WASHINGTON – Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been edging back toward Minnesota politics and a possible run for his old job, announced Tuesday that he would leave his current post as a top Washington lobbyist for Wall Street.
In stepping down as head of the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group that represents the interests of banks, credit card companies and lenders, Pawlenty sent his strongest signal yet that he's seriously considering a comeback bid. While Pawlenty did not respond to a Star Tribune interview request, he acknowledged in an interview on Fox Business Network what has been a subject of rampant speculation in Minnesota political circles in recent months.
"As has been publicly reported, I am exploring that as an option but certainly haven't made any decisions in that regard," Pawlenty said when asked if he was running for governor, a job he held from 2003 to 2011. He is scheduled to meet next week with a group of donors and supporters to discuss his options.
The last Republican to win a statewide race in Minnesota, in 2006, Pawlenty and his allies have been reaching out in recent months to donors, trying to gauge support for a possible third term. While there already are a half-dozen GOP candidates for governor, their fundraising so far has been anemic compared to a handful of the top DFL contenders. If he runs, Pawlenty would likely even the playing field in the money chase, and his candidacy would unquestionably reshuffle the Republican field.
"I hope he does get in," said Kurt Zellers, the former Republican speaker of the state House. "Minnesotans get him, they understand where he comes from … he's what Minnesota is looking for right now."
Buzz has been building among some Minnesota Republicans about a possible Pawlenty bid for months, Zellers said. Many saw pictures on Twitter last weekend of Pawlenty door-knocking with Denny McNamara, a former GOP state representative running for the state Senate in a southeast metro special election.
"The buzz has picked up," Zellers said.
The leading declared contenders in the GOP race for governor so far are Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former state GOP Chairman Keith Downey and Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens. Johnson, the party's nominee in 2014, led as the choice for Republican voters in a January Minnesota Poll of the governor's race, with 24 percent. Pawlenty was not included in the poll.
A spokesman said Pawlenty was not planning to return to Minnesota for Tuesday night's Republican precinct caucuses. Those meetings mark the official start to the 2018 campaign cycle; candidates will look to build support before the state convention in June, where GOP activists will endorse a candidate for governor.
Back in 2002, Pawlenty entered the GOP state convention as an underdog but managed to secure the party endorsement, launching him on a course to the governor's office.
If he enters the race this year, his high name recognition and fundraising potential would put him in position to bypass the state convention entirely and run in the August primary. But that would also risk an intraparty fight, with Pawlenty possibly alienating GOP activists who still value the party's endorsement.
While Pawlenty would bring some outsize assets, he'd also bring some large vulnerabilities. He hasn't been on a Minnesota ballot in more than a decade, and he never surpassed 50 percent of the vote in either of his victories. He was generally critical of President Donald Trump as a candidate in 2016, and his recent work lobbying for financial interests would give the DFL and its allies a ripe target for criticism.
"With speculation that Tim Pawlenty is going to run for governor, Minnesotans deserve to know what severance package or ongoing financial interests he has in the big banking industry," Joe Davis, executive director of the DFL-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota, said in a statement Tuesday. "After nearly half a decade lobbying on their behalf, big banks will undoubtedly want to send their top lobbyist off with a bang and assurances that he'll continue to keep their interests in mind."
After leaving office in early 2011, Pawlenty made a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. He was one of the first big-name candidates to drop out of the race, and he took the financial services lobbying job a few months later.
Pawlenty will officially step down in March. As of 2015, he was earning a $2.6 million salary as the group's CEO.
"Over the past five years, I have enjoyed leading FSR's efforts to improve cybersecurity, retirement savings, consumer-friendly financial service technology, and financial literacy," Pawlenty said in a statement.
In the statement, the FSR's chairman and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said, "Tim will be really missed, but we are thankful for his effective and collegial leadership on behalf of the financial services industry which helps finance America's economy and provide the financial infrastructure that every consumer uses every day."
Jennifer Brooks • 202-662-7452