Analysis: The last of Pawlenty? Unlikely

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2009 - 11:46 AM

Admirers and critics agree the likable governor always seems like a man on a perpetual political journey.

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty, shown after introducing Sen. John McCain at a presidential campaign stop in Warren, Mich., in January 2008. Pawlenty’s close friendship with the Republican presidential nominee brought him serious consideration as a running mate.

Photo: Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

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Tim Pawlenty claimed Tuesday to have no plans after his governorship beyond cutting the lawn and watching his daughters play sports.

But few believe the political journey is over for this 48-year-old son of South St. Paul, whose up-by-the-bootstraps narrative has potential to beguile a national Republican Party searching for a winning direction.

The governor is described by admirers and critics alike as a man on a perpetual journey across the state and national political landscape.

Less inspiring than he is uncannily approachable, Pawlenty affects many people the way he affected friend and presidential candidate John McCain, who seriously considered Pawlenty as a running mate last year. They just plain like him. Majorities of Minnesotans have signaled that sentiment in poll after poll.

After veering close to the vice presidential nomination last year, Pawlenty is now on many lists of prospects for the main job next time around.

It is unclear whether his new lame-duck status will be more liberating or limiting in Pawlenty's final 19 months as governor. In six-plus years in the job, he often has been a man of bold and timely ideas but has enacted relatively few. Still, he has managed the considerable task of holding the line on state taxes despite repeated budget pinches.

Politically, he's one tough customer: toppling the GOP establishment's chosen candidate in 2002 and beating back a fierce challenge in 2006 in defiance of a nationwide Democratic tide.

Yet Pawlenty didn't win a statewide majority of votes in either of his gubernatorial runs.

Can-do sense

The youngest of five children of a truck driver and stay-at-home mom, Pawlenty says he remembers little political discussion around the dining room table, but recalls that his family harbored a "labor Democrat" or "Reagan Democrat" outlook.

"I think his upbringing taught him that if you work hard you can accomplish anything you want," said public affairs consultant Greg Johnson, who worked closely with Pawlenty as his aide de camp for three years during his campaign and first years in office. "But it also taught him that people shouldn't expect to be entitled to things."

Pawlenty has coined a memorable moniker for the political faction he believes embodies such values -- "Sam's Club Republicans," as distinct from the country club variety. Some believe they have seen vestiges of Pawlenty's working stiff origins in his occasional collisions with the oil and pharmaceutical industries (which he has faulted, though not lately, for high prices) and other big business interests. "We need new ideas," he said of the Republican Party on Tuesday, not for the first time.

Yet Pawlenty's consistent stand against tax hikes is a position dear to the GOP base. Republican Rep. Mary Liz Holberg of Lakeville, who has served in the Legislature since 1998, said Pawlenty has shown innate skills at politics and acknowledges it is almost a given that his ambitions for national office might emerge. His legacy, she says, will be of having fundamentally changed the mind-set of Minnesota away from its high-tax, big-government persona, she said.

"I think he's one of the best, and I think the Democrats would say that, too," she said. "One of the characteristics they talk about is him being Teflon, that nothing sticks. In bad situations he seems to muddle his way through and come out looking pretty good."

Democratic critics argue that what ought to stick to Pawlenty is responsibility for higher local property taxes and diminished public services.

When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis two years ago, after Pawlenty had vetoed two transportation bills, the potential was clear for political fallout from the obvious symbolism. But his post-collapse approval ratings soared every time his anguished but calming face appeared on CNN.

'Boy Scout with a switchblade'

Behind closed doors, those who know Pawlenty describe him as a hands-on administrator and a bit controlling. Well into his second term, for instance, he still is known to approve nearly every press release that comes out of his office. Several people who used to work in the office who spoke on the condition that their names not be used said Pawlenty also remains keenly aware of what is said about him, dissecting news stories and potentially critical comments.

Detractors surprised by the tough political and lawmaking tactics of this seeming genial figure have sometimes cast him as a "Boy Scout with a switchblade in his pocket."

Pawlenty has sometimes faced criticism in conservative circles, notably after he approved a 75-cent-a-pack tobacco fee increase in 2005, backtracked to support commuter and light rail, and turned around to support a Twins stadium subsidized through a sales tax increase.

But even those who have found fault do not doubt his skills. David Strom, a senior policy fellow for the conservative Minnesota Free Market Institute, has been openly critical of Pawlenty's departure from some conservative principles.

But Strom calls Pawlenty "astonishingly astute as a politician."

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

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