Norwegians angry over U.S. envoy nominee

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2014 - 9:12 PM

Opposition to George Tsunis as U.S. ambassador grows in Congress, too.

– Clips from the Senate confirmation hearing for President Obama’s pick as ambassador to Norway remain in heavy rotation on Norwegian television.

But the cringe-worthy footage is more blooper reel than coronation.

Five months after businessman George Tsunis stumbled and flubbed his way through the hearing, including testifying that he’d never been to the Scandinavian country, Norwegians in Minnesota and the old country are still flabbergasted.

“He’s a laughingstock,” said Minneapolis businessman Ivar Sorensen, who’s in Norway visiting family.

“People I run into shake their head and say, ‘Where’d they come up with this one?’ ”

Obama nominated Tsunis, a lawyer, hotel magnate and major campaign fundraiser, for the diplomatic post nine months ago. The New York resident has raised more than $1 million in campaign cash for the president.

But Tsunis’ lack of knowledge about Norway and his public missteps soon turned many against his appointment — including Minnesota’s entire congressional delegation.

During his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tsunis referred to Norway’s prime minister as a “president,” could not identity potential trade opportunities between Norway and the U.S. and described the Progress Party, part of the country’s ruling coalition, as extremist “fringe element” that spews hatred.

One member of the Norwegian parliament was so offended by Tsunis’ testimony that he demanded an apology from Obama.

“[Tsunis’] incompetence was fully on display in his confirmation hearing, and his appointment would be a slap in the face to the Norwegian people who have consistently sent outstanding representation … to grow the relationship between Norway and the United States,” U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen said.

Paulsen, a Republican, and Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, teamed up to write a bipartisan letter to Obama, urging him to withdraw Tsunis’ nomination. With more than 850,000 Minnesotans claiming Norwegian ancestry, the state is home to the largest Norwegian-American population in the United States.

Senate Democrats, led by Minnesota Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, could sink Tsunis’ nomination, as more members of the president’s own party vow to vote against the stalled nomination.

Aides for Klobuchar and Franken said Obama is aware of their opposition to Tsunis, but pressing the president for federal aid for flood-ravaged Minnesota communities is a more urgent concern.

Unless Republicans rally behind him, Tsunis could already be short of the 51 votes needed for confirmation. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota also plan to vote against him. Among Republicans, North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven also opposes Tsunis, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona has vowed to block the vote if it comes to the Senate floor.

“We should not do anything that might unnecessarily damage our strong relationship with Norway, a relationship that I am committed to sustaining and strengthening in the years to come,” Franken wrote to Secretary of State John Kerrry this month.

Tsunis declined to comment when reached by phone.

Cash trumps competence?

Tsunis’ poor performance prompted an international outcry and became a rallying point for criticism of the longtime presidential practice of rewarding big campaign donors with ambassador appointments. The Senate committee still approved Tsunis’ nomination 12-6.

“He underscored for the entire world that he wasn’t qualified,” said St. Paul lawyer T. Michael Davis, a longtime member of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce-Minnesota who has spearheaded the campaign against Tsunis. “Political campaign contributions alone cannot be the determining factor of a nomination.”

Presidents often reward major campaign contributors with ambassadorial appointments. During his second term, Obama has nominated 23 such contributors for the diplomatic posts. According to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan investigative news organization, the 23 contributors had raised a total of $16.1 million for Obama since 2007.

Sam Kaplan, the Minnesota lawyer hosting a Democratic fundraiser Thursday featuring Obama, spent 3½ years as an ambassador in Morocco. Kaplan and his wife, Sylvia, raised between $100,000 and $200,000 for the Obama campaign in 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics.

Sons of Norway, an international membership organization founded in Minneapolis in the late 1800s, has not taken a stance on Tsunis’ nomination, but sons of Norway like Sorensen aren’t standing idly by.

“The U.S. deserves better representation in Norway,” said Sorensen, former president of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce-Minnesota. “This gentleman will not be received with any degree of respect.”

 

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell

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