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The Cipher

Thanks to John McCain, the Governor of Minnesota is the man of the moment, a new political brand. Yet even as the rest of the country gets acquainted with Tim Pawlenty, the people he's worked with for years are still struggling to understand who he is—and what, exactly, he believes.

The Cipher
Photo by Mike McGregor

(page 3 of 4)


The Governor’s Residence

January 2003

For a new governor, a departing politician like Jesse Ventura is the greatest warm-up act in the world. Ventura sullied a perfectly reasonable policy record with money-grubbing stunts, like his announcing stint in the XFL. His paranoia spiked when he accused the media of slandering his 22-year-old son with claims that the boy liked to throw a party—granted, at the governor’s residence.

Compared to that pay-per-view event, the Pawlenty who takes office in 2003 is a relief, promising what Warren Harding once called “a return to normalcy.” No one needs to babysit Pawlenty—that’s one thing. He carries cash in his pocket to pay for Taco John’s on the road. He can speak for a half hour off four bullet points. Commissioners and deputies quickly come to realize that Pawlenty knows his brief—and he knows your brief.

In those days, he sometimes likes to go unstaffed. Former communications director Daniel Wolter recalls Pawlenty proposing to solo a national governor’s conference and leave his security at home. (The governor remembers the discussion differently.)

Some of it is thrift. Pawlenty takes office to a $4.5-billion deficit (created, in no small part, by the tax cuts he helped script as House majority leader). And the no-tax-hike pledge that he signed in June 2002 to help win the Republican endorsement? That doesn’t help fill the budget gap. A vast canyon is what it really is. Looking back, some observers will say that Brian Sullivan—Pawlenty’s hard-right Republican primary opponent—has lost the endorsement but won the war.

One such observer is Sullivan himself. “Part of what campaigns are for is to set the agenda,” Sullivan says in a phone interview. “And I think that my agenda became the governor’s agenda that first term.”

Doing more with less: That’s Pawlenty’s creed now. Resources are finite. Taxes are already stifling growth. Government needs to do its job better, smarter. And yes, leaner.

Yet for all the knife-work he’ll have to do—slices to schools, giant chops to health care and local aid—Pawlenty wears the burden lightly. Being governor is fun and he acts like it. After a visit from the state champion Anoka High School hockey team, Pawlenty busts out his stick and practices penalty shots against the reception-room fireplace in the formal office. Weaver guards the net. After a few tries, the governor finally gets some lift on the puck—and nearly unmans Weaver in the act. Nutting your chief of staff? Now that’s a joke that never stops giving, something to brighten up a car ride to Zumbrota.

For the outnumbered and outmaneuvered DFL, he’s a moving target. Pawlenty logs 1,000 miles of state travel in his first 100 days. Tom Hanson, then a director of legislative and cabinet affairs, can’t recall another governor visiting his hometown of Mahnomen (pop. 1,200) on the White Earth Reservation, ever. Pawlenty stops there twice.

He has trouble showing up on time. Sometimes a novice, overwhelmed staff is to blame, recalls Wolter. Other times, former spokesperson Leslie Kupchella says, Pawlenty will spot a bowling alley on the side of the road and pull everyone over to X a few frames. He’s a good bet to break a hundred; 150 takes some luck.

On the way to a conference in 2003, Pawlenty stops to greet an airfield worker rolling down Aitkin’s primitive grass strip. “The governor looked at the four-wheeler,” Weaver recalls, “and said, ‘Can I take that for a spin?’ And the next thing you know it’s like RWWWAAAHH! He’s tearing down the runway and the security guys are left in the dust.”

Wherever he goes, there he is. This may be the Pawlenty that friends like best.

The State Capitol


The House majority leader’s chamber is a place where anger goes to sleep. Republican legislators stomp in to Pawlenty’s office and they slam the door. Brenda Elmer, a Pawlenty assistant with an adjoining office, hears the shouting, then hears it abate. What she doesn’t hear is Pawlenty’s voice: Even in the most volcanic meetings, it doesn’t rise.

It’s 1998, and on the House floor, Pawlenty is the smartest conservative counterpuncher in memory. He razzes and puns, devotes a speech to the finer sentiments of Sonny and Cher. But when the time comes to coax rural moderates and suburban wingers into holding hands, Pawlenty subsumes himself in the task. He’s empathetic, imperturbable. “His people skills were just phenomenal,” Elmer says today.

Pawlenty’s unflappability can be almost inhuman. Hanson, then a senior House staffer, remembers Pawlenty coming out of a Republican conference at an east St. Paul Ramada Inn to discover his car missing from the parking lot. Gone. Stolen.

Soon to be crashed.

Pawlenty’s response, according to Hanson? “It was kind of, ‘This happened, we have to resolve the situation.’”

He’s creative and flexible enough to tame the Cerberus known as tripartisanship. In 1999, anticipating a $4 billion surplus, the Republicans climb on the same side of the seesaw as Ventura, leaving the Democrats in the air to argue for more spending. In 2002, Pawlenty and DFLer John Hottinger tag team Ventura, all but daring him to veto their budget agreement. In between, all three parties agree to flip property taxes upside down. They cut more than a billion dollars from the biennial budget—and make a mess out of school funding for years to come.

Though Pawlenty is a regular quote in the capitol news, the wins go to the Republican caucus. “I never got the sense that he was planning his strategy when he was in the House, taking votes so he could be governor,” says Weaver, who represented Anoka, Champlin, and Coon Rapids in the House for 10 years. “In some people you can tell from the first time they run for office they want to get somewhere. Everything is a stepping stone to the next office. But the governor, I don’t sense that. I don’t think most people did.”

Pawlenty may be able to conceal his ambition, but he doesn’t try to mask his competitiveness. As the coach of his daughter’s soccer team, Pawlenty will instruct the girls to taunt the opposing team’s leader. That’s the rumor that gets back to then-House speaker Steve Sviggum. Running alongside the players, Sviggum says, Pawlenty “coach[es] the girls to chant, like the army chants, Oh I don’t know but I’ve been told/Mr. Johnson’s very old.”

Sviggum gets a taste of the same treatment on his regular runs with Pawlenty. No one would mistake the future governor for a fluid, elegant runner. Pawlenty’s a loper. But he’s also 10 years younger and faster than Sviggum—a fact that Pawlenty doesn’t let Sviggum forget.

At the end of their runs, Pawlenty will often challenge Sviggum to sprint the last 450 yards or race him up the capitol steps. A Rocky moment for the two Republicans. But the outcome is never in doubt. Pawlenty always wins.

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