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Tom Horner talked to educators and others in south Minneapolis at the home of Fran and Jim Beers family friends of the Horners. Photo by Kyndell Harkness , Star Tribune

Candidate profile: Tom Horner's big leap

A first-time run for office is the latest move in a life of calculated risk-taking for Tom Horner.

Up on the seventh floor of the glass and marble tower that housed his public relations firm, a massive ski jump dominated Tom Horner's office view.

"What always amazed me," he says, "was thinking about how you do it the first time."

Now he's learning just how that feels.

Fresh off his 60th birthday in July, Horner is staging his first leap as a political candidate. His long-shot Independence Party bid to become Minnesota's governor marks his only run for elected office since losing a student council race in high school 43 years ago.

After decades of message shaping and image peddling behind the scenes as an influential public relations executive and Republican political adviser, Horner suddenly switched party allegiance and stepped to center stage.

But he's not simply flinging himself into midair. Everything in his life, from his hair to his rhetoric, is under control. While critics paint him as bland and boring, Horner's career has actually involved a series of calculated risks and then plenty of cocksure confidence, which some say can border on condescending arrogance.

Those same qualities that propel him forward also can lead to ungainly landings.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Horner eschewed his usual wrinkle-free sports jacket and tie, hitched up his blue jeans and wandered into the Meeker County Fairgrounds in Litchfield, where the roar of motorcycles dominated the sunny, pastoral scene. A rally was under way, with hundreds of bikers sporting forests of facial hair and drinking beer from cans in foam cozies. Horner awkwardly slipped on a black leather vest -- air-brushed with his new party's buffalo mascot on the back -- and introduced himself to guys sitting in lawn chairs and eating chili from crockpots.

Some wanted to talk about easing over-the-road trucking regulations. Others complained that Election Day shouldn't be on Tuesdays. Somewhat stiffly, Horner declined offers to taste the chili, shook hands, listened and grinned. He slipped off the leather vest the moment he returned to his campaign staffer's Saab.

"There's a lot about this campaign that's been out of the norm for me," Horner said. "I'm certainly open to new experiences, but would I typically be at a motorcycle rally in Litchfield? No."

Schmoozing bikers on the campaign trail might not come naturally for him, but Horner knows that if he's going to reach the governor's office, he needs to emerge from behind the curtain of the comfortable life he has built. So he sold his shares in his PR business. He shed the ease of his role as an Edina empty-nester with a storybook 30-year marriage, three grown kids and an Antler Lake house and pontoon boat in Wisconsin.

Republicans irked at Horner's defection say his nonexistent track record in public office and uninspiring demeanor make him unqualified to lead. Horner gets prickly at such talk, pointing out that he knows "what it's like to sign the front of a paycheck, not just the back."

Driven by a deep-rooted fondness for Minnesota and a tireless work ethic, Horner insists he has the temperament and the plan to clean up Minnesota's fiscal mess and veer around the political gridlock that holds Democrats and Republicans in its grip.

"We need to get past this divide of who's right and get back to arguing about what's right," Horner said. "I fear that the Minnesota I've enjoyed is eroding and won't be there for my three kids unless we can translate our passion for this state into good public policy."

Mr. In Between

On the campaign trail, Horner pitches himself as the middleman whose rivals, Republican Tom Emmer and DFLer Mark Dayton, are pushing their parties to the right and left extremes.

"I'm comfortable finding that common-sense centrist position," Horner said. That doesn't always mean a compromise; "it's about finding better and different ways," he added.

This isn't the first time Horner has staked out the middle ground.

In the 1960s, when the Vietnam War tore the nation, Horner's older brother Steve enlisted in the Army and shipped off to Nam. His younger brother Dick grew his hair down his back and registered as a conscientious objector. Tom sold white boots at the Kinney shoe store at Southdale Mall when he wasn't hitting the books at St. Thomas College in St. Paul.

"Tom was more of the preppy," said Dick, now a ski town planner in Vermont. "He never got into the long hair or the drug scene. He was a pretty straight shooter."

Born smack-dab in the middle of the 20th century -- July 23, 1950 -- Thomas Francis Horner was the fifth of six sons of Jack and Cel Horner. His father was an impeccably dressed, well-coiffed, deep-throated pioneer broadcaster. As Minnesota's first TV sportscaster in 1947, Jack Horner once drove Willie Mays home after a Minneapolis Millers game. His mother was a 100-pound dynamo who delivered 10-pound baby boys when she wasn't cranking out sandwiches at the Horner's Corner convenience store lunch counter.

They gave Tom Horner the kind of childhood most kids just dream about.

When the Twins moved here in 1961, the older Horner boys were either stocking shelves at the store or were too cool to hang out with Dad. Dick was too young to roam Metropolitan Stadium.

But Tom Horner was right in the middle and his timing was perfect -- a knack he's had all his life. At age 11, he was just old enough to tag along with his father to 50 games a year, tailing him from the press box to the lockers for postgame interviews. Jack Horner's job reading the evening sports kept him home every morning. Their south Minneapolis neighborhood in the Visitation parish near 43rd Street and Fremont Avenue S. was so Catholic that their six-boy family was small next to the families with a dozen kids down the block. When they weren't playing Wiffle ball games, Dad's frequent baritone shout --"Who wants to go swimming?" -- prompted many trips to nearby Lake Harriet.

An altar boy from age 10 to 14, Horner received an all-Catholic education, from Visitation to Benilde High School to St. Thomas. Last year, he led the search for the new leader of Catholic Charities.

"At the center of my ideal childhood," Horner recalled, "were lessons from my mom and dad about the importance of being involved in the community."

A pattern emerges

After college, a pattern emerged that would define the rest of Horner's life and pull him back to Minnesota again and again.

Calculated moves. Quick climbs. Controlled jumps.

In 1973, at 23, he moved from his childhood stomping ground to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, living four flights up in an old brownstone.

Kinney shoes had plucked him from the horde of kids selling shoes at Southdale, inviting him to work at the New York headquarters in marketing. He was earning $8,500 a year, not much even with a rent-controlled apartment.

He soon felt the tug of Minnesota and came home to emulate his father and try his hand in the media. He landed a job at the Sun suburban newspaper chain and, by the mid-1970s, rose to be a top editor.

Then Horner took another leap and landed in the deep powder of politics. He hasn't been able to shake it off his boots for three decades.

He was 27 when he joined Dave Durenberger's senatorial campaign staff as a communications staffer in 1978. It was a wildly busy time in Minnesota politics. Walter Mondale had left the U.S. Senate to be vice president. Wendell Anderson stepped down as governor and was appointed senator. Hubert Humphrey died in office, so both Senate seats were up for grabs in the next election.

Republican businessman Rudy Boschwitz was duking it out with Anderson. Durenberger, a little-known lawyer and former Gov. Harold LeVander aide, was tapped to take on DFLer Bob Short for the four-year Senate seat vacated by Muriel Humphrey.

An early poll showed Durenberger miles behind. Enter Horner, an earnest up-and-comer, collar buttoned down and every hair in place.

"Here comes this young man who was too perfect and had everything under control," recalled Lois West Duffy, a Durenberger campaign staffer who would become a life-long Horner friend. "I remember someone in the office saying she just wanted to grab him and mess up his hair."

Durenberger came out of nowhere and won, which meant a quick trip to Washington. As he and Horner headed over to the Dirksen Senate Office Building to check out their new office, a woman caught Horner's eye.

Libby Shelton had fielded constituent calls for the Humphreys. "I was dating someone else, but we were on the way out," Libby said. "I think Tom had a plan."

First, he asked Libby to join a group helping him move into an apartment. Then he asked her to help arrange his furniture. Then he solicited her advice on a rug purchase.

"For me, it was love at first sight," Horner said. "Libby took a little persuading before we could move her over." They were married in her parents' back yard in Ohio in a homespun ceremony.

As he did selling shoes and suburban newspapers, Horner climbed quickly to become Durenberger's chief of staff. But while some fall under the intoxicating spell of power in Washington, Horner bailed on the Beltway after helping Durenberger stave off a reelection challenge from a young Mark Dayton in 1982.

He returned again to Minnesota, this time as a public relations man and first-time father. By 1989, Horner had three kids younger than 6 and a fancy title at the Minnesota branch of a national PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, which has since shut its state office. Horner left before it closed, founding Himle Horner public relations with Republican legislator John Himle.

"I've always had a good deal of confidence in my ability," Horner said, "and felt that life would turn out each step of the way."

'Charismatically challenged'

Horner's detractors seize upon his lack of a track record in government, beyond his role as adviser and commentator. For years he has appeared on a political panel on Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" show.

"Sitting on the 'Almanac' couch doesn't qualify you to be governor," said Tony Sutton, state Republican Party chairman. "You need to inspire people and he's charismatically challenged and dull as a butter knife."

Horner offers no apologies for his low-flash style. He hopes voters consider Minnesota's problems grave enough that a wonkish demeanor resonates.

If elected, he would try to bring in new money with expansions of the sales tax and state-controlled gambling to invest in business innovation and early childhood education, among other things.

Sutton is unrelenting in his assessment: "Horner has never run for anything, so he hasn't been vetted. And his PR work is one of those soft businesses that don't really produce anything tangible that you can sink your teeth into."

Public relations is where Horner's recent professional life brushed up against the world of public affairs, offering glimpses of his influence.

In 20 years co-running his firm, Horner has stepped into an array of contentious issues and represented heavy hitters including Target, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, pharmaceutical companies, dog tracks, horse tracks and the Twins' and Vikings' taxpayer-subsidized stadium efforts.

When the new 35W bridge contract was awarded, it included more than a half-million dollars for Himle Horner to help bolster the Minnesota Department of Transportation's reputation. Some complained that the firm's political connections with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration greased the skids.

But Horner said all bids included "significant money" for communications and his firm "delivered exactly the service requested" to keep the project on a fast track with the necessary community involvement.

As his campaign ramped up, Horner unraveled his business ties with his clients, holding on to the hospitals the longest. When nurses walked out on a one-day strike, Horner was shaping hospital administrators' reactions.

He says he has now severed all formal business relations. But he has attracted criticism for refusing to divulge his client list for scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest.

It's another example of the tight control he likes to keep on all things Horner, seldom letting down his guard.

But sometimes life defies control. Earlier this decade, Libby's breast cancer was diagnosed. She battled back to good health, but the ordeal was profound for Horner. It's something he doesn't bring up on his own, but freely discusses when asked about it.

"For me to face the prospect of losing my life partner was incredibly emotional," he said. "It's the kind of experience that nobody should have to go through, but people that do come out with a positive outcome as we did emerge stronger."

When Horner needs to get away, he drives to western Wisconsin and the Antler Lake house on 2 1/2 acres he purchased near Milltown for $300,000 in 2002. That's where he was one recent Sunday, hoping to mentally recharge.

"We went out in the pontoon boat for a few hours to read," he said. "A neighbor came by on his pontoon, apologized for bothering us and gave me a campaign check. So even that day off was productive."

'Voice in the wilderness'

He is often up at 3 a.m., talking strategy with Libby. He logs marathon days zipping from debates to interviews to fundraisers to pig races. He barely has time to keep up with his beloved Twins on the radio.

He's spending hours cajoling potential donors on a smart phone chronically in need of recharging from ceaseless texting. On a one-day swing to Duluth, his schedule included meetings with leaders of business, mining, health care and transportation.

"This whole campaign has been like taking a master's level course in Minnesota," he said.

Durenberger says Horner's "enthusiasm for the business of governing is genuine. What I liked about him was that he wasn't asking, 'What do I do next, Boss?' He was constantly learning and asking what we were trying to accomplish."

Other big names from that bygone era of Minnesota Republican politics -- Wheelock Whitney, George Pillsbury, Arne Carlson -- have joined Durenberger on Horner's bandwagon. That's attracted enough money to get Horner's face and message on TV.

Yet the math remains daunting. Horner garnered 11,380 votes in the primary. He'll need 70 times that many to reach the 800,000 that he says could be enough to win a three-way race. His poll numbers have crept up to 18 percent.

"Early October is show-and-tell time and if he can get into the 20 percent range, then people will consider it a viable three-way race and won't worry about wasting their vote," Durenberger said. "Tom might not be the next Ross Perot, but he's not running against Bill Clinton or George Bush."

If his campaign stalls, as many third-party bids have, Horner jokes that he'll "take a long vacation with Libby." He's not worried about his future.

"My life has been a series of serendipity," he said. "So I'm confident something will turn up" that would enable him to remain engaged in public policy in Minnesota. But he's not conceding anything yet.

Horner insists he can lure both his moderate Republican pals and disaffected DFLers to win Nov. 2.

He's gotten encouragement along the campaign trail. After one of the countless three-way forums with Dayton and Emmer, this one in front of a business crowd of 250 in Duluth, burly bar owner Eddie Gleeson approached. He didn't like Horner's plan to jack up taxes on cigarettes and liquor.

"I primarily lean the Democratic way," Gleeson said later. "But I was thoroughly impressed by the thoughtfulness of Horner's approach. He's the voice in the wilderness who can get along with both sides so we can forge ahead."

When Gleeson offered to host a fundraiser at his Carmody Irish Pub on Superior Street, Horner's taut face loosened into a smile, like a first-time ski jumper landing smoothly.

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767

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