Once upon a time in Minnesota, there was a former governor who wanted his old job back. He had lived elsewhere and had been paid a handsome private-sector salary for years; his party had another candidate in mind; precinct caucuses were past and the calendar was edging toward spring — but none of that deterred him. He was sure he could convince the voters to take him back, and sure that he could make them glad they did.
And if you think I’m describing Tim Pawlenty in 2018, you must be too young to remember Rudy Perpich.
Dear millennial/Gen Z readers, be advised that Minnesota’s longest-serving governor did not serve a continuous 10-year stint. Rather, he was in office first for two years in the 1970s, then, after a four-year hiatus, for eight more years in the 1980s.
Perpich, who served six years as lieutenant governor, completed the second half of the term of the governor he appointed to the U.S. Senate in December 1976, Wendell Anderson. He lost to Republican Al Quie in 1978 and went to work for Control Data, which dispatched him to Vienna. When Quie opted not to seek a second term in 1982, Perpich began to think about running for governor again. The thought nagged at him for weeks until, in early April, he headed home to test the political waters.
This newspaper sent a reporter — me — to New York, where Perpich was staying for a few days before returning to Minnesota, to quiz him about his intentions. He said something during our long interview (published April 11, 1982) that Pawlenty’s recent water-testing brought to mind:
“Wendy Anderson said to me once, ‘If a former governor could ever make a comeback, wouldn’t he be a great governor?’ He’s right, I think,” Perpich said, citing the insights about Minnesota’s potential for a bigger role in the world economy that he had gained by representing a Minnesota high-tech company in Europe.
“Put that together with the experience I had when I was governor … I sometimes think it was meant to be this way.”
Minnesotans may soon see whether Pawlenty, too, thinks gubernatorial greatness would be his destiny if he could claim the office one more time. The 2002-2010 Republican governor has been behaving like a comeback wannabe since on Feb. 6 — Minnesota’s precinct caucus day, which probably was not a coincidence — he announced that he was walking away from his $2.7-million-per-year gig as CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, the Washington lobbying arm for the nation’s biggest banks.
No official candidacy declaration ensued last week. Pawlenty is still keeping ’em guessing. That allowed this amateur Minnesota historian time to engage in a favorite pastime — looking back, in the hope that doing so will make the view ahead clearer.
Perpich demonstrated in 1982 that any candidate for governor who already bears the title “Gov.” has an advantage, particularly in a primary. A former governor’s high name recognition combines with the party faithful’s rose-tinted nostalgia and the credibility that attaches to the office itself to make him a formidable contender.
But Perpich’s comeback was also propelled by a sense that his first stint as governor had been incomplete, and that he had more to give. In 1978, he had been more a casualty of the state’s two highly contentious U.S. Senate races than a politician defeated in his own right. Some voters wanted to give him a chance to finish the job.
Pawlenty won’t have that sentiment on his side. He served two full terms, a tenure that has become an unwritten standard in Minnesota politics since four-year gubernatorial terms began in the 1960s. Only Perpich served longer.
That longer tenure also provides a treasure trove of ammunition for Pawlenty’s opponents, both within his own party and the DFL. Pawlenty had to cope with the state consequences of two national recessions, which explains some — but by no means all — of the chronic fiscal difficulty for which his years are remembered at the Capitol. Already, the Democratic Governors Association has released a video, “Tim’s Mess,” reminding Minnesotans about the sorry condition of the state budget when he left office.
But I’ve long believed that what was most important to the second coming of the Iron Range governor in 1982 wasn’t his name recognition, prior record or the title “former Gov.” It was his message. State government had been wrong to behave as a victim of the 1981-82 recession, Perpich said as he returned. Instead, it should cast itself as a catalyst to spur economic revival. State government’s mission should be to do all it can to create “jobs, jobs, jobs” and make Minnesota a player in the dawning global economy. It was all about the future.
An e-mail arrived last week inviting me to hear Tim Pawlenty speak next month to a business audience about “The future of work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” He’ll talk about how to prepare Minnesota for artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles and other wonders of the dawning new-tech age, the invitation advised. It will be all about the future.
Maybe I’m not the only one who has been studying the playbook of the comeback governor of 1982.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.