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The Contenders

GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, center, chatted with U.S. Rep. John Kline of the Second District at a fundraiser in Lakeville. Photo by Richard Tsong-Taatarii , Star Tribune

Passion, focus helped Emmer make his mark

Rep. Emmer seldom passed bills, but GOP colleagues valued his insights.

When Tom Emmer barreled into the State Capitol in 2005, he quickly revealed a zeal for passionate debate and conservative causes.

His most ardent supporters say that even in a complex bill, he can zero in on the key message and argue it with force and clarity.

But even in his caucus, some cringe at a few of the topics he has chosen: chemical castration for pedophiles, allowing pharmacists to reject prescriptions on moral grounds, exemptions for state gun manufacturers from federal regulations banning silencers.

He seldom passed major -- or even minor -- legislation, but he developed a reputation as a leader who didn't shy away from a fight or water down his arguments in the search for consensus.

"People can interpret my success or lack of success, my effectiveness or lack of effectiveness, any way they want," Emmer said of his time in office. "That's their perception. The six years I had in the Legislature were very productive from the standpoint of trying to promote what we're actually campaigning on right now: smaller, more efficient government ... and trying to create an environment that starts to grow jobs."

Emmer rose quickly within the ranks of the House and by his second term, when Republicans lost the majority, was tapped for a powerful deputy post over more seasoned legislators. Outgunned by DFLers, Republicans often were left to wage battles for conservative bills they knew would be quashed by the majority party. Time and again, Emmer proved an eager colonel, soldiering on to the House floor to give impassioned speeches that solidified his role among many as a crusading leader.

But Emmer's all-or-nothing conservative purity sometimes made him an outcast among more moderate members who tried to build consensus to get things done. Many of his bills died in committee, and he acknowledges that he relished going up against the opposition more than slogging through bill introductions.

"I enjoyed the public debate," Emmer said.

Emmer has made redesign and streamlining of government a major campaign theme, but in his time on the House committee that hears such bills, he authored few such proposals.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who also served on that committee, couldn't recall him offering any major bills to streamline government.

"Tom would usually speak to the principles of doing that," said Kiffmeyer, who supports Emmer's gubernatorial bid. "It was definitely a theme of Tom's in a variety of committees, but I wouldn't say that anybody got to the point of actually going so far as that," she said.

Emmer later pointed to a bill he authored in 2005 to tighten eligibility rules for MinnesotaCare, a subsidized health care program for the poor, as an example of cutting government waste.

Although the bill never got out of the health policy and finance committee, some elements of it were eventually grafted onto a larger bill that became law.

'His job was to counterattack'

Former Rep. Neil Peterson, a Republican from Bloomington who is supporting Independence Party candidate Tom Horner for governor, served with Emmer from 2005 until 2009. He said Emmer had a softer approach in his freshman term, but that changed when the DFL took over in 2007.

"He had a field day," Peterson recalled. "He would take on everything. He would offer a bill; it would never get a hearing, just sit there.

"With him it was a game," Peterson said. "He's a hockey defenseman and his job was to counterattack. That's how he sees his role."

Emmer's allies see him differently.

"He's not afraid to address any subject," said state Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder. "He's a good guy. He's very forthright, and he never lets anybody get a piece of him on the House floor. People are intimidated by his forthrightness; they chalk it up to temper."

Rep. Paul Kohls, R-Victoria, a close Emmer ally, said Emmer had a knack for reviving failed Republican measures as amendments to other bills. Although the amendments too, typically failed, Kohls defended the strategy as "a critical part of the process ... to make sure the alternative view is heard."

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said he has been impressed by Emmer's attention to bills. "He reads every bill, which I didn't think was possible," Urdahl said.

But Urdahl also has occasionally recommended that his fiery colleague "tone it down a bit."

"It's important to show passion, and Tom does it quite well," Urdahl said. "When he's done, nobody questions where he stands.

"We do chat when we disagree," Urdahl said. "Tom, he listens. I listen to him."

Labor and Industry Commissioner Steve Sviggum, who was House speaker during Emmer's freshman year, said that Emmer's lack of major legislation isn't surprising.

"The six years he served ... wouldn't lead as easily to carrying great legislation as to maybe a philosophy or policy that you're trying to push or move or speak to on the floor," Sviggum said.

On one of his most controversial measures, Emmer managed to gain bipartisan support.

A 2005 bill of his calling for surgical or chemical castration for certain pedophiles stalled in committee, but Emmer recast it as an amendment to a larger crime bill and led a seven-hour debate on the House floor.

"I apologize if it's sensitive to some folks," Emmer said during the debate. "But the issue is, how do we help these people help themselves?"

The amendment passed the GOP-led House on a bipartisan vote, but was later rejected by the DFL-led Senate.

Emmer served one year as deputy to Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, but then left the post. "It was apparent to me that it was a better fit for me to be outside that small leadership group," Emmer said.

Kohls and Sviggum said Emmer left the job in part because of differences with Seifert. Emmer later challenged Seifert for the role of minority leader but lost by a narrow margin. He did beat out Seifert earlier this year when the two ran for party endorsement for governor.

Seifert declined to comment for this story.

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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