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?

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.”

 

Cross-Pollination

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.”

 

 

Minnesota Miracle

Hutchinson’s name hit Minnesota’s radar screen much later, during Rudy Perpich’s final term as governor (1986–90). Hutchinson, having earned recognition among policy insiders as a Dayton Hudson executive and a devotee of the then-influential Citizens League, was tapped by Perpich to lead the state’s finance department. It was around that time that Curtis Johnson, who then ran the Citizens League (and later served as Governor Arne Carlson’s chief of staff), first noticed Hutchinson. “He was very interested in public policy and how to get that translated into acceptable politics,” Johnson remembers. “He was always driving toward ‘Where will this lead, how can we have impact, where will this make a difference?’”

But Hutchinson’s tenure as a Perpich lieutenant is best remembered not for his policy prowess, but for a dramatic misstep that some think cost Perpich his job.

Throughout most of the messy 1990 campaign, Hutchinson says, the data his office relied on for budgetary forecasts showed that the economy was humming along nicely, even as Republicans were carping about a looming deficit. “We couldn’t see it in the numbers,” he says. But almost overnight, the numbers changed. “In the fall, oil skyrocketed, the [first Gulf] war was coming—the economy fell apart,” he says. On October 2, Hutchinson told the editorial board at the Mankato Free Press that the state likely was heading into recession, faced with using up its fiscal reserves.

It was information citizens deserved to have, but in politics, bad news usually waits until after Election Day. For Republicans nearing the peak of an election season, it was a can of pre-cooked red meat. “Perpich, interestingly enough, never yelled at me for it, even though it was damaging to his election fortunes,” Hutchinson says. “The Democrats were pissed that I said it out loud. I got screamed at. And I said, ‘Look, the deal here is that we tell the truth when we know it to be the truth.’”

Once out of office, Hutchinson formed the Public Strategies Group (PSG) with Babak “Armi” Armajani and John James, both veterans of the Minnesota Department of Revenue. It was in his role as a consultant for the firm that Hutchinson made arguably his greatest impact yet.

The Minneapolis Public Schools were in desperate financial shape after the Robert Ferrara superintendency, and in late 1993, PSG was brought in to straighten out the books. School board members were so impressed with Hutchinson and his group that they took a radical step, one that made headlines nationwide. Instead of hiring an individual to replace the outgoing Ferrara, the board opted to outsource the job to PSG. Hutchinson occupied the superintendent’s chair and, in effect, took over the job.

Bill Green, the former Minneapolis school board chairman, has mixed feelings about the Hutchinson era. On the one hand, Green says, Hutchinson was highly effective, sparking real collaboration between administrators, teachers, and parents, and focusing the district on student achievement—something that, curiously, had been underemphasized in preceding administrations. He dumped some bad teachers. He fixed the district’s financing and procurement problems. For a time, average scores on standardized tests rose significantly. He reintroduced community schools, allowing more students to attend classes closer to home. Hutchinson also campaigned successfully for a major school-funding referendum, something that Green says would have been impossible without the credibility Hutchinson earned among parents and many—though by no means all—teachers.

On the other hand, Green says, he thinks Hutchinson underestimated the job’s demands. Vexing complications, such as an influx of non-English-speaking students, many of them refugees, and the inherent difficulties of managing racially diverse urban schools, did not fit well with Hutchinson’s ideological worldview. “There was the presumption that because there were problems and challenges, it was the fault of the system,” Green says. “While there is room to improve the system, I think that is rather simplistic. And I resented at times that kind of naiveté, because my kid was in the system, and I was in the classroom. I saw what these kids were dealing with.”

Nonetheless, had Hutchinson and PSG left after their first three years, Green thinks their tenure would have been seen as an unqualified success. But PSG stayed on. In its last six months, things went sour. Tensions arose between the district and minority groups, some of whom hadn’t wanted Hutchinson at the helm in the first place. In early 1997, test scores were back in the headlines. One measurement showed that 90 percent of black students had failed at least a portion of an 8th-grade basic-skills test. Suddenly the picture had turned bleak.

And then something very odd happened. Peter Hutchinson vanished.

 

The Burnt-out Case

For decades, Hutchinson says now, he harbored a secret conviction: he would be dead, like his father, by age 48. (The elder Hutchinson had died of a heart attack when Peter was 22.) He was 47 when he pulled his notorious disappearing act from the Minneapolis schools. Physically, he was in awful shape. He says he couldn’t stand up straight. He could only lift one of his arms about halfway, a symptom doctors attributed to stress. He might have been on the verge of the massive coronary he had been expecting since his father’s death. He was convinced, he says, that “something bad was about to happen.”

Hutchinson’s PSG partner Armajani pointed out his condition during a school board meeting in early April 1997. “Armi says to the school board, ‘Look at him. You’re killing him, and he’s killing himself,’” Hutchinson recalls. “And I was really mad. This came out of the blue. He said, ‘You will have to send him home, because he will never go home on his own.’ And this caused a huge uproar.”

“Peter’s health was seriously threatened,” Armajani says. “He was consumed by the work, and it was scary to me to see what was happening.” His stress-related condition was so serious, Hutchinson admits now, that it required physical therapy to overcome.

An announcement went out: Hutchinson was temporarily leaving his post as superintendent “for strictly personal reasons.” Others within PSG, along with school district staff, would step in to fill his role. But that never really worked. Fifty days later, Hutchinson reemerged as superintendent, but only briefly, appearing at a fiery meeting during which he was harangued by Native American community leaders and others for failing to meet minority students’ needs. Hutchinson shot back that the district was doing everything it could, and that resources were too scant to deal with students who “don’t know their numbers, don’t know their colors, don’t even know their own last names.”

Nine days later, the PSG experiment was over. Hutchinson and his firm were out.

Today, Hutchinson looks back on that period as a turning point in his life, one that led to a kind of mental reconstruction. Armajani compares Hutchinson’s turnaround to an alcoholic recovering from addiction. Hutchinson, Armajani says, is a recovering workaholic.

Hutchinson doesn’t disagree. “The metaphor is that you never put the canoe down when you are on the portage,” Hutchinson says. “And I was real famous for this. The longest portage on the Boundary Waters I have done without putting the canoe down, without stopping, is a couple of miles. And I’ve done it several times. You just don’t give up.” It was a characteristic that led Hutchinson, at the start of his school superintendency, to insist on hand-signing 26,000 educational covenants with the district’s students, rather than letting the documents be signed mechanically.

He had to be forced, he says, to put down the canoe. “I got perseverance and doing your best confused,” he says. “You just had to press and press and press and press. You had to work harder than anyone else, you had to go farther, you had to be just unrelenting.” Now, he says, he operates under a different abiding principle: “If you kill yourself, you haven’t done your best. You’ve just killed yourself.”

Even Green, who once gave Hutchinson and company a grade of F on a quarterly appraisal, doesn’t fault Hutchinson for stepping away when his health began to deteriorate. “To be honest with you, those moments when I saw Peter kind of fry, I didn’t feel it was to his detriment,” Green says. “When he imploded, I felt that was remarkably human and not a reason to denigrate him. He was not in his element.”

 

 

Straight Talk

For most of the past decade, Hutchinson has been floating under the public radar, though he has certainly been busy. PSG has thrived, taking on contracts with hundreds of government agencies, including several in Minnesota. The consultancy’s “budgeting for outcomes” philosophy—which, per the PSG website, emphasizes “buying results for citizens rather than cutting or adding to last year’s spending programs”— has taken root in several states, most notably Washington, where a Democratic governor mired in a $2.5 billion deficit hired PSG to help straighten out the budget fiasco. Hutchinson and PSG senior partner David Osborne documented the experience in their 2004 book The Price of Government.

PSG was recruited to Washington State by Fred Kiga, former chief of staff to Governor Gary Locke. Kiga says Hutchinson led both Republican and Democratic legislators to take a new approach to their budgetary process. Rather than doing what they’d always done—argue about which cuts and Band-Aids to apply to which budgetary line items—the leaders, pushed by Hutchinson, began to focus on which programs to keep, based on what government could do most effectively with its resources.

The idea forced legislators to draw a line in the sand. There was only so much money to spend, so programs that leaders most wanted to keep were given top priority. Others were added in descending priority until the spending limit was hit. Any government programs that fell below that budget line were axed.

It may sound draconian, Kiga says, but the process actually generated a great deal of support for the governor and the legislators. Poll numbers rose, despite some painful budget cuts. Most people seemed to understand that the process was fair and largely free from special-interest influence, Kiga says. “There was a transformation that took place inside [Washington’s capitol],” says Kiga, a Democrat. “I would hope that folks who are concerned about the future of your great state would take a close look at Peter, because he really can make a difference.”

If Hutchinson’s approach sounds really, really wonky, that’s because it is. And that’s going to be a problem, according to the U of M’s Larry Jacobs. Hutchinson clearly has skills and talents that would serve him well in government, Jacobs says. But does he have political skills? “Can he go into the very tough market for votes and really grab [some]?” Jacobs asks. “To be honest, I haven’t seen those skills. They may be there, but I haven’t seen them.”

Hutchinson thinks the formula for grabbing voters’ attention is straightforward enough. It’s about plain talk, a direct message. The campaign is already coalescing around four key themes that Hutchinson plans to harp on throughout the race: education, transportation, health care, and the environment. What is missing from that list, he notes, are what he calls the two major parties’ main obsessions: guns, gays, God, gambling, and gynecology.

“You’ve got to be blunt, you’ve got to say things as they are,” he declares. “What people have experienced so often is politicians talking in paragraphs, and as soon as they get into the third sentence, people tune out. They say, ‘Look, this isn’t straight talk—this fellow is trying to paint a picture that makes it hard for me to tell what’s actually going on.’”

Hutchinson road-tested a bit of that bluntness in his Mankato speech. “The surest sign that you’re an independent,” he said that day, “is if you know that the biggest difference between a party caucus in the Legislature and a cactus is that the cactus has the pricks on the outside.”

 

Can That Wonk Hunt?

Outside of IP loyalists, it’s hard to find anyone who’s willing to bet on Hutchinson’s election chances. But few will disagree that, if leaders in the two dominant parties fumble the ball—and they’ve been juggling it for the past two years—the gubernatorial stars could align, and lightning could strike the same race twice.

Still, there are a lot of obstacles. As former Metropolitan Council chairman Ted Mondale points out, the affably Aristotelian Hutchinson is not “a natural protest candidate.” He will have little campaign money, no armies of volunteers, and little name recognition. Kiscaden, the only major IP officeholder, has said she doesn’t consider Hutchinson a strong candidate. And Jacobs wonders if he can even achieve high-enough poll numbers by next summer—he’ll need to crack 5 percent—to qualify for the crucial gubernatorial debates.

Bill Hillsman, the political advertising maverick whose ad campaigns helped elect both Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura, sees many problems ahead for Hutchinson. “It’s the old Adlai Stevenson story,” Hillsman says. “‘Mr. Stevenson, you have the vote of every thinking person.’ And I’m sorry, that’s not nearly enough. It becomes an academic exercise. And politics is flesh and blood—with emphasis on the blood.”

Hillsman sees just one possible opening for Hutchinson—but it’s the one the major parties seem inclined to proffer. Most insiders think the race will shape up as a contest between Republican Pawlenty and DFL attorney general Mike Hatch—two men whose relationship is frosty at best. Penny, for instance, predicts that Hatch and Pawlenty will bring out the worst in each other, generating a negative campaign for the ages. In that environment, the sunny Hutchinson, carrying a consistent message about solving the state’s problems, might attract meaningful numbers of moderate-leaning strays from both parties.

“If it’s Pawlenty and Hatch, that makes it a little bit easier for Peter,” Hillsman says. “The Democratic Party really wants to extract a pound of flesh from Pawlenty…. If the campaign gets extremely negative, and Peter is the only white hat in the race, it could happen.”

Whatever the eventual outcome, there are signs now that the two dominant parties are worried about the Hutchinson factor. Mondale, during a recent appearance on the TPT public-affairs show Almanac, put it bluntly: if Hutchinson runs, the Democrats lose. Hutchinson will be a serious, credible candidate, Mondale believes. And because he will be perceived as a natural Democrat, he can only hurt Democrats’ chances. “If you have a Democrat saying that the Democratic Party is hosed up, and it’s a credible candidate, that’s going to hurt,” Mondale says.

There are whispers that Republicans, too, are worried about Hutchinson’s effect on the race, though they’re not talking about it publicly. One Pawlenty campaign aide said last summer that the governor was “not yet ready” to talk about Hutchinson’s candidacy, allowing only that “we’re interested.”

David Strom, a Republican insider who heads the conservative Taxpayers League, says a Hutchinson bid represents an unwelcome complication to the governor’s reelection plans. “Peter actually says a lot of things that appeal very strongly to a lot of Republicans,” Strom says. “What Peter is saying about how the government is broken [may get at] an Achilles’ heel on the Pawlenty side—the way that he has made cuts but hasn’t fundamentally changed the way they do things.” Hutchinson describes that vulnerability another way, branding the governor a directionless “improviser-in-chief.”

Strom and Mondale hold one view in common. Both think that, win or lose, a Hutchinson candidacy means the race is likely to focus on fiscal sanity, on solving real problems that the state faces. In that sense, both see a bright side to the Independence Party’s latest election bid.

As a political scientist, Larry Jacobs views the race as the IP’s last, best shot at statewide success. If, as he expects, it’s a failed shot, one more third party will quickly sink into historical obscurity.

Of course, Hutchinson is making a far different prediction about what the 2006 gubernatorial election will mean.

“It will be a repudiation of the status quo from people who know that the status quo is not the solution, it’s the problem,” he says. “Change is the right answer to almost anything we face. And this institution is trying to resist change in a very, very, very powerful way, and it’s about to lose. If you play the status quo game, you will lose.

“It’s not about choosing sides in that game,” Hutchinson says. “It’s about rejecting the game.”

Kevin Featherly is a freelance writer based in Bloomington.

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