Stateline Story

Minnesota Governor Lands National Spotlight

  • July 20, 2007
  • By Pamela Prah

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty personifies Minnesotans' reputation for being exceedingly polite. But beneath the mild manners lies a huge hockey fan hooked on hockeyfights.com , a Web site showcasing the bloodier side of the sport.

The two-term governor showed his more competitive side by delivering solid body checks to Democratic proposals to raise taxes in his state. His ferocity at blocking tax hikes is one reason some Republicans see this 46-year-old as a rising political star despite the wafer-thin margin of his re-election last fall.

The dual sides of Pawlenty will be on display on a national stage when he takes over as this year's chairman of the National Governors Association this weekend and prepares to host the Republican National Convention in the Twin Cities next summer. When he's not wearing either of those hats, Pawlenty will be stumping for Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom the governor endorsed early on.

His post at the NGA, which is holding its 99 th annual summer meeting in Traverse City, Mich., July 20-23, puts Pawlenty in a unique position to push governors' agenda on Capitol Hill and try to have NGA broker compromises on issues, such as immigration, that have stymied President Bush and Congress. "The country is tired of all the bickering. It's really more important than ever that we try to find some common ground," Pawlenty told Stateline.org in a telephone interview.

As the only organization that represents all 50 governors, NGA's wish list for the federal government has to be broad enough to appeal to the most conservative Republican and the most liberal Democrat. "That really puts a premium on working together, sandpapering off the sharp edges, in terms of the rhetoric and policy initiatives," Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty ticked off several of NGA's top congressional priorities, including renewing a popular health care program for children called the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP); ensuring states' National Guard units are properly equipped at home and while serving in Iraq and other overseas posts; and updating Bush's landmark No Child Left Behind education law.

"The federal government listens to us, in part, because they have to. We're partners in so many endeavors,"he said, such as Medicaid, the health care program for 59 million poor Americans financed by both federal and state governments.

Pawlenty also will handpick an initiative to highlight throughout the year.

The 2006 election was a close call for Pawlenty, who eked out a second term by only 21,000 votes over Democratic contender Mike Hatch. Still, insiders say that for Pawlenty to keep his job in a year when Democrats swept a majority of the nation's governorships and statehouses - in a state that hasn't voted Republican for president since 1972 - says a great deal about his appeal.

Supporters say that Pawlenty's ability to frame budget and other issues in ways that Minnesotans understand helped the governor prevail in last fall's election and in work with the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

The son of a truck driver and the first in his family to graduate from college, Pawlenty struck a populist theme when he famously said in his first year as governor the GOP needed to be "the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club."

"He's a very conservative governor, but he talks about politics in a way that reaches across the ideological spectrum," said Chris Tiedeman, a GOP activist who in 2002 had initially supported Pawlenty's Republican rival. "He's not afraid to talk about issues that Republicans shy away from," such as the environment and health care, according to Tiedeman, who recently launched a Party of Pawlenty blog.

Pawlenty also has an independent streak, for example, defying the Bush administration's objection to allowing Americans to import prescription drugs from Canada. Pawlenty's rebuttal to the White House argument that Canadian drugs could not be proven safe: "Show me the dead Canadians."

The governor is coming off a legislative session that by all accounts is a success for him and a bitter disappointment for Democrats, who won control of the state House in 2006, putting Democratic majorities in both chambers for the first time since Pawlenty became governor in 2002.

Democratic Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher described Pawlenty as a "good listener" who is "very respectful" of political adversaries. She also said Pawlenty was willing to bend, though not break his principles, pointing to the state's new renewable energy package as an example in which the governor compromised. "He signed a bill that probably was much stronger than what he initially envisioned."

But Pawlenty does have his critics. Senate Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl L. Clark (D) said that while Pawlenty is "likeable and affable," he also "digs his heels" in and refuses to compromise on certain issues, such as raising taxes. She also faulted him for being too distracted by the lure of a higher political office. "Even though he says he's not running, he clearly is."

Pawlenty knows how the levers of the Statehouse works, having served in the Minnesota House for 10 years, including four as majority leader. In the 2007 session, Pawlenty said he was able to thwart Democrats' proposal to raise income taxes on the state's wealthiest and to add a nickel a gallon to the gas tax because he stuck to a clear message: With a $2 billion budget surplus, there was no need to raise taxes. "It was difficult for the Democrats to convince the public that …. there was some urgent need to jack up taxes in an already highly-taxed state," Pawlenty said.

In his first term, the governor faced and eliminated a $4.5 billion budget deficit-the largest in state history -without increasing taxes. But the state suffered its first partial shutdown in 2005 under Pawlenty's watch over a budget impasse. While Pawlenty blocked other Democratic-proposed tax hikes, he agreed to bump up the state tax on a pack of cigarettes, a move that some considered a break of his no-tax pledge.

Besides resisting tax hikes, Pawlenty's conservative credentials include enacting a 24-hour waiting period before abortions, supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage and opposing in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

For all his talk of consensus-building, Pawlenty doesn't shy away from throwing political red meat to his core supporters. "I can tell you what your worst nightmare is," he said, accepting his party's endorsement for governor in 2006. "It's one of the big-spendin', tax-raisin', abortion-promotin', gay marriage-embracin', more welfare-without-accountability lovin', school reform-resistin', illegal immigration-supportin' Democrats for governor who think Hillary Clinton should be president of the United States," The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

For Michael Brodkorb, a Republican activist and blogger, the GOP needs to think about the post-Bush era and should put its sights on Pawlenty. "I think he's a rock star."