Residents across state can decide as the governor's point man on the economy takes his show on the road.
GRANITE FALLS, MINN. - Dan McElroy seems to be walking one high tightrope these days.
As Gov. Tim Pawlenty's point man on jobs and economic development, he touts the benefits of federal stimulus funds buoying Minnesota's economy while working for a governor who preaches the ills of that same money.
His admirers rank him one of the brightest minds at the State Capitol, while critics see him as an in-over-his-head partisan who, in the pointed words of the Senate's majority leader, has a "proven record of incompetence."
A familiar figure in the Pawlenty administration -- he's also served as Pawlenty's chief of staff and finance commissioner -- McElroy is struggling to put the state back on the road to full employment. Since he's taken over, in states from coast to coast, the economic collapse has wiped out jobs created since the last recession. The last jobs program he proposed was met with derision by DFL legislative leaders.
Now McElroy is stumping across the state on a 10-city road show titled "Advancing Economic Prosperity" that this week takes him to Grand Rapids, Roseville and Bemidji. At the first stop, in Granite Falls, his aides confessed to the assembled crowd that they had not seen the recession coming.
Nevertheless, McElroy said he believes Minnesota's economy shows signs of bouncing back, but acknowledged that during his tenure, unemployment has on six occasions run higher than the national average -- something that hadn't happened for more than 30 years.
Wearing a "Positively Minnesota" lapel pin and a smile, McElroy told the crowd at the Granite Falls community college that he's a "short-term pragmatist and a long-term optimist."
These are delicate times for McElroy, a wonky cheerleader. At a stop in Winona, reporters quoted him as saying that while the recession had hurt, it was a good time to start a business. In Granite Falls, he found himself trying to explain the complex interplay of global factors shaping the state's economy while consoling the guy in the audience who was looking for ways to keep the city's youth from abandoning their 3,000-person hometown.
To boost the crowd's spirits in Granite Falls, McElroy and his staff showed slide after slide of how federal stimulus money was helping the state, with dislocated workers alone getting $20.9 million statewide. Pawlenty has repeatedly disparaged the stimulus money, calling it "out-of-control" federal spending that will pull the state and nation down a California-style fiscal wormhole.
Later, McElroy's office issued a written explanation of the balancing act he faces given Pawlenty's outspoken stance. "Commissioner McElroy understands the macro-concerns with the federal stimulus money, but thinks we are putting the money to good use and that it is helping people who really need it in this economy," a spokesperson wrote. Those wanting to hear the governor's position, she said, should call the governor.
Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said McElroy has shown "he's just not up to this job." At the end of the last legislative session, DFL leaders talked openly of ousting him as commissioner of Employment and Economic Development.
"We've got one of the worst economic development strategies in the country," Pogemiller said.
McElroy has displayed an "inability to understand where we're at," he said, as evidenced by upbeat press releases McElroy put out when it was "clear the economy was tanking,"
Dave Smiglewski, Granite Falls' mayor and publisher of its weekly newspaper, said that "I'm not sure anybody should be expected to wave a magic wand." However, he said, it was difficult to separate McElroy the person from McElroy as commissioner for a governor who ordered cuts in state aid and hospital funding for this small city. "I just don't know how much Dan really knows about what life is like in greater Minnesota," Smiglewski said.
McElroy has been stung by the criticism, but attributes it to "human nature," adding that "I think we [are] doing a pretty good job with playing the hand dealt to us."
There were signs that McElroy had arrived in Granite Falls at a good time and, for him, a good place. On the day he spoke the stock market soared past 9,000 points -- the first time it had been that high since January.
The relatively-strong farm economy in southwest Minnesota is also believed to have shielded Granite Falls and surrounding areas from the worst of the recession. Unemployment in Yellow Medicine County, which includes part of the city, is just 6.7 percent. At the city limit, a sign welcoming visitors informs them that Granite Falls participates in JOBZ, Pawlenty's marquee job creation program for rural Minnesota.
"It often takes a rural area a long time to feel anything good -- or bad," said Diane Graber, provost at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, where McElroy spoke. "People in this area feel Commissioner McElroy is very smart."
Rep. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, who works part-time driving a milk truck and a school bus, said of McElroy and company: "The truth of the matter is, with the limited resources they have, they're doing a good job. Is he responsible [for] this recession? ... You can never say one person, one department" is to blame.
Others walked away from McElroy's Granite Falls appearance with a different opinion. "He tries to put a positive spin on things," said Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls. "[People are] hungry for some positive news in the midst of all of this ... just because you put a positive spin on something doesn't necessarily change the end result."
If any one person is to blame for where Minnesota's economy stands, said Kubly, it is more likely the person "sitting in the governor's office."
Ron Arneson, a 30-year teacher at the community college where McElroy spoke, said that evidence of hard times is easy to find. "I just talked to a student [who] said he was looking for some part-time work," Arneson said. "He said it was tough to find any kind of employment."
Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, said McElroy may be a scapegoat for politicians who are more upset with Pawlenty. "I'm a big fan," Michel said of McElroy. "Frankly, I think he's one of the all-stars of the Pawlenty administration."
McElroy said that for all the criticism, he still has the support of the man at the top -- Pawlenty: "He basically said, 'Mac, I think you're doing a good job and you work for me. Keep doing what you're doing.' "
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673