Yvonne Prettner Solon, just barely in office more than 100 days, admits that she’s already being approached about running for the congressional seat that DFLers believe rightfully belongs to their party.
“Let me say that a lot of people are inquiring if I’d be interested and encouraging me,” the state’s lieutenant governor said in an interview last week.
W hat’s she telling those who are encouraging her to run against the upstart, Chip Cravaack, who upset Jim Oberstar, ending the DFL’s 64-year hold on the 8th District seat?
“I tell them, ‘I ran very hard for the office I’ve just moved into,’ ” Prettner Solon said.
Does that mean Prettner Solon has ruled out running for Congress in 2012?
“I haven’t really thought about it,” she said.
In other words, anything’s possible for a woman whose political profile has changed dramatically in the last year.
Until last May, when DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton asked her to be his running mate, Prettner Solon was a state senator from Duluth, likely best known as the widow of longtime Sen. Sam Solon. He had died in 2001. In a special election, in January of 2002, she easily won election to the seat that her husband had held since 1972.
Solon classic case of balancing the ticket
Dayton’s choice of Prettner Solon as his running mate came straight out of the book of Balance the Ticket politics.
Going back to Gov. Rudy Perpich, serious male gubernatorial candidates in Minnesota have been selecting women as their running mates. (The DFL’s endorsed candidate, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, selected a male to be her running mate.) More importantly for Dayton, Prettner Solon represented geographic balance that none of the other candidates in the field were offering voters.
What Prettner Solon didn’t seem to give to the Dayton ticket was pizzazz.
Unlike so many northern Minnesota DFLers, Prettner Solon isn’t colorful, nor does she relish in-your-face confrontation.
As a senator, she was a member of the orchestra, not a soloist. Her big legislative issues — health care, seniors care, education — are concerns of DFLers and Republicans alike.
In the Legislature, there are three basic personality types. There are the ambitious, constantly looking for the chance to grab a headline. There are the fire-breathing idealogues, who tend to be true believers in one or two fundamental causes. And there are those such as Prettner Solon, who actually want to work across party lines for a greater good. That group often is frustrated by the shouts and screams of the ambitious and the idealogues.
That meant that Prettner Solon didn’t bring any great weakness to the Dayton ticket. There was no question of her integrity. No grudge-making political brawls from her days on the Duluth City Council or in the Legislature.
She skips ‘politics as usual’
The most controversial thing about her political past, in fact, was that she didn’t play DFL politics as usual.
Initially, when there were a long list of DFLers vying for the gubernatorial nomination, Prettner Solon endorsed fellow northern Minnesota Sen. Tom Bakk.
When Bakk dropped out of the race, Prettner Solon passed up the chance to move her endorsement to either another northern pol, Tom Rukavina, or a woman, Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Instead, she endorsed Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Her explanation was simple: Rybak had more understanding of the issues facing her home, Duluth, than any other candidate.
After Rybak lost the DFL endorsement to Kelliher, Prettner Solon risked offending the DFL establishment by saying yes to Dayton when he asked her to be his running mate.
All of those decisions show that underneath the pleasant smile and soft voice is political toughness — and independence.
In nail-biting victories over Kelliher in the primary and Tom Emmer in the general election, Dayton seemed sincere in his assessment that Prettner Solon was the difference maker. She had solidified his crucial northern Minnesota base.
Typically following elections, lieutenant governors disappear, never to be taken seriously again.
The exception to that rule was Prettner Solon’s predecessor, Carol Molnau, who is the antithesis of Prettner Solon. Molnau was combative. Prettner Solon, a clinical psychologist by profession, describes herself as a “peacemaker.”
Molnau, always a choice of political expedience for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, insisted on a high-profile role — as commissioner of the Department of Transportation. That turned into a professional, personal and political disaster for Molnau in the wake of the collapse of the I-35W bridge.
Molnau all but disappeared after a DFL-controlled Senate forced her out of the commissioner’s job.
Prettner Solon defends predecessor Molnau
For all of their personal and political differences, Prettner Solon expresses fondness for Molnau. The two, Prettner Solon said, had become close on a 2003 trip to Bosnia to visit with Minnesota National Guard troops. And she defends the work of her predecessor as the Transportation commissioner to this day.
“By virtue of the commissioner’s office,” Prettner Solon says, “she became a target.”
Never mind that Molnau helped paint the target on her own back by making boastful statements of how she was going to make big changes in a department that was respected by most.
Pretter Solon said she recently ran into Molnau at an event. The two chatted about life and the lieuntenant governor’s job.
“She’s been a mentor to me,” said Prettner Solon.
That statement underscores the political maturity of Prettner Solon. She’s not afraid to say kind things about people who are unpopular in the DFL base.
There are other examples of that maturity.
The Republican Party’s freshman class is filled with political novices who have come to St. Paul knowing little about government but convinced they can fix it. Does Prettner Solon find these freshmen a little, ummm, brash?
She mostly passed up the chance to take some easy shots.
“When you’re a novice legislator,” the lieutenant governor said, “you feel a tremendous pressure to produce. You promised a great deal. Now you’re in St. Paul, and you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to get something done.’ ”
But then, in her own quiet way, she did take a swipe at the more outspoken freshmen by recalling what she considers the best political advice she ever received. She had been elected to the Duluth City Council in the 1980s, and an old pro pol came to her with this bit of wisdom: “Don’t be talking when you should be listening.”
Listening comes easy for her, she said. Again, it’s a basic to what long was her primary profession, psychologist.
Professional background comes in handy
“The profession groomed me to listen,” she said.
As a state senator, Prettner Solon said she was able to continue to work as a psychologist at least on a half-time basis. (In her practice, she focused on such things as eating disorders, post-traumatic stress and a number of women’s issues.)
But campaigning — and now defining her new job — have gone beyond full time.
What does a lieutenant governor do?
Going back through the Perpich era, mostly what that office-holder has done is barely get along with their respective govs.
So far, Dayton and Prettner Solon seem comfortably close, presumably because their relationship pre-dates by decades the campaign. She recalls that he was there when her husband was dying.
That, however, doesn’t mean that she’s constantly at Dayton’s elbow. In fact, she said, since moving into their offices the two don’t see much of each other.
“He’s a busy man,” said Prettner Solon with a laugh.
Dayton’s also a trusting man. He figures the people around him don’t need the boss looking over their shoulders at all times.
Prettner Solon is working to establish the “seniors hot line” that was promised during the campaign. The idea is that the lieutenant governor will set up a “one-stop-shopping” office for seniors needing services. More than that, Prettner Solon hopes to expand the seniors hot line so that it includes opportunities for seniors looking to volunteer.
“Seniors don’t want to be put out to pasture,” the 65-year-old Prettner Solon said. “We’re vital, and we want to remain vital. People have a wealth of experience — and we have a number of places those experiences can be used.”
There are other initiatives of substance that will come out of her office but likely get little media attention.
For example, several lofty goals have been set by previous Legislatures and administrations involving such things as the expansion of broadband and reduction of carbon emissions. Prettner Solon, who enjoys policy more than politics, is working with commissioners to try to make sure that real efforts are being made to achieve the goals.
Additionally, she will “take the Capitol across the state” this summer, setting up shop for two days in eight regions, to hold public hearings on each area’s high-priority issues.
And all the while, she’s taking the time to visit offices across state government, meeting with small groups of public employees to learn about what they do and and their work conditions.
She listens more than she talks, making her the most unusual of politicians.
And then, on what she considers a perfect weekend, she heads home to Duluth, for a four-mile daily walk on Park Pointe and visits with family and grandkids.
“All of us,” she said, “need balance.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.