When Tom Horner met with reporters on Aug. 23 to unveil his budget proposal, he didn’t stand at a podium, didn’t play to the cameras. Indeed, the TV mini-cam holders had to stake out clear angles to focus on Horner.
No, the Independence Party candidate rented a conference room at the somewhat frayed-at-the-edges St. Paul Best Western Kelly Inn near the State Capitol, sat at the end of a long table — as if at a business meeting of his former public affairs agency — and explained, even taught, the journalists about his finance plan.
This professorial policy presentation, this version of a middle-of-the-road community organizer, is the sort of modus operandi Horner would bring to the governor’s office, say friends and former co-workers.
Of course, recent polls show that Horner’s chances of exercising this style seem slim. But he has won some battles as a public affairs strategist that no one thought he would — banning smoking in bars, for instance — and he’s done it by tweaking the community conversation and finding a sweet spot in a public debate.
As the Independence Party candidate, if he becomes governor, he would seemingly be alone in the political world in the Capitol. But former business partner John Himle said Horner would form an experienced bipartisan cabinet. His love for policy already brought him Jim Mulder as his running mate; as the former executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, Mulder is about as wonkish as you can get.
Twin Cities communications executive Eric Schubert, who once worked with Horner and who is supporting his former colleague, said Horner as governor won’t simply be playing to the DFLers and Republicans in the House and the Senate. He will actively engage the public, use the bully pulpit of the chief executive to listen to what the citizenry is saying, and then, via external coalitions, triangulate the legislators.
His comfort with the news media likely also would make Horner accessible to the journalistic hordes.
As much as Mark Dayton and Tom Emmer have been handled by campaign managers and spokesmen, Horner has picked up his own cell phone to answer reporters’ questions or chat on talk-radio programs. He has commented on stories at MinnPost and written on Facebook walls as if he’s your teenage daughter. Social media would be a Gov. Horner channel.
Horner’s genuinely congenial nature can’t belie his corporate-leaning policies or his penchant for tackling tough, unpopular issues head-on. Horner alone this campaign has staked a claim on trying to solve the daunting and heated Vikings stadium issue, and he even paired it with another hot-button matter: gambling. In some ways, he’s a risk-taker.
He may have positioned himself as an independent, but, make no doubt he is a Republican, old-school version. Indeed, his candidacy seems to have been a struggle for the heart-and-soul of the GOP, with Horner standing for the traditional Republican wing of the Republican Party, and Emmer for the extreme right-wing that now controls the state party. There was no room for Horner in the Minnesota GOP, what with his 2008 vote for Barack Obama, his abortion stance and his pro-gay-rights positions.
Still, he has been adamant about not raising income taxes on the wealthy even as he wants to broaden the sales tax on all Minnesotans. His finance plan includes cutting off state funding to counties, which are already suffering from years of state cutbacks. At the same time, he has proposed 10 “redesign” teams for government, a list that reads like a page out of a McKinsey & Co. efficiency expert’s play book.
In meetings, he is known as a listener, and then a quick decision-maker, but, said Schubert, Horner presents a firm poker face. “He’s not going to let you see him sweat.”
He’s not going to be personally calculating either, said Himle. “If he’s a one-term governor,” Himle said, “he’s OK with that.”
If he’s a one-term governor, there’s going to be a lot of stunned people Tuesday night.
Mark Dayton: A serious man taking serious work seriously
Tom Emmer: A salesman with gusto, and a bit of a hockey brawler
Tom Horner: A bipartisan army of one ready to engage public and tackle tough issues