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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 4 of 4)


Spring 1984

Plan A is to become a dentist. An organic chemistry course at the University of Minnesota relegates Pawlenty to Plan B.

Which is how Pawlenty is available to be bagged and tagged when Dennis O’Brien comes hunting at the University of Minnesota Law School. It’s 1984—the height of the Reagan revolution on the national stage, the last gasp of Mondaleism at home—and O’Brien is recruiting summer associates for his law firm.

O’Brien is trying to flush out “talent, drive, energy,” he remembers, but what he finds are “mediocre B students.” It doesn’t take him long to realize that all the talented third-year law students have been snapped up, and so he peers further down the ladder at the second years. He spends 20 minutes with each student, eight hours a day, for three days straight. That’s when he lowers his sights to the first years.

Which is where he finds Tim Pawlenty, back from a summer in the D.C. office of First District congressman Arlen Erdahl. “He had can’t miss written all over him,” O’Brien recalls. “He liked politics—we had that in common—and he was a very articulate, genuinely nice person.”

O’Brien specializes in education law. Pawlenty comes along for the ride. “After three months of working together,” O’Brien says, “I sat down with him one day and said you’re already doing a quality of work better than three- or four-year lawyers at the firm. I could use you, but it could mess up your grades.”

Pawlenty starts working 20, 30 hours a week while also taking a full class load. Pawlenty is “driven,” O’Brien says—“the most disciplined person I’ve ever known by a very large factor.”

The truth is, Pawlenty is accustomed to spending nights and weekends in the produce department at Applebaum’s. His brother Steve helped him land that grocery job—a union gig with benefits—and it partly put him through college. “We’d come in after a late night and wield knives in the early morning hours,” Pawlenty says. “That was fun.”

It’s an inoculation against pretension, you can say that for produce work. Beyond that, Pawlenty’s ideology is starting to set him apart from the other junior associates. O’Brien—a prodigious reader and an even more prodigious talker—recalls the disquisitions the pair would have at the office. “One point I know resonated with him was that Republicans have got to quit being accountants for Democratic social programs,” O’Brien says. Liberalism had become the status quo; union heads, the real reactionaries.

Pawlenty trails his mentor to the law firm of Rider Bennett where they become the leading litigators for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Along the way, O’Brien almost loses his protégé. Between work and study, Pawlenty starts flying down to Houston to visit Mary Anderson, a pal from the law school. She’s a summa cum laude grad of Bethel University, now a first-year associate at a Texas firm.

O’Brien recalls hearing, “‘Mary’s arranged for me to have job interviews in Houston, and I’ve got a job offer. But I told Mary I want to get into politics in Minnesota, so she’s coming back.’”

According to O’Brien, the seed for Pawlenty’s public career is always there; the shoots just need to be encouraged to climb quick and high. “The plan was to move to a suburb and run for a city council seat,” O’Brien says. “Then run for an open seat at the capitol.”

Pawlenty doesn’t stray from the road map. He takes a seat on the Eagan planning commission, then steps up to the Eagan city council. In 1992, he wins election to District 38B of the Minnesota house with 49 percent of the vote. (Pawlenty will make a habit of winning office without a majority; neither gubernatorial victory nets him more than 47 percent of the electorate.)

It’s just before this time, 1987 perhaps, that the Reverend Leith Anderson first meets Tim Pawlenty. Mary’s family had been attending his Wooddale Church since she was in junior high. Pawlenty is about to become a lapsed Catholic. The Bible, he’ll come to believe, “is the anointed word of God.”

Anderson, who is presently the head of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals, has married countless young couples before he meets the Pawlentys, and he’s married hundreds of couples in the two decades since. “I remember talking to them then and thinking, Someday this guy is going to be a great leader,” says Anderson. “That’s an unusual thought; I don’t pretend to be a prophet. I think I was impressed by his style, his integrity, his education. Even though he’d never held public office at that point, he had a heart for public leadership. It’s not like I thought his career through—I didn’t. But I remember thinking, This is going to be someone who is going to do his country good.

South St. Paul

circa 1975

The fountainhead of the Pawlenty legend is the deathbed scene: a story that calls out to you like a Capra film on Christmas Eve. There’s Ginny Pawlenty—homemaker, part-time bookkeeper—lying in bed, cancer in full bloom, summoning the kids: Dan and Steve, Peggy and Rosie. Timmy is the only one who isn’t there. But he’s the topic of this conference, agenda items one through ten.

The boy has got to go to college. That’s it, Ginny has decided. Timmy’s the one with the brains and the gift. No one else in the family has gone to college before and no one else will go. Meeting adjourned.

Ginny dies when Timmy is 16 years old, a sophomore at South St. Paul Senior High. He discovers things about his mom after her death. She was nearly the valedictorian of her own high-school class, for instance. She was also, in a family of DFL voters and union members, a kind of closet Goldwater Republican.

Pawlenty’s dad, Gene, loses his trucking job a few months later. He won’t find work for another year. “That was a pretty significant eye opener in terms of the curveballs life can throw at you,” Pawlenty says. “Beanball” would be getting closer to the truth.

Pawlenty doesn’t dwell on that drama. It makes the other four siblings sound like go-nowheres and layabouts. Which they aren’t, he says. They’re cast from the same mold, the five Pawlenty kids: energetic, upbeat, industrious. Talking about them and that time, Pawlenty drifts into a kind of reverie—a homily about his hometown of South St. Paul. It may be the biggest stockyard in the world when Pawlenty is a boy, home to Armour and Swift. Up and down the streets, in every parish, everybody works in the same place and everybody has the same amount of money—little to none.

Timmy works hard, even before the produce job at Applebaum’s. As the winter sets in, he shuttles upriver to Mendota Heights where he assembles Christmas wreaths. The cash, what there is of it, goes into a savings account at the Southview Savings Bank on Southview Boulevard.

People tend to ask Pawlenty if he grew up feeling envious and the answer is no. The interlocutors are looking for the password to Pawlenty’s internal hard drive: What compelled this one kid to get ahead?

“I think family was an ethic,” Pawlenty says. “And pride. There was a pride in South St. Paul.”

Maybe the pride helps to stanch the scent of the stockyards, the bleating and mooing beasts, ankle-deep in excrement. In winter, when the air inverts and sits still over the river, you’d think you were smelling not just Death but Death’s armpit. The natives, Pawlenty says, pretend not to notice.

But the miasma never keeps Timmy from sprinting through the streets playing touch football. Or from skating on the rink that Dad floods with a hose, out behind the new house on 12th Avenue with the three bedrooms and the tuck-under garage. It’s evening and the parents—the parents who aren’t sleepwalking through second and third shifts—are out on their steps. More than a few are drinking beers. “It was a good home and a good neighborhood,” Pawlenty says. “There were good neighbors. It was a good upbringing.” It’s all good!

We’re close to the beginning now. Tim and Dan—the boys share a room—are out back burning garbage in a 55-gallon drum. Compared to the stockyards, smoking plastic smells like one of those cardboard air fresheners that dangle from the rearview mirror. It’s a time before cancer, before toxic fumes and plumes. Everything goes in the fire.

And there Timmy is lacing up his ice skates, hair parted neatly to the side. Later, in high school, the part will shift to the center: Who knows where nature stops and nurture begins?

We’re looking backward but Timmy is looking forward. Always forward. Mom calls from inside: The homework won’t do itself. You must keep an eye on this boy.

Michael Tortorello is a writer at large for Minnesota Monthly.

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