For two decades, Tom Horner and his former public relations company have been active behind-the-scenes players in state government and have been intertwined with some of Minnesota's most prominent organizations.
Now Horner is making a bid for the most public of jobs, as the Independence Party candidate for governor. But he wants much of his past work to remain private, refusing to divulge most of his former clients.
He has been criticized by those who say his professional dealings should be vetted for potential conflicts of interest before voters decide whether they want him as their next governor. But while many of those details remain concealed, much about Horner's background in public affairs is visible and reveals much about his connections, loyalties and leanings.
As he tries to follow the same centrist political path that led Jesse Ventura into the governor's office, Horner has stressed a track record as a public relations executive that "promoted solutions for Minnesota's future" in areas as diverse as health care, transportation, agriculture and economic development. He also has touted his civic work on boards ranging from the Minnesota Land Trust to the Children's Theatre Company.
But Horner has been far less open about his longtime job at Himle Horner Inc., the public relations firm he left in June that still bears his name. Company chief executive John Himle, Horner's former partner, has in recent weeks gone a step further: Himle Horner will not comment on any of its contracts -- including those with public agencies -- because of confidentiality agreements, nor will it disclose which were primarily Horner's.
Contracts with state
Himle Horner has acknowledged some of its very public clients: The company has worked with the Minnesota Vikings to help the team get a new stadium. Horner is a strong backer of a new, taxpayer-supported stadium as part of his campaign. Horner also was paid to promote the new Minnesota Twins ballpark, a controversial project that taxpayers heavily subsidized.
State records show that Horner and his former company have been regular players in securing state contracts, from the $64,000 it got in 2001 to promote electronic tax filing for the state Revenue Department to the $18,500 it collected to write speeches for the chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007, which Horner helped edit. While many of the contracts do not name Horner specifically, some do. Horner was paid $5,300 to oversee a two-day retreat last year for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) board and $500 for a speech he gave to the state Pollution Control Agency in 2007.
Horner said the company's state contracts amounted to less than 10 percent of its total revenue over the past two decades. He added that running for governor -- which he said accelerated his departure from Himle Horner -- has personally cost him money.
Horner's presence can be found across a wide spectrum of issues in Minnesota. An official with the Minnesota Nurses Association, which had a heavily publicized one-day strike this summer, said Horner was part of a media strategy by hospitals to persuade nurses to quit the union. According to Joni Ketter, the union's director of field operations, nurses were given notices by the hospitals telling them that the union could discipline them for crossing a picket line but that they had "the right to resign from the union if you so choose." Some notices provided nurses with blank resignation letters for them to fill out, she said.
"We'd never seen anything like it before," said Ketter.
Horner said he was hired to provide "overall strategy" in communicating the hospitals' "external" message to the public but was aware of the "internal" effort to persuade nurses to leave the union. He said he was not part of that move. "I've always been respectful of adversaries..." he said, "including the nurses." Himle Horner also handled public relations for the Metropolitan Council during its 2004 labor negotiations with bus drivers, which resulted in a strike.
The company has done other high-profile work for public agencies. When the Minnesota Department of Transportation wanted to restore its image and publicize the new I-35W bridge after the old one collapsed in 2007, it turned to Himle Horner.
The $550,500 contract surprised some transportation advocates. Charles McCrossan, president of one unsuccessful bidder to build the bridge, said Himle Horner got tax money simply to trumpet the bridge's daily construction progress, which included many developments that were "no more tricky than having breakfast." Himle said the criticism was sour grapes from bidders on the project who perhaps lost out because they "got lazy."
Himle Horner got $2.25 million from two government agencies over a six-year period ending in 2005 to promote the Northstar commuter rail line. After complaints that Himle Horner was charging the two agencies for the same work, a 2006 review by the state auditor concluded that while Himle Horner was not performing the same work, its services were "similar for both entities." Horner said the criticism was based on "erroneous information," but one of the agencies later stopped using the company.
Horner says that he was not "particularly involved" in public contracts over the years, but he declined to provide details or describe his duties on those contracts.
Confidentiality comes first
At a recent candidate forum, Horner acknowledged that, unlike DFL opponent Mark Dayton and Republican rival Tom Emmer, he has never served in elective office and so has no political record to review.
Himle said there would be no Himle Horner record to review, either.
The company's confidentiality agreements -- and what Himle called "implied confidentiality" -- have to come first, he said, even if his old partner is running for governor.
"So what?" Himle said. "That doesn't give me the right to start discussing a [client], just because he's running for governor."
Horner, who supports MnSCU, said his work facilitating the two-day retreat last year for its board came about because of David Olson, who was then the board's chairman and is president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber, one of the most influential lobbying forces at the State Capitol, has employed Himle Horner to conduct an annual survey of businesses. Recently, the organization endorsed Emmer for governor.
Officials at the Citizen League, a prominent public policy group where Horner served until recently as a board member, said Horner's corporate clients never presented a conflict as the group studied policy issues. Horner, they said, simply informed them when there might be a problem.
"I've never seen him act in a way that implied he was taking a position because he had a business relationship with somebody," said Sean Kershaw, the group's executive director. "[But] we don't require him to tell us who his clients are."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673