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Continued: Norm Coleman: Pragmatist - or opportunist?

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: October 13, 2008 - 11:28 AM

After 15 years as one of the state's highest-profile politicians, Norm Coleman still inspires conflicting views, even among his critics.

Which is the real Coleman -- a RINO (Republican in Name Only) who some conservatives believe is too quick to compromise with liberals? Or is he little more than a GOP lapdog, as his DFL opponent Al Franken contends, slavishly doing the bidding of big business and George W. Bush?

The record supports neither oversimplification. It shows that Coleman usually, but not always, votes the Republican line, yet is far from President Bush's leading cheerleader in the Senate.

Coleman supported the Bush tax cuts but voted against oil drilling in Alaska. He backed the president on reauthorizing the Patriot Act but opposed him in voting to increase child care funding. On the Bush plan to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Coleman was for it before he was against it.

The bottom line: Coleman is a dealmaker. Conviction politicians like Paul Wellstone may inspire the faithful, but Coleman believes that it's the pragmatists who make things happen.

"I get measured by what I get done," he says. "I didn't join the Senate to become part of a debating society."

Mayor of St. Paul

Coleman won statewide prominence as St. Paul's mayor from 1994 to 2002, when many credit him with infusing a dormant city with new energy. That's also when he began confounding his backers and critics alike.

Elected as a DFLer in 1993, Coleman embittered two loyal Democratic blocs by eliminating unfunded retirement health benefits for city workers and refusing to sign gay pride proclamations.

Yet after he switched parties in 1996 and became a Republican mayor, Coleman appointed a transgendered woman as his chief of staff, calling her the best person for the job.

And the mayor who froze property tax rates for eight years spent nearly a year trying in vain to sell St. Paul voters on a half-cent sales tax to build a ballpark for the Twins.

"Conservative principles restored this city," Coleman told the Republican National Convention last month at the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St. Paul. "We put a lid on taxes. ... We added 18,000 new jobs. ... And through a public-private partnership, we built this magnificent arena."

"He was masterful at how he approached it," said Sean Kershaw, the executive director of the Citizens League, who was a project manager for St. Paul's Planning Department in the 1990s. "He hired really smart department directors. He was not afraid to hire people smarter than him, not ideological."

Coleman's biggest coup was the Xcel arena, built to house the new hockey franchise he helped land. By general consensus the arena wouldn't have happened without Coleman.

Susan Kimberly, Coleman's chief of staff, said that he was "a pragmatic visionary who ... [had] the ability to cross over philosophies and attitudes that was just absolutely essential to accomplishing anything."

Some of those accomplishments appear less clear-cut than they once did. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates show that job growth in St. Paul during Coleman's time (7.1 percent) lagged behind that of Minneapolis (8.7 percent) and the metro area and the state (each more than 12 percent).

Some analysts say St. Paul's recent budget shortfalls can be traced back to Coleman's refusal to raise taxes in his final years in office, when times were good.

"A lot of what he did was smoke and mirrors," said DFLer Jay Benanav, perhaps Coleman's most outspoken critic on the St. Paul City Council.

Coleman said that amounts to "revisionist history."

"The reality is that the city was on its back, and it got back on its feet," he said.

Iraq and ANWR

The pattern didn't get any simpler after Coleman entered the Senate in 2003.

In his first year, he voted for the Bush agenda 98 percent of the time, making him the ninth-most loyal senator to the president, according to the nonpartisan Capitol Hill publication Congressional Quarterly.

But starting in 2004, according to the quarterly, Coleman's support for the president began to steadily decline.

Overall, during his years in the Senate, Coleman has supported Bush 83 percent of the time, placing him 42nd among 49 Republican senators -- more independent, according to Congressional Quarterly, than Republican presidential candidate John McCain, the self-described "original maverick."

Two issues illustrate Coleman's facility for circling a position -- the Iraq war and drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

On the war, Coleman has moved over the course of his term from strongly backing the administration to raising persistent questions about the Bush strategy for victory.

"This war is winnable," Coleman said on the Senate floor in 2004, while scolding Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a war critic, for arguments that Coleman said encouraged insurgents.

But in January 2007, he was back on the Senate floor to oppose Bush's surge strategy "as put[ting] more American troops at risk to address a problem that is not a military problem."

By the end of the year, Coleman was saying that military gains in Iraq convinced him that he had been wrong about the surge. Nonetheless, for the first time he urged a date-specific plan to draw down troops.

On ANWR, Coleman took environmentalists on a three-year roller-coaster ride. He had pledged to oppose drilling there in his 2002 campaign, and helped narrowly defeat Bush's plan to open ANWR to drilling shortly after taking office. But a couple of times he flirted with approving drilling, particularly as a bargaining chip for an Iron Range power plant, before coming back each time to fulfill his pledge.

Initiatives and investigations

In the Senate, Coleman has focused on agriculture, energy and veterans issues.

He had a hand in crafting this year's $300 billion farm bill, which passed after Congress (including Coleman) overrode Bush's veto. The bill set an income limit for receiving federal subsidies -- at $750,000, higher than some, including Bush, sought -- and included a better loan rate (essentially, a minimum price guarantee) for Red River Valley sugar beet producers.

Coleman co-authored the nation's first renewable fuels standard to promote ethanol, and backed expanded tax credits for ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy.

On veterans issues, the first Coleman-sponsored bill to be signed into law mandated federal coverage of travel expenses for troops going home on leave, and another law he authored required the government to make it easier for veterans to get the benefits they earned.

Coleman also helped secure $373 million in federal funding to rebuild the Interstate 35W bridge and has been a key supporter of federal support for the Northstar commuter rail project.

A current TV ad highlights one of his recent bragging points: the Conquer Childhood Cancer Act, signed by Bush last summer, which will fund cancer research and help families dealing with the disease.

Coleman won most of his headlines for chairing the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the Senate's investigative arm, from 2003 to 2007. Coleman says his probes uncovered $81 billion in waste and fraud, including back taxes owed by government contractors, fraudulent Medicare claims and unpaid payroll taxes.

His investigation into abuses in the United Nations' oil-for-food program, which led Coleman to call (without result) for the resignation of Secretary General Kofi Annan, drew international attention.

But according to Franken, it's not what Coleman did as subcommittee chair but what he didn't do that raises questions about his leadership and independence.

Franken charges that Coleman shirked his duty to investigate Iraq war profiteering by U.S. defense contractors. Franken said Coleman, because he had full subpoena powers, had the single best position in Congress to uncover waste and fraud in war contracts.

In a statement released by the Franken campaign, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a member of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, accused Coleman of "turning a blind eye to [defense contractor] Halliburton's transgressions in Iraq" to protect Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Halliburton executive.

Coleman denies that. He said that he supported the investigative efforts of the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction, established in 2004 with a $27 million budget.

He also pointed out that current Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., never initiated his own subcommittee investigation when he was the ranking minority member even though he had the power to do it, and has not done so since he became chairman.

Levin declined to answer questions for this story.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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