We've endeavored to give you a deep look at the candidates

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2010 - 8:26 AM

Sunday profiles of Dayton, Horner, Emmer go far beyond typical coverage.

In the modern media world, filled with nonstop TV and radio attack ads, political candidates can sometimes come across as cut-out stick figures, their lives and personalities boiled down to one unflattering sound bite. He'll raise your taxes! He'll cut health care! He has no experience in politics! Your world will come to an end if candidate X is elected!

Indeed, the staunchly divided world of hard-core right-wing politics, hard-core left-wing politics and ceaseless angry rhetoric leaves me a little bemused, even though I've been covering or following politics and campaigns for more than 30 years. My own political world tends to be more gray than black-and-white. But if there's one thing all voters should be able to agree on, it's that these are difficult times to govern regardless of which political party you support. With the state facing a multibillion dollar deficit and with unemployment stubbornly high, it's a critical year to be electing a new governor for Minnesota.

That's one of the reasons we have invested so much effort in trying to help readers and voters understand their choices and get to know the individuals behind each campaign. For three consecutive Sundays, we are opening up space in the paper for in-depth profiles of the three major gubernatorial candidates. Last Sunday, journalists Curt Brown and Kyndell Harkness profiled Independence Party candidate Tom Horner. This Sunday, Baird Helgeson and Rich Tsong-Taatarii are profiling Republican candidate Tom Emmer, and next week Rachel Stassen-Berger and Liz Flores will bring you a deep look at the life of DFL candidate Mark Dayton.

The reporters' and photographers' goals are to punch through the caricature that is often drawn in the heat of a campaign and to tell you more about these men as human beings, because we believe that voters elect governors as much for their character and how they have lived their lives as for what issues they have chosen to campaign on. Each Sunday story is followed by another story exploring the political or business record of the candidate, written by a different reporter.

To do this well, the journalists have spent weeks getting to know their assigned candidates, traveling with them on the campaign trail and visiting with them behind the scenes at their homes. For example, Baird Helgeson, who wrote today's profile on Tom Emmer, estimated that he spent three solid weeks either on the campaign trail or interviewing Emmer's friends, colleagues and family members, to get a better sense of him as a person. Likewise, Curt Brown, who profiled Horner, joined the candidate on a predawn bus trip to Rochester, a daylong trip to Duluth, a family dinner in Edina one Friday night and a motorcycle rally in Duluth. In the end, each of the journalists came away with a richer understanding of the men behind the candidates.

Helgeson said he discovered that Emmer is a much more sensitive person than sometimes comes across in public. "When people read the profile, whether they like him or don't like him, it will challenge their assumptions," he said. "They will have a more nuanced, complex understanding of who he is."

He also found out something he was sure nobody knew -- that Emmer has a tattoo on his backside, to honor a beloved sister who died of cancer.

Stassen-Berger found her assignment to profile Dayton particularly challenging because she wanted to learn something new about a man who has been in the public light his entire life. Through her weeks of reporting, she said, she found him to be deeply reflective of the life he has lived. At the same time, she was surprised to find that he is really funny. "He is often making jokes and relaxing in a way that doesn't come across on the stump."

This reporting effort has also involved a sacrifice on the part of the candidates, who have given us access not just to their campaign headquarters, but to their homes and families. I want to thank Horner, Emmer and Dayton for their generosity of time and trust in allowing us to bring these stories to you. The decision to run for public office generally means that you give up a certain amount of privacy, and that's also a public service.

We know that some readers have intense distrust of journalists and their intentions. For that reason, we have been meticulous to make sure that we spend equal time and equal space on each of the three candidates for governor. Each story is the same length, with the same treatment of photographs on the front page and the inside sections. They are at times tough on the candidates, and at times soft, capturing the truth that all candidates have weaknesses and strengths.

In writing these profiles, our intent is not to influence the election in any way but to provide a service to voters so that they know who they are voting for, in the fullest sense, when they fill out their ballots on Nov. 2.

After these profiles have appeared in print, they will live on our revamped political page until Election Day, at www.startribune.com/politics, where you can also read about other statewide candidates and pull up a personal ballot for your consideration.

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