Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


‘Close calls’ have marked Pawlenty’s political life, but national ones haven’t gone his way

He won his first legislative race and both runs for governor with less than 50 percent of the vote, but he wasn’t so lucky nationally, falling short again in the vice presidential sweepstakes.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty at a Romney campaign stop in Rochester, N.H., earlier this year.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

For all of his outward cool, Tim Pawlenty has lived a political life filled with close calls and what would appear to be sharp turns to the right.

In his first legislative race in 1992, Pawlenty won with less than 50 percent of the vote. In 2002, he needed 12 ballots to win Republican Party endorsement over Brian Sullivan to become the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate. He won the governor’s race that year with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Then, in 2006, Pawlenty won re-election, again with less than 50 percent of the vote, this time defeating Mike Hatch by a percentage point.

Not so lucky nationally

On the national stage, the close calls have gone the other way.

Article continues after advertisement

Up to the moment that Sen. John McCain announced in 2008 that an unknown, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, would be his running mate, it had appeared that Pawlenty might be McCain’s choice.

Now, it’s happened again. Pawlenty, by all accounts, has been on the shortest of short lists and once more didn’t make the cut.

Will this be the end of his political career? Would he consider a position in a Romney administration?  Will he try to take on Sen. Al Franken in 2014?

But the more timely question at this point in Pawlenty’s career is this: Should he have been Romney’s choice?

Tom Hanson, who served as director of Management and Budget for Pawlenty and was at least at the edges of whatever sort of “kitchen cabinet” Pawlenty had while governor, can’t imagine a more “decent” or qualified person to be in high national office.

“I have no problem thinking about him as president,’’ Hanson said. “He’s a moral person, he’s intellectually curious and he’s smart. He’d be a great leader.”

Hanson and Greiling disagree

Not surprisingly, there are others who hold a vastly different view.

Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, entered the Legislature the same year (1992) that Pawlenty did.

She found him “charming, bright and moderate.”

Article continues after advertisement

Other than his schmoozing skill, which has been a constant, Greiling says that everything began to change about Pawlenty when he began his pursuit of the governor’s office. He kept moving farther and farther right.

“It’s shocking to me to imagine him as a national leader,” Greiling said. “He’s too much of a chameleon. I would like to believe that somebody who leads the country has some core principles. … It’s as if he’s manufactured purely out of ambition. Romney has the same rap.”

Back to Hanson, whose view of Pawlenty couldn’t be more different.

“The one thing that stands out to me is that he was the same guy when he left office as he was when he came into office,” Hanson said. “I’m talking about at a personal level. He was just a good guy, who treated the people around him with respect and didn’t take himself too seriously. You can’t say that about everybody [at the Capitol].”

These two views aren’t unique. Pawlenty is more difficult to judge than most pols. Many, including those who have covered him in the media, don’t really think he believes some of the things he says.

Dan McElroy, who served as a chief of staff for Pawlenty and, later, as commissioner of Economic Development, tries to settle the dispute on just who Pawlenty is.

“A conservative with a moderate communications style,” said McElroy of his old boss.

It is assumed by most that McElroy represents that old GOP — conservative, yet thoughtful (as opposed to hard line), even moderate on social issues.

“We agreed 98 percent of the time,” said McElroy of his relationship with Pawlenty.

Article continues after advertisement

Did you argue?

“If we did disagree, so what?” said McElroy. “He was the governor.”

Two Pawlenty ‘case studies’

Still, there are two fundamentally important issues in which Pawlenty seemed to follow the direction of his party, not his own conscience.

Case No. 1: In 1993, the Minnesota Legislature, with bipartisan support, passed a bill that gave gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered protection under the state’s human rights act.

It was a momentous vote, following passionate debates. The measure protected GLBT from discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodation.

Pawlenty voted for the bill.

It wasn’t until he started looking at higher office that his view seemed to change. In recent years, he’s gone so far as to see he “regrets” that vote more than any other.

When he moved to the national stage, as a candidate for president, he underscored the regret for that vote by saying that if he was the commander in chief, he would seek to return the military to the days of “don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding gays in the military. Even the generals no longer believe that’s a reasonable stance.

It’s hard to imagine that the affable, much-traveled Pawlenty really wants to turn back the clock on GLBT rights.

Article continues after advertisement

“I can’t believe he really thinks some of the things he says, either,” said Greiling, “Is he just trying to contort himself to fit what conservatives demand, or does he really believe it? On the other hand, on some of these issues, he’s been saying it for so long, it’s hard to believe he could moderate himself anymore.”

Neither Hanson nor McElroy have a response to Pawlenty’s shift on this issue, though Pawlenty himself at times has tried to soften the turn by suggesting that the bill went too far by including transsexuals and bisexuals.

Case No. 2: In 2007-08, Pawlenty served as chairman of the National Governors Association. This was a springboard to national recognition, and Pawlenty seemed to use it to show himself as a thoroughly modern Republican.

He was Mr. Green, urging the governors to fight greenhouse gases and support such measures as cap-and-trade legislation.

(It should be noted that Pawlenty was borrowing heavily from the playbook of former Minnesota state Sen. Ellen Anderson, who Gov. Mark Dayton named to head the Public Utilities Commission. But she failed to be ratified in 2012 by the GOP-controlled Senate. Anderson’s sin: She was too green.)

Tea Party influence

In 2007, it wasn’t so risky for Pawlenty to be so green, for this was before the dawning of Tea Party power. Green was still largely bipartisan.

But by 2011, when Pawlenty was running for president, everything had changed in the GOP. In the first debate among GOP presidential hopefuls in spring 2011, Pawlenty had done a complete reversal on his environmental positions.

“I’ve said I was wrong,’’ Pawlenty said in that debate. “It [support of cap and trade] was a mistake, and I’m sorry. … You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record.”

Throughout his own presidential campaign and, later, in his stumping for Romney, Pawlenty consistently has attacked the Environmental Protection Agency. Its regulations, he says, are holding back the economy.

Again, it’s hard to know which Pawlenty would be in Washington.

But McElroy says there was nothing phony about Pawlenty’s green-ness.

First, McElroy says, Pawlenty always was skeptical of man-made global climate change.  But he was influenced by Blaise Pascal, a 17th Century French philosopher known for “Pascal’s Gambit.”

Here’s the deal when it comes to God, according to Pascal:  If the Christian God and afterlife do not exist, agnostics have little to lose by still believing. If the agnostic chooses not to believe, there is much to lose – the afterlife – if there really is a Christian God.

Pawlenty’s thoughts about man-made climate change are much the same, McElroy said. If man-made climate change does not exist, there is little to be lost if a skeptic still tries to tackle the problem. But if climate change does exist, there is much to be lost if the problem is not addressed.

McElroy: Pawlenty put the state first

Much of the rest of his thinking on green issues was based around what would be good for Minnesota, McElroy said.

For example, he pushed for sustainable energy programs because Minnesota, lacking oil, has an abundance of wind and bio-mass.

Ironically, McElroy said, Pawlenty was hurt badly in his presidential bid in corn-growing Iowa because he supported government-backed ethanol programs as well as such things as light rail.

McElroy insists that what motivated Pawlenty as governor were the things that would benefit the Minnesota economic climate.

Take, as an example, that  infamous cigarette “fee” of 2005. At 75 cents a pack, it appeared to be a violation of the “no new taxes” pledge he had taken to help him win endorsement in 2002.

McElroy says there clearly were “political reasons” for calling the tax on cigarettes a fee. But in considering the political dynamics, McElroy said, it must be recalled the climate of the time. The governor was in a political budget showdown with a split Legislature.

Additionally, though, there were important benefits to the tax being a fee. Most importantly, McElroy said, was Minnesota’s tax rankings among states. By calling the tax a fee, those tax rankings weren’t hurt, which the Pawlenty administration thought was important in improving the state’s business climate.

That twisting, it should be noted, did not help Pawlenty with the far right in his own party.

Difficulty in figuring out the real Pawlenty isn’t just a game played by people such as Greiling.

Conservatives across the country also seemed to have a difficult time believing what Pawlenty was saying in his campaign.

Even among the current crop of Minnesota Republican legislators, Pawlenty seems to have little standing.  His name was seldom mentioned by members of the new majority, and his eight years as governor are seldom held up as an example of the direction Minnesota should head.

“These new Republicans are impossible to please,” said Greiling. “It’s almost impossible to be conservative enough.”

Pawlenty’s conservative appointments

Yet, with the exception of the “clunkers,” Pawlenty’s record was very conservative.

His early cabinet was filled with commissioners who were conservative to a fault.

 His first education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke, believed that creationism should be part of the science curriculum of Minnesota school kids. (She, ultimately, could not pass muster with the Minnesota Senate, which was controlled by DFLers.)

His first health commissioner, Dianne Mandernach, was so opposed to abortion that she posted a piece on the department’s website that claimed that their might be a correlation between abortion and breast cancer. (Mandernach finally had to leave her post when she withheld a study showing a link between cancer rates and mining.)

His first transportation commissioner, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, was applauded by the far right, but she had only political experience regarding transportation. (The collapse of the I-35W bridge led to her being replaced by a transportation professional.)

Pawlenty fought all tax increases — except for the “health impact fee” on cigarettes — as the state wrestled with huge deficits. He should be credited with slowing the rate of growth of government spending. But his so-called balanced budget, which was based on borrowing from K-12 education funds and other duct-tape fixes, left the state facing huge deficits after Pawlenty left office.

Hanson defends those fixes, noting that Pawlenty was dealing with DFL majorities in the House and Senate in his last year’s in office. The battles between Pawlenty and then-Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller were intense and, according to insiders, personal.

Those battles led to a government shutdown and a Supreme Court case regarding Pawlenty’s over-reach on the use of “unallotments.”

But again, Hanson said that conservatives — and all Minnesotans — should look at the results of the Pawlenty years.

Pawlenty years’ impact on recession

The recession, Hanson says, never hit Minnesota as hard as the rest of the nation because of Pawlenty’s leadership.

“By not increasing taxes, he helped the economy,” Hanson said. “It’s not as sexy as passing some program, but it was effective.”

In so many ways, Pawlenty has been just a Minnesota guy. He’s hunted deer and fished. He plays hockey (though Pogemiller loved pimping the governor’s puck skills by noting that he was “a very good junior varsity player.”)  He attended the sporting events of his daughters.

He is self-deprecating. (As a marathon runner, he talked of listening to Elvis Presley singing about that “hunka hunka burning love” on his earphones as he pushed himself through the final miles.) He also talks often of his humble roots, of how he is the son of a truck-driving father.  He’s never lost the common touch in terms of his ability to schmooze.

His decision to drop out of the presidential race so quickly was based on good-old Minnesota pragmatism, according to most of his friends.

After throwing everything into the Iowa straw poll, which he later admitted was a strategic mistake, he looked at the landscape and decided that moving ahead involved too much risk of going deep into campaign debt.

On the other hand, since leaving office there’s not been a board of directors he’s not willing to join — for a price.  He’s now a member of seven boards with companies from across the country and also serves as an adviser to another firm. Those positions, experts told the Star Tribune, likely pay directors anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 annually, meaning Pawlenty is hardly a “Sam’s Club Republican” anymore.

But that inner urge to attain higher office never has left him — an urge that seems to be shared by his wife, Mary, who most believe is his No. 1 adviser.

Despite the fact that both of the Pawlentys often joke about Mary urging her husband to run for governor clear back in 2002 “to get it out of his system,’’ she seems as driven as he is. She often shares the stage with her husband, and they often shared the stage with the Romneys during these months when Pawlenty seemed oh-so-close to becoming the 2012 vice presidential candidate.