN Chamber and MN Business Partnership has not already swung full behind Horner and left Emmer only with his Tea Party supporters.

  12. Submitted by Jonathan Scoll on 09/03/2010 - 12:25 pm.

    What does Governor Pawlenty believe in? Not in the role of the federal government in national social or human issues. Not in human rights (as Doug Grow points out, above). Not in the environment (as evidenced by his veto of the DNR’s proposed lakeshore regulations). Not in the fiscal health of the state — why else refuse federal help when the State is on the brink of insolvency? What does the Governor believe in? On the evidence: not much.

  13. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 09/03/2010 - 12:35 pm.

    Another way to look at Tim Pawlenty is through the psycho-social lense. Youngest in the family so always trying to get attention-clownish. Temper tantrum when you don’t get your way as in his post transportation vote defeat. His psychological needs ran into a brick wall in high school in So. St. Paul where he could not make the hockey team and was not a BMOC. He learned quickly to kiss up to the big boys desperately wanting to be one. This became his mo. Notice how in his first two years at least (hidden from view since) he made winter trips to Naples, FL to reassure and get in line with the big boys. To be governor he had to make many promises none so obvious as in education where true believers were put in charge and where Pawlenty implemented the national right wing education playbook. And now we have the Presidential thing. Only this will setify his needs for attention and acceptance. This man is very much like Richard Nixon with a better temperament. He is a benign psychopath-nothing but his needs. Let’s hope he is in the rear view mirror.

  14. Submitted by Patricia Gundersen on 09/03/2010 - 12:40 pm.

    What does Gov. Pawlenty “really believe”? He believes he has a future in politics. Why can’t the people of MN impeach him for neglect while in office? That ought to be helpful if he chooses to run for any office in the future.

  15. Submitted by Jan Menke on 09/03/2010 - 12:47 pm.

    C’mon gang do you really think he’s doin’ anything but setting himself up so he can say to a national audience during his upcoming presidential campaign, “Thanks but no thanks”, a la the ditzy former Governor of Alaska?

  16. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/03/2010 - 02:30 pm.


    Ditzy? Is it OK to throw gender insults at politicians if they are conservative? I don’t see it done to liberals. Ditzy: “stupid, scatterbrained” (esp. of women), late 1970s U.S. slang, of unknown origin (Online Etymology Dictionary).

    It seems to chap many in Minnesota to leave any federal dollars on the table. The problem is that Minnesota has to come up with their share to get the federal government to let us have those so-attractive federal dollars. The truth is that neither the federal nor the state governments have the money.

    Thank You Governor Pawlenty for pushing Minnesota away from the table.

  17. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/03/2010 - 02:45 pm.

    This is most certainly true:

    Pawlenty believes he’s Father, Son and Holy Guru with a glob of political empirical ambitions thrown in…and if it-should-come-to-pass, to be Emmer ever after?

    Then the question is, what happened to our thinking populace? Something in the water maybe?

  18. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/03/2010 - 03:29 pm.

    Actually, it the only funds that required a state match were the ABSTINENCE sex education funds that King Timmy accepted (for a program that has been PROVEN to be ineffective, nationwide). He rejected funds that did not require a state match – funds for comprehensive sex education and funds that were designed to help Minnesota set up structures required to implement the Health Care Act – structures that must be implemented anyway, so now the citizens of Minnesota get to pay for them rather than the federal government. In other words, King Timmy just ADDED to Minnesota’s deficit problem for no other purpose than groveling at the feet of the big money guys who hold his leash.

  19. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/03/2010 - 03:30 pm.

    “…a politician’s values are only discernible through their application in policy. Moral action takes knowledge and effort; intention is not enough.” — The New Republic, October 30, 2000

    Since I have no way of knowing what Mr. Pawlenty actually thinks, I can only go by his actions, and I don’t see recent actions as being in the best interests of Minnesota. In some – not all, certainly, but some – instances, the citizens of Minnesota are being sacrificed on the altar of his presidential ambitions. It doesn’t speak well of him, certainly, but it also doesn’t speak well of the state’s citizens if they allow this sort of thing to continue.

  20. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/03/2010 - 04:21 pm.


    Perhaps an example to support your statement? None come to mind?

    Today: The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll for Friday shows that 27% of the nation’s voters Strongly Approve of the way that Barack Obama is performing his role as president. Forty-three percent (43%) Strongly Disapprove, giving Obama a Presidential Approval Index rating of -16.

    Monday (Aug. 30): A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 58% favor repeal of the new national health care law while 36% are opposed. These figures include 46% who Strongly Favor repeal and 28% who are Strongly Opposed.

    A majority has favored repeal of the legislation in every single week since it became law. Support for repeal has ranged from a low of 52% to a high of 63%.

    With big changes coming in November, and the President’s ratings in decline, should each of the fifty states be spending a billion federal dollars to set up structures required to implement the Health Care Act?

    I see Pawlenty’s move as a way to cut losses; he see that the Health Care Act has no future.

  21. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/03/2010 - 10:33 pm.


    I clearly have not been a consumer of the same media as you. I was referring to serious media, news from outlets like this, not bits from comedy routines. Speaking of hairstyles, Pawlenty’s hair styles got mentioned in the text above. Can’t say I noticed; can’t say I care.

  22. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/04/2010 - 12:02 am.

    An example of a politician who puts personal ambition ahead of good governance.

    In other words, a political opportunist pining for higher office. Both sides have them. If the governor wants to be a career politician I wish him the best. He will be joining a long list of them from both sides of the aisle. Many of whom are the scorn and target of the electorate these days. Be careful of what you wish for..

  23. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/04/2010 - 10:07 am.

    1. Steve R (#22). I believe many respondents to such polls are super-satured with right wing propaganda.

    2. What does Pawlenty believe? His guru and mentor for the last decade or so has been Grover Norquist, creator of Americans for Tax Reform.

    “My ideal citizen,” says Norquist, “is the self-employed, homeschooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit. Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything.” Taxation is seen as theft, as “taking from one group and giving to another.”

    Norquist’s formed a second organization, the Leave Us Alone coalition, to oppose the Takings Coalition, which “consists of the Trial Lawyers, the corrupt Big City Machines, the Labor Union Bosses and the two wings of the Dependency Movement–those who remain trapped in dependency and those who make $80,000 a year managing the dependency of others and making sure they don’t get jobs and become Republicans.”

    I see not just Pawlenty in Norquist’s words but Bachmann, Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, many tea partiers and almost every Republican in Congress.

    (The above quotes are from a Norquist 2002 op-ed at

  24. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/04/2010 - 11:38 am.

    The strongest evidence of Pawlenty playing politics with these funds lies in his decision to accept $500k to promote abstinence (with a state contribution of more than $300k in addition) and his rejection of over $800k in funds to reduce teen pregnancy (which required no state contribtution). The latter would have been useful in limiting pregnancies which lead to participation in or increase demands upon the Minnesota Family Investment Plan (MFIP), more popularly known as welfare.

    I would like to hear what the current crop of candidates have to say about those funds. My guess? Emmer – same; Dayton – would have taken both; Horner – would have taken at least the portion with no match required.

    Candidates? We know you or your aides read Minnpost. Let us hear from you.

  25. Submitted by Howard Miller on 09/06/2010 - 12:38 pm.

    If Mr. Pawlenty is intent to sacrifice Minnesota citizen interests on the alter of his presidential ambitions, it seems a steep price he – and we – pay. He is not getting much bang for the buck on his fiscal extremism.

    Even in our southern neighbor, Iowa, Mr. Pawlenty is not among those getting any significant support at all, according to a poll reported a couple of weeks back.

    So a billion dollars in money to help Minnesotans is rejected … even if it improves Mr. Pawlenty’s visibility to his party nationally in future polls, is it worth the price paid by we of Minnesota?

  26. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/06/2010 - 07:29 pm.

    Well said, Bernice (#26)!! I’ve never had the stomach (or is it the guts?) to visit Norquist’s website, but his influence permeates the right wing even more than the equally corrosive Ayn Rand. Glad you did, and found relevant quotes to share.

    I’ll just add that there are no current viable societies, nor have there ever been in the historical record, based on the values and practices Norquist espouses. Only a modern nuclear family headed by a neofascist male meets his criteria, and the nuclear family is a very recent invention. If it’s truly “every man/woman for him/her self,” then society has disappeared, along with civilization in any recognizable form, and we’ve reverted to prehistory – essentially to a living condition of such primitiveness that Norquist would be among the first to suffer.

    Logically, of course, it fits, because taxation is the price we pay for civilization. Norquist’s fanatical hostility to taxation complements the apocalyptic consequences of his worldview, and that dovetails nicely with neofascist politics as well as fundamentalist religion.

    I’m fairly new to Minnesota, but if Pawlenty has, indeed, drawn some of his political “philosophy” from Norquist, then Minnesotans made a huge mistake in electing him in the first place.

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