A trial lawyer by trade, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer encountered one tough jury Wednesday: a packed room of servers who feared that he wants to cut their wages.

An hour later, he walked out after a bag of 2,000 pennies was dumped inches from his face by a man exclaiming, "I have a tip for you too, Emmer!" as cascading pennies bounced in every direction and the crowd at a Roseville restaurant erupted into chaos.

It had been a tense and rowdy standoff at the town hall meeting. Emmer called the session in an attempt to face his critics and bring to a close the political fallout that has dogged his campaign since he said over a week ago that he supported a so-called "tip credit," in which hospitality workers who earn tips are paid below the minimum wage. To bolster his case, he said the owner of the Eagle Street Grille in St. Paul had told him they had servers making more than $100,000 a year. The owner later said he never said that to Emmer.

When the news media reported Emmer's comment, his campaign said he never suggested lowering the minimum wage for servers. But he also doesn't support raising the minimum wage, the position supported by his Democratic challengers.

On Wednesday he told the crowd: "I don't want to see your wages go down. Let's not talk any longer about what the media has reported as 'Emmer said he wants to cut your wage.' No, I don't. I said it again, I want to raise your wage."

But even friends said the charismatic candidate did not thrive in front of the testy and sometimes raucous overflow crowd of 200 at Ol' Mexico restaurant. The event often mirrored the tone of recent town hall meetings over health care -- except this time, a Republican was taking heated questions from an angry crowd.

"The problem with this is that I think Tom, despite his best intentions -- and we're friends with him -- has made him an issue when it doesn't need to be," said conservative blogger and St. Paul attorney John Gilmore, an Emmer supporter who was at the event.

Cheers and groans

Emmer spent the better part of the hour largely blaming the media for stoking anger of thousands of servers statewide.

When asked Wednesday to define "tip credit," Emmer declined to do so, offering no more details on his wage proposals.

"I came here to listen," he said.

Many of the servers, already reeling from the tough economy and fearful of a wage cut, didn't like Emmer's refusal to get specific.

"He's not telling the truth and he's backpedaling and we don't buy it," said Connie Gott-McCoy, a server from Woodbury.

"I didn't know of him before this," she said. "I know him now. And I don't like him."

To lighten the mood, moderator Sarah Janecek, a longtime GOP activist, regularly reminded attendees about the drink and appetizer specials, and urged everyone to tip generously.

Emmer got the most applause from supporters when he talked about creating an environment in which servers and restaurant owners could thrive. He said he would never support cutting wages in this economy. On Tuesday, as criticism mounted, he had proposed ending taxation on hospitality tips up to $20,000.

"Help them to understand, that money belongs to you -- it doesn't belong to the government," said Emmer, drawing cheers and applause from supporters.

Emmer got the crowd riled again when he talked about his concern over the minimum wage.

"I believe the minimum wage frustrates people's ability to make more than the minimum wage," he said, drawing groans. "If you excel, you should make more than the minimum. If you are not the best, you should make less and work your way up."

Several times, Emmer had to shush the crowd and confront people who spoke out of turn.

"I am absolutely horrified by the statements I have seen you make," said Ann Potter, 30, a server in downtown Minneapolis. "We work so hard. Most of us don't have any health insurance or benefits or any financial cushion."

When she finished, Emmer laughed: "I am going to mark her down as undecided."

The big drop

Then the pennies flew.

They were dropped in front of Emmer by Nick Espinosa of Minneapolis, who sometimes goes by the name Robert Erickson. He shouted that he did it partly because of Emmer's support of Arizona's controversial immigration bill.

A stunned Emmer looked flustered as Espinosa, who has disrupted at least one other conservative event, rushed out a side entrance.

The microphone went dead and minutes later organizers announced the meeting was over, more than 30 minutes before its scheduled conclusion.

With no microphone, Emmer tried to yell out his closing statement, but it was mostly lost as people shouted and clapped. The town hall meeting ended with Emmer exiting through the kitchen as children scrambled to collect the pennies.

baird.helgeson@startribune.com eric.roper@startribune.com