The People's Wonk
Will Peter Hutchinson’s run for governor be the last hurrah for the Independence Party? Can a self-styled wonk deliver Minnesota politics from the purgatory of partisan gridlock? And what’s the deal with the canoe, anyway?
(page 1 of 3)
For a driver who’s prone to both irritation and bad analogy, the last leg of a September 10 trip to the Independence Party’s state convention presents fortuitous opportunities. Party volunteers have helpfully mailed out a big post-card invitation that contains the schedule of events, the list of speakers, and the driving directions to the meeting at Minnesota State University–Mankato. Problem: the directions lead you to the crest of a small hill on Fairfield Avenue, which ends abruptly at a grassy vacant lot. Worse, once you figure out how to get to campus, you discover that the convention hall is not where you’ve been led to expect it will be.
For the centrist Independence Party (IP), a Jesse Ventura legacy that hasn’t won a major election since former Republican Sheila Kiscaden of Rochester won a Minnesota Senate seat under its aegis in 2002, this is not the best time to be giving bad directions to traveling reporters. The urge to draw sardonic parallels may be too much to resist. One could theorize, for instance, that the bad map is emblematic of a party that doesn’t know where it is or where it’s going. A party without a compass. Or, as this driver fumed upon reaching that dead end, a party that couldn’t find its posterior with two hands and a guide rope.
The analogies are cute, but they could be wrong. The IP is undeniably underfunded and disorganized, but it doesn’t lack for enthusiasm, even if its state convention attracts a crowd no bigger than what you might find at a suburban GOP district caucus. The IP has high hopes for 2006—hopes that, paradoxically, rest almost entirely in the hands of their big-league rivals, the Democrats and Republicans. IP devotees believe that, just as in 1998, the dominant parties are blowing it—that, thanks to partisan sniping, political inaction, and general ineptitude, the GOP and DFL are providing the merry moderates with yet another fighting chance for long-shot success via the election that matters most in Minnesota: the race for governor.
“I’ve always said that the success of the Independence Party hinges to a great degree on the degree to which the other parties disappoint and disgust us,” says Tim Penny, the former Democratic congressman from Waseca who ran for governor as an IP candidate in 2002, garnering just 16 percent of the vote in the three-way race that ended with the election of Tim Pawlenty. Right now, Penny suggests, people are plenty disgusted.
Maybe that’s why, at the meeting hall in Mankato, there is a palpable electricity in the air when the keynote speaker delivers his punch line. “My name is Peter Hutchinson,” he brays in his distinctive tenor, “and I intend to go out and run for governor—because I think we ought to have one.”
Picking up the Cudgel
Flash back several months. It’s 9 a.m. on Thursday, June 30. The local news is buzzing with speculation that a special legislative session may be headed toward collapse. Though the session’s been running for a month now, the Republicans and Democrats in power haven’t reached consensus on the state’s biennial budget, and midnight tonight is the final deadline. Some say it’s all been an exercise in party positioning, that a budget surely will be passed. After all, failure would result in the second do-nothing legislative session in a row—and in a state-government shutdown.
Peter Hutchinson, 56, is an affable, even sunny man of medium height and slender build, who this day sports a neatly trimmed, graying beard (though, being an astute politician, he will soon ditch the whiskers). Sitting for an interview at a Starbucks just off I-35W in Bloomington, he says he’s convinced the optimists are wrong. The governor and the legislators, he declares flatly, “won’t get done by midnight.”
As if on cue, Representative Ann Lenczewski (D-Bloomington) bursts through the door. Her brow is knitted; she appears tired, a little frazzled, possibly a bit angry. If she recognizes Hutchinson as she strides past, she doesn’t show it. “They’re obviously not going to pass any laws today,” Hutchinson quips as he watches Lenczewski rush to the coffee counter.
How did he know the stalemate wasn’t just political posturing? “It was, for a little while,” he says. “But now they’re stuck. They can’t make it happen. They’re arguing about where they’re going to meet and who can be in the room, everything except what matters. Take her,” he says, jabbing a thumb backward to indicate Lenczewski, who has already exited with her java. “She doesn’t want this to happen, but she can’t keep it from happening. The thing is out of her control. All of the people who are supposed to be averting this train wreck….” He pauses, gathering his thoughts. “Ask yourself,” he finally says. “It’s happening anyway. Why is that?”
To answer that question is to explain why Hutchinson—former state finance commissioner, former Minneapolis school superintendent, and a high priest of policy wonkishness—is snipping his DFL lifeline and running for governor under the IP banner. Many around him note that it is an immutable decision; as Tim Penny found before him, there is no turning back.
“The truth is,” Hutchinson says, “if I thought the system was going to come around, if I thought someone in one of these parties was going to pick up the cudgel, I wouldn’t be doing this. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
“The idea of running a well-funded campaign with an organization behind you sounds appealing,” he adds. “But if you do that, you’ve got to not think for yourself, you’ve got to not advance ideas that are considered irreverent. But you’ve got to be irreverent. You’ve got to be able to push at the status quo. The parties want to maintain their world. I just think they’re wrong.”
All right, so who is this guy?
A lot of people are going to be asking that question in the coming months. Beyond the worlds of public-policy shapers and opinion writers, Hutchinson is a virtual unknown—though his campaign’s head of policy development, Curtis Johnson, insists that’s actually an advantage in a climate of anti-incumbent revolt. Perhaps, but if you’re going to get elected governor, voters need to know who you are—or at least think they know.
His curriculum vitae is impressive. Former city planner, Trenton, New Jersey. Former Minneapolis deputy mayor under Al Hofstede. Former vice president of public affairs, Dayton Hudson Corporation. Former state finance commissioner under Rudy Perpich. Former Minneapolis schools superintendent. Author. And for the time being, former government reform consultant; the company he cofounded in 1990, Public Strategies Group, will do without his services, at least until after the 2006 election. “It’s been a very non-traditional career,” he says, smiling.
But a strong resumé alone can’t make you governor—particularly when you don’t front one of the two major parties. “I think most people who follow public policy and public life in general in Minnesota would say that Peter Hutchinson gets the Good Housekeeping Seal,” says Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor and an expert in third-party politics. “He’s a thoughtful guy, well-meaning. He’s taken on some good causes. [But] I think this guy is facing enormous, multiple hurdles.”
Hutchinson was born December 17, 1949, in Faribault. His father worked as an aeronautical engineer, a career choice that forced an itinerant life on the family, which moved from Minnesota to California to New Mexico to Rochester, New York, where young Peter graduated from high school. His mother was an active member of the League of Women Voters, his father a Rockefeller Republican; both were Minnesota natives. Peter was the second of three sons; he also has a younger sister.
Even after moving away, the family never lost touch with its Minnesota roots. Hutchinson vividly recalls traveling back to Faribault each summer for outdoor lunches at his grandparents’ cabin on Roberts Lake. Most of his extended family members were farmers, laborers, or teachers; several had taken part in the Minnesota labor wars of the 1930s, which paved the way for an earlier third-party governor, Floyd B. Olson. The gatherings always meant a clash of conservative versus liberal ideals—but the tone was never bitter or hostile, Hutchinson says. He remembers the family debates as great fun.
“You sat around the table, and you’d better be ready, because you were going to talk politics and you were going to argue,” he says. “They were passionate about what they believed, but they were equally passionate that you be passionate about what you believed. You didn’t have to believe what they believed. But you had to be committed.”
Even as a boy, he says, he was welcome to join in. “What I realized,” he says, “is that you go in and you argue, and if you get to the end of that argument and realize you were wrong, say so. If the argument doesn’t take you to the finish line, then you know it doesn’t work.” Such debates shaped Hutchinson into a curious political hybrid—part mainline New York conservative, part left-wing Minnesota Farmer-Laborite.
Politics, however, was not his original career ambition. As a young man, Hutchinson wanted to follow in the footsteps of his science-oriented father by becoming a doctor. That all changed when, to satisfy a social science requirement at Dartmouth College, he took a Government 101 class. It was a revelation. “I liked this,” he recalls. “So I called home. To my dad’s everlasting credit, he said, ‘If this is what gets you excited, this is what you ought to do. Just remember to do your best.’ And that was it. From then on I was into government, city planning, urban studies, all the way through grad school. And ever since, I’ve never looked back.”
Not that he never had to look over his shoulder. In 1972, while he was working in New Jersey as a county field office manager in George McGovern’s presidential campaign, a newspaper published the infamous Nixon enemies list. To his astonishment, Hutchinson says, he was on it. (A Google Internet search does not verify Hutchinson’s claim, though the Nixon list was known to be ever-changing, and it included as many as 600 names at one point.)
Hutchinson says he has never discovered what got him on Nixon’s radar. “Being on that list was the most frightening thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “It still scares me—to think that your government distrusted you that profoundly…. It meant I was [seen as] an enemy of my own country. That couldn’t be true! What was I doing? I was participating in politics.”