Few people who lose an election, even a close one, draw much attention after the concession speech. But one year after he lost the governor’s race to Mark Dayton, Tom Emmer quoted a line from his favorite movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”: “I’m not dead yet.”
Far from it. Emmer has earned his own billboards as co-host of the KTLK morning show. “I say I have radio ministry,” he says.
For three hours each morning, Emmer holds forth on the fiscally and socially conservative principles that provided the high- and low- lights of his gubernatorial campaign. But now there’s more nuance and consideration in his comments, reflections of the candidate who emerged with a few bruises and hard-earned lessons.
For example, on the biggest job a governor has to do, balance the state budget, Emmer today would be more flexible than Emmer the candidate. “I’ll compromise,” he says. If the choice were to “cut four billion or two billon, I will compromise with going between two and four.”
On the budget deal that was reached last session, Emmer maintains neither the Republican majority in the Legislature nor the governor were happy. In fact, he says he called former Gov. Arne Carlson and told him: “If this was going to be the deal, they should have done it your way.” Carlson advocated some revenue increases rather than the borrowing that was used to bring the budget in balance.
On the question to be placed on the ballot in November 2012 that would define marriage in the Minnesota Constitution, he says: “I believe marriage is defined as a man and a woman. Now that it’s on the ballot, you need to show up and vote your beliefs. The issue is really being able to talk about it and have different points of view.”
But Emmer hasn’t changed his core thinking. Government spending must be reduced “or we are going to fall off a cliff,” he says.
He’s still critical of Dayton’s tax-the-rich-plan, which, he claims, ultimately is a “tax everybody” plan because it’s not indexed for inflation.
He’s proud of his legislative proposals like mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, a plan ahead of its time, he says, with Florida just passing similar legislation. Another proposal — castration for habitual sex offenders — is therapy, he says. “You should see all the letters that I got from people whose family members have struggled with this issue.”
Still, Emmer is a man who’s made adjustments. “Have my viewpoints changed or evolved? The answer is yes. There’s a certain humility that comes with going through the political process. Comprehend this; understand this. Then figure out where you fit best.”
He continues to hold the classic candidate grudge against the media. We made him a caricature, he says.
“You get painted a certain way through the prism of the media — primarily print media. It was usually an angry look [in the pictures that they put out]. It’s almost self-perpetuating. But if you listen to the radio show, you think, ‘I like this guy’s sense of humor.'”
He’s far more generous with his political challengers. Of Mark Dayton he says: “I gave him credit then and now. He said who he was throughout the campaign and he was a true gentleman to me and [wife] Jackie.”
Arne Carlson was “very gracious. I talked to Arne and asked him to sit down and talk about the campaign. He had five pages of notes, and we went through the entire campaign from beginning to end. But at the end, he said you have to leave open the option to raise revenue. That’s where we parted ways.”
As for Carlson’s public endorsement of independent candidate Tom Horner, “Arne is pro-business but not necessarily pro-Republican.”
Emmer exercises similar diplomacy when discussing presidential and state Republican politics. He supported Tim Pawlenty in his presidential bid, has respect for Michele Bachmann, thinks Mitt Romney will definitively be one of two survivors for the GOP nomination, and believes the Tea Party will continue to grow as an ideological force.
He has muted concerns about the Minnesota Republican Party, with its $500,000 debt and bills still outstanding from the gubernatorial recount. “It looks like everybody is abandoning Tony [Sutton, party chair], but he’ll figure this out,” Emmer says. “Right now, he needs friends, and it seems some of the closest around him are jumping ship.”
As aware as Emmer is of party insiders, party insiders are equally aware of him and the image he is projecting both on the radio and off. With the painfully close loss in the governor’s race, can Tom Emmer polish up enough to turn another candidacy into victory? The question, in the speculative stage for the next governor’s contest in 2014, has more urgency for November, 2012, if Congresswoman Michele Bachmann does not run again in the 6th District, Emmer’s home base.
Would he make another run? “Right now, radio is where I fit best,” he says. Still, “I will not say no, but you’re not gonna hear me say yes. If I’m ever the right person at the right place at the right time, I’d consider it.”