by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Highbrows may dismiss the suburbs as pleasantly drab, but the political schooling of closed stockyards in South St. Paul and leafy cul-de-sacs in Eagan have served one politician well.
And nearly produced a vice presidential candidate.
Speculation was rampant in the past few days that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would select former governor Tim Pawlenty as his running mate, but Romney tapped Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his choice.
For all of Pawlenty’s strengths, the national punditry long ago pinned the label of charisma-challenged on the former Eagan City Council member and state representative from the area, and even Pawlenty supporters do not grow lyrical in describing the strengths of the two-term governor.
“He’s not a man who’s larger than life,” said Rep. Jim Abeler. R-Anoka, shortly after Pawlenty declared his short-lived presidential candidacy on a baking rooftop in Des Moines, Iowa, last summer.
Pawlenty perhaps would not mind being seen as the Maytag repair man among politicians – knowledgeable, competent, right tool in hand, explained Abeler, who served with Pawlenty in the House.
Pundits suggested one of the strongest assets Pawlenty would have brought to the ticket would have been his finite stage presence – an assurance that he will not outshine Romney.
That diagnosis seems unfair to longtime Pawlenty watchers.
It was Pawlenty, after all, who put an Iron Range lawmaker into a headlock and once thought nothing of donning a sweat-stained cowboy hat and taking Dobbin for spin on a sweltering day when greeting a travelling horseman.
As House majority leader, Pawlenty could be funny and joking on the floor, and he and former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, an unabashed admirer, would sometimes act out skits at press conferences.
“He’s got a good sense of humor,” Minnesota Business Partnership Executive Director and former Pawlenty Chief of Staff Charlie Weaver said last summer.
But Pawlenty, 51, consciously knocked off the funny business.
When leaving the governorship, Pawlenty explained that with the Internet and armies of bloggers, jokes can be seized and twisted into something unpleasant.
“I miss those days, because I’d rather continue like that,” Pawlenty said.
Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore.
Professor Heather LaMarre of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication said last summer that the general public knew little about Pawlenty, and because of that, the charge that he is boring could stick.
“(And) it’s very difficult to overcome a first impression,” she said.
Reconciling his image
Bill Hillsman, of Northwoods Advertising, a firm that has produced iconic campaign ads for Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura, said Pawlenty’s son-of-a-truck-driver, blue-collar image seemed unconvincing — a son of a truck driver would never have meekly stood down from running for the U.S. Senate because the Bush White House placed a call, he argued last summer.
“I think the real problem for Pawlenty is there’s not a lot there,” Hillsman said.
Critics have found Pawlenty’s explanation of his conservative roots, considering his upbringing in Democratic-leaning South St. Paul and the union ties among his siblings, a little puzzling.
In his campaign book, “Courage to Stand,” Pawlenty expresses a certain mystification.
“Why I became a conservative so early on is anyone’s guess, but my steadfast views were on display immediately through the course of those kitchen-table debates with my dad or others,” Pawlenty wrote.
His tenure as governor was historic, Pawlenty insists.
“I am the first true fiscally conservative governor in that regard the state has had, in the modern history of the state,” said Pawlenty shortly before leaving office.
So deeply ingrained is the idea among Democrats and the pundits that it’s normal to raise taxes, they can’t understand him, Pawlenty argued.
“ ‘He must have an ill motive or mental defect, because he just won’t raise taxes or act like a Democrat,’ ” a testy Pawlenty depicted them pondering. “I would say to you respectfully, it’s a bunch of crap.”
In his book, Pawlenty chronicles the harsh impact the closure of the once thriving stockyards of South St. Paul had on his family and city, the early loss of his mother to cancer, the joys of playing hockey, and of family.
One former House Republican, Kathy Tingelstad, a South St. Paul native, remembers young Tim Pawlenty working in Applebaum’s, a local grocery store, stacking fruit and vegetables.
After the campaign
Although Pawlenty issued a statement after the Iowa Straw poll last summer he intended to continue his presidential campaign, the next morning he dropped out.
Pawlenty has expressed regret over the decision.
One tie Pawlenty had to the Romney campaign, other than his active support that has him traveling the country as a Romney surrogate, is the friendship his wife, Mary, Pawlenty has reportedly struck with Romney’s wife, Ann Romney.
National media have reported that Mary Pawlenty, a former judge, and Ann Romney are genuinely fond of one another.
The Pawlentys met as law school students at the University of Minnesota.
“What I sensed right away was that I was very interested in her,” Pawlenty said of his first impressions of Mary. “I thought she was beautiful, intelligent, strong, interesting, caring, and somebody I was attracted to.”
The Pawlentys married in 1987 and have two daughters, Anna and Mara.
In his book, Tim Pawlenty speaks of his wife, an evangelical Christian, as helping him understand the ongoing, dynamic relevance of Scripture to life.
While raised a Catholic, Pawlenty was drawn to Mary Pawlenty’s religious views and church, Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie.
Whatever the personal blessings Pawlenty’s faith has brought him, his evangelical credentials could have been seen as politically useful to Romney – a means of pacifying the uneasiness some evangelicals may feel in voting for a Mormon.
Can he deliver?
Pawlenty’s tenure as governor wasn’t without its scars, which include a state government shutdown, whopping budget deficits, chaffing No New Tax Pledge, friendly and unfriendly state Supreme Court rulings.
Pawlenty never broke the 50 percent threshold in his gubernatorial elections – 44 percent in 2002, about 47 percent in 2006 – and political watchers in Minnesota consider it highly improbable the man from Eagan could have delivered the state for Romney.
Sviggum, who has spent decades in state government, said Pawlenty possesses one of the sharpest minds for policy that he’s ever encountered.
Former Republican U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, whose 1982 re-election campaign college student Pawlenty worked on, recalls Pawlenty as someone who enjoyed figuring out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
Minnesota Democrats characterize the Pawlenty legacy as one of budgeting gimmicks, property tax hikes and robotic adherence to ideology.
Weaver sees things differently.
“In a nutshell, I’d say he reinstated fiscal sanity,” Weaver said last summer. “That’s a very big deal.”