Norm Coleman: A strong drive to succeed, a desire not to be defined

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2008 - 6:01 AM

From Brooklyn to St. Paul, from Woodstock to Washington: Few journeys in Minnesota politics have resembled Norm Coleman's.

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WASHINGTON -- Norm Coleman's hippie past survives in a grainy black-and-white photograph on the window sill of his Senate office: There he is, hair down to his shoulders, together with frizzy-haired radical lawyer William Kunstler, mobilizing anti-war demonstrators in the convulsive days after the 1970 Kent State shootings.

The picture, taken a quarter-century before Coleman's Republican conversion, stands in jarring contrast beside other memorabilia of his later political career, including trophy shots with President Bush, whom Coleman once described as "God's answer" to prayer.

What a long, strange trip it's been.

As Coleman enters the final weeks of a scalding reelection campaign, it is clear that few journeys in modern Minnesota politics have meandered as widely as his -- or so embittered the former companions who were left behind.

Yet in many ways, Coleman's evolution from Woodstock idealism to buttoned-down pragmatism is merely the quintessential story of the boomer generation, which has seen rebellious Beatles anthems become elevator music.

"As a '60s counterculture person, would I think I would become a Republican senator from Minnesota?" Coleman says. "No."

But then, at that point in his life, that long-haired activist at Hofstra University in New York "didn't get married, didn't go through the death of two kids, didn't pay a mortgage," he said. "There are life experiences that ultimately move you."

Coleman's political enemies have long dwelt on the transformation to argue that Coleman is "hollow" (Garrison Keillor's epithet), a man driven by naked ambition, changing convictions to suit changing times and circumstances.

"People who don't like him think he's a machine," said longtime Coleman critic John Mannillo, a St. Paul real estate broker who attended Hofstra at the same time as Coleman. "If you took off his shirt, you'd find a bunch of wires under there."

After two terms as St. Paul mayor, an unsuccessful governor's race and six years in the Senate, Coleman is still dogged by doubts about his core beliefs and true identity. In a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll last month, only 33 percent of Minnesotans said they see him as someone with a "core set of political principles," while 52 percent described him as someone who "tends to change his mind to try and gain political advantage."

Coleman knows that hard feelings from his 1996 party switch still linger: "It was almost heresy," he says. But while insisting that his principles have remained unchanged, Coleman, a self-described pragmatist, struggles to articulate a defining political philosophy, preferring to talk about putting problem-solving ahead of partisanship.

"I'm not ideologically driven," he says.

But something does drive Coleman, and always has since he played stickball on 22nd Street in Brooklyn: a place where a competitive, undersized "Doona" -- as his family called him -- toughed it out with the other Jewish, Italian and Irish kids on the block; a place where, he says, "if you didn't win, you didn't play."

Hard work and hard knocks

For Norman Bertram Coleman Jr., 59, the constants between past and present might be an abiding interest in public life and an overarching drive to succeed -- though not necessarily in personal financial terms.

Coleman maintains a more modest lifestyle than most of his cohorts in the virtual millionaires' club that is the U.S. Senate. He maintains the middle-class home he lived in as mayor of St. Paul, rents a $600-a-month room in Washington from friend and political supporter Jeff Larson and lists personal assets of $619,000 in an IRA rollover.

While Democrats have attacked his cheap Washington digs as a sweetheart deal, to Coleman it's a Spartan existence dictated by the financial burden of putting two kids through college.

Growing up in a large Jewish family in New York, he inherited the political leanings of his grandfather, Sidney Behrman, sometimes described as a Democratic ward heeler in Brooklyn. He also saw the collapse of his father's electronics business, forcing the family back into his grandparents' house.

"He got knocked down really hard and came back with humility, working with his hands, becoming a carpenter," Coleman said.

The slender, angular Coleman acknowledges an "eerie" physical resemblance to his grandfather -- the Tammany Hall lawyer -- but it's his late father and namesake who was the biggest influence in his life.

"He was the hardest-working guy I ever knew," Coleman recalls. "He was a business guy, we had a lot of money, and all of a sudden he's bankrupt, and now we're moving in with my grandmother and we've got to worry about bill collectors."

The father Coleman remembers is the gritty guy who lied about his age to enlist in the Army in World War II, retrieved a partner's severed finger from the sawdust of a job site and worked construction well into his 70s.

The same sort of persistence drove the younger Coleman's political career, according to his wife.

"He never had anything handed to him," said Coleman's wife, Laurie. "He worked for everything he ever had. ... A lot of his dad's work ethic transferred to Norm."

Coleman's wife has been ensnared in his detractors' portrait of artificiality and raw ambition, sometimes portrayed privately as an aspiring California actress in a pro-forma marriage to the senator.

But Laurie Coleman says she gave up her part-time California residence long ago and says she has spent much of her recent life readying their two children for college and tending to other largely domestic pursuits, including making the family's regular Sunday night dinners. "I don't know how much more typical I could be," she said.

Radical when it was mainstream

Among those who know Coleman best, there's a surprising consensus that he has never been far out of the mainstream. In 1969, turning 20, he and his best friend, Billy Ellis, hitched a ride to the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York, joining hundreds of thousands of other young people in what turned into the iconic happening of the era.

"Back in the '60s, when we were at Hofstra, it was the popular thing to do to be far to the left," Mannillo said, "to be leading a strike against the administration, to try to close the school down. ..."

Coleman was a leader in student government as the Vietnam War and resulting student protests were polarizing the nation. Tensions roiling college campuses across America boiled over when four students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. Coleman, suspended once in a campus building takeover, was threatening to shut Hofstra down.

But then, pressed by administrators and students eager to complete their classes -- including Mannillo -- he negotiated a deal that averted a campus shutdown.

If the episode left some student radicals feeling sold out, it cemented Coleman's credentials as a leader, somebody with whom school administrators could do business, even if he wore his hair long, spoke through a bullhorn and fraternized with the rock band Ten Years After.

"Norm was extremely receptive," said Leon Martel, a political science professor who stayed up all night negotiating with Coleman on behalf of the school administration. "He listened. He knew where he stood. But he listened."

Coleman often cites the episode as an example of his compromising spirit, the realism that would ultimately make him an effective establishment player.

Toughening and softening

Coleman was personally spared a trip to Vietnam by a high draft number: 154. He graduated and decided to become a lawyer. The connections he'd made as a student-protester-turned-negotiator served him well. Hofstra Vice President William Shanhouse, who had joined the administration of New York City Mayor John Lindsay, offered him a job in the city's Welfare Department. At night, Coleman attended Brooklyn Law School.

When Shanhouse moved to the University of Iowa, he brought Coleman along on a full scholarship, a trajectory that propelled the young lawyer to the Twin Cities. He was recruited by Minnesota Attorney General Warren Spannaus, a DFL power player, who put Coleman to work in his civil rights division.

In a bid to gain more trial experience, Coleman switched to the criminal division. Seeing the social cost of the 1980s crack epidemic brought him to a new way of seeing the world.

"You realize not everybody's a political prisoner. There are bad people" who must be kept off the street, he said.

This was around the same time that Coleman decided to cut his still "longish" hair. The '60s, he felt, were over.

Coleman was still a Democrat but an increasingly conservative one. Part of it was the influence of his wife's family, Democrats who were against abortion and who strayed from the party during the Reagan years. Then two of the Colemans' four children, Adam and Grace, died in infancy from a rare genetic disorder.

"We didn't know why... what happened," Coleman recalls. "The first time [Adam], it was the worst moment of my life. It's your first child, and the world just collapses around you."

When the same disorder afflicted their fourth child, Grace, Norm and Laurie Coleman were a little better prepared. "It was both the most painful experience, but also, and this may sound strange, a beautiful experience."

They took Grace home and had four months with her. "There was a tremendous amount of love and joy in the moments we had," he said.

The experience would become the touchstone of Coleman's stance against abortion.

Twenty years after

Come 1990, after an unsuccessful run for mayor, Coleman didn't need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing in the DFL. That year, Paul Wellstone, a passionately liberal college professor who infused the rank-and-file with new energy, won an improbable Senate victory.

Looking around on the stage at one Wellstone rally, Coleman said he was reminded of Woodstock ... 20 years after.

By then Coleman was casting himself as a centrist Democrat courting the business community in a new bid for mayor. He would dismiss the DFL's left wing as a "political fringe," and then be met by boos at the 1993 St. Paul party convention.

He got a better reception from St. Paul voters and was elected mayor.

The next time he ran for mayor, in 1997, it was as a Republican. "He didn't try to fake anybody out," said his old grade school buddy Phil Corwin, now a financial services lobbyist in Washington. "He didn't wait until after the election to switch."

Nevertheless, Democrats cried foul, suggesting that Coleman's defection was part of a calculated effort to run for governor. Run he did, unsuccessfully, in 1998.

But Coleman wasn't always comfortable in the socially conservative culture of his newly adopted GOP, either. He had, by then, lost one of his six sisters to AIDS, an illness she had contracted from her husband.

After losing the gubernatorial bid, Coleman shocked much of the party base by appointing another ex-Democrat, Susan Kimberly, as the first transgender deputy mayor in America. They had been neighbors in St. Paul, and Coleman considered Kimberly "brilliant" -- an ally who could help him tame City Hall.

"I don't think that got him six GLBT [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender] votes," said Kimberly, who now works at the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce. "But he got a lot of flak from his new Republican supporters."

Coleman's narrow election to the Senate in 2002, following Wellstone's death just 11 days before the vote, hardened many liberal critics' animosity, setting the stage for this year's bruising battle.

If fueling suspicion from varied quarters has been a Coleman habit since his days leading student rebellions and cutting deals with administrators, his challenge now is to convince voters that the pattern proves he is a pragmatic reformer, still valuing solutions above ideology and not the chameleon-like hollow man his detractors portray.

Kimberly, who worked briefly in Coleman's Senate office, points to the Iraq war debate as the best measure of his independence. An ardent supporter of the invasion, Coleman later came to say mistakes were made in the post-invasion reconstruction. He voiced concerns about the troop surge as well, though he voted to support it. Then he expressed frustration with the pace of political reconciliation.

In congressional briefings last year, he pressed Gen. David Petraeus for a timeline spelling out a phased disengagement from combat -- what he called a "light at the end of the tunnel." All the while, he continued to oppose efforts by Democrats to cut off funding for the war or set a firm troop withdrawal date.

Anti-war critics see the zig-zags as an election-year gambit to distance himself from Bush and finesse his support for the war.

But where others see opportunism, Kimberly sees a pragmatic search for a way out of Iraq. "This must be what he believes in, because politically it doesn't make any sense. He's offending everybody."

Corwin, who protested the Vietnam War along with Coleman, puts it this way: "He doesn't see things in black and white."

For his part, Coleman sees consistency in taking on the powers that be, whether they're city hall union bosses or the U.N. bureaucrats whom he investigated for doing business with Saddam Hussein.

"I'm still fighting battles against failed establishments," Coleman says.

"The things that drove me 40 years ago still drive me today."

Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753

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