By MONICA DAVEY
© 2008 New York Times News Service
ST. PAUL, Minn. – As is his way, Gov. Tim Pawlenty made a self-deprecating aside on a local radio show this spring during the ceremonial start of the state’s beloved fishing season. He praised his wife’s willingness to fish with him and to watch hockey games, then added, “And I jokingly say, ‘Now, if I could only get her to have sex with me.”’
Some Minnesotans cringed. Others, including his wife, Mary, a former judge who met her future husband in law school, said he was just being himself, joker and all.
Outside his home state, Pawlenty is among the least-known of the prospects Sen. John McCain is said to be considering as a vice-presidential partner. But those who have followed his political rise here say Pawlenty’s personal story – his direct, everyman appeal to ordinary people – is among his most powerful attributes.
Long before the polls began suggesting that Republicans could face trouble in November, Pawlenty, now in his second term, was urging his party to become “the party of Sam’s Club,” not just the country club.
“We need everybody – to grow the party and to move forward,” Pawlenty explained in a recent interview. “One of the most powerful reasons people go to Sam’s Club or Target or Costco is they want value, and Republicans are well suited to be the party that says, ‘We’re going to have a limited but also effective government.”'
Pawlenty can talk about such things from experience. He now lives in the well-off suburb of Eagan, but holds blue-collar credentials. He grew up in South St. Paul, then a working-class town where life revolved around the stockyards, where his father drove a truck, where he played hockey, where his mother died of cancer when he was still a teenager, and where he went on to become the first in his family to graduate from college.
For McCain, whose campaign would not comment about the vice-presidential selection process, Pawlenty might be appealing on other fronts. At 47, tall and runner-thin, Pawlenty is the same age as Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee. He also carries qualifications important to many conservatives: opposition to tax increases, longtime attendance at a church with a pastor who leads the National Association of Evangelicals and a mostly consistent conservatism on social issues.
If anything, Pawlenty’s critics say, he is too prepared for this moment; they say he has been so conscious of the possibility of higher office that he has been overly careful as governor. This year, he vetoed 34 bills passed by a Democratic-dominated Legislature, more than any other Minnesota governor had vetoed in a year since at least World War II, leading his most fervent critics to describe him as more of a goalie fending off pucks than a leader rushing the net.
Some critics even note changes in his haircut – once a mullet-style, now a cropped conservative look less common at a Minnesota hockey rink – as evidence of his political calculations.
“He’s done popular stuff, easy stuff, symbolic stuff,” said Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman who lost the governor’s race to Pawlenty in 2002 as the Independence Party candidate and who says he supports McCain for president. “I can’t think of a single issue in which he has been leading public opinion. What you find here is an unremarkable record.”
Pawlenty’s supporters strongly disagree, and point to a list of accomplishments: holding the line on taxes while resolving a $4.5 billion deficit in his first term, changing the state’s education system, including creating performance pay for teachers, and pressing environmental efforts, less common in his party, on conservation and renewable energy.
“Is he ambitious? Yes,” said Charlie Weaver, once Pawlenty’s chief of staff. “Does that ambition cloud his judgment and cause him to do things not within his values? No.”
In a way, Pawlenty was an accidental governor.
In 2001, he was considering a run for the U.S. Senate, having served as the state’s House majority leader, a City Council member in Eagan and a member of the city’s planning commission. Republican leaders in Washington, though, suspected that Norm Coleman would be a stronger candidate and urged Pawlenty to back off.
Pawlenty ran for governor instead, although some allies, including former Sen. David F. Durenberger, for whom Pawlenty once worked, say they believe he would have been more comfortable in the Senate, given his experience as a lawmaker.
In the summer of 1980, Pawlenty – who had gone to the University of Minnesota planning to be a dentist – went to work for Durenberger, having learned about the internship in a campus newspaper. He returned for six months during Durenberger’s 1982 campaign, and again, for a year, as the campaign’s political director in 1988.
In 1990, Durenberger was denounced in the Senate for misconduct involving financial dealings. Bob Schroeder, a spokesman for Pawlenty, said that Pawlenty was disappointed with Durenberger’s troubles, but that those events “occurred years after the governor and senator were in regular contact.”
The two men still talk from time to time, said Durenberger, whom Pawlenty appointed three years ago as chairman of a committee on health care policy.
While he was working for Durenberger, Pawlenty met McCain when the senator came to Minnesota, as Pawlenty recalls it, for a veterans’ program and Pawlenty (and his wife) volunteered to drive him around. They got to know each other over the better part of two days, Pawlenty said. They stayed in touch over the years, and Pawlenty was an early, vocal supporter of McCain’s presidential bid, even last year when some considered it doomed.
Pawlenty is high on the short list of candidates McCain is considering for vice president, according to Republicans familiar with the deliberations. Pawlenty has campaigned with McCain and for him, but following the rules set out for potential vice-presidential nominees by McCain, he has declined to comment on what is going on.
Asked at a press luncheon in Washington what the most important quality of a running mate would be, Pawlenty responded, “Discretion,” and walked away from the microphone.
In his own races for governor, in 2002 and 2006, Pawlenty won with pluralities, not majorities, the most recent being ever so narrow: 47 percent to 46 percent.
Nonetheless, Pawlenty’s advocates consider the results to be remarkable shows of strength, considering the races had third-party candidates in a state with a tradition of strong Democrats like Hubert H. Humphrey, Eugene J. McCarthy, Walter F. Mondale and Paul Wellstone, and a tradition of electing iconoclastic governors, including Jesse Ventura and Rudy Perpich.
But those margins have led others to question Pawlenty’s popularity here, and whether his presence on the Republican ticket could even secure Minnesota, which has supported Democratic presidential candidates since 1976.
“This is not a fellow who is going to come across as strikingly charismatic,” said Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College. “People see that he’s smart and competent, but there’s not much sizzle.”
Before crowds, Pawlenty seems comfortable and warm. He speaks, at times, without visible notes. He quotes from books, sports interviews and magazines, and can turn wonky, delving into energy and education policy, then veer back to regular-guy talk, as he did last week, when he told a crowd in Chicago that the health care system was “flat busted.”
The prospect of Pawlenty as McCain’s attack dog makes some here chuckle a little. Even some who have run against Pawlenty describe him as fun, winsome, slightly corny and playful, even nice. He has played baseball outside the Statehouse during a break in a tense legislative session. He has shot a hockey puck inside his ornate reception room.
Roger Moe, the Democrat who lost to Pawlenty in 2002, remembered Pawlenty quietly leaning over near the end of a candidate forum and offering him a lift home.
“Why don’t you ride with me?” Moe recalled Pawlenty offering. “We’ve got this big plane.”
So there they were, foes in the middle of a campaign, sharing beers and gossip on the way home.
While Pawlenty wins praise from social and fiscal conservatives, several episodes in his past – and his recent talk of renewable energy standards – have left some wondering whether he is truly one of them.
Fifteen years ago, while in the state House, Pawlenty voted to expand rights for gay men and lesbians; he has since said he regrets the vote.
As governor, after a partisan battle with the Legislature and a partial shutdown of the state government, he agreed to a “health impact fee” on cigarettes, irking fiscal conservatives who said he had broken his promise not to raise taxes.
Some also wonder whether Pawlenty’s brushes with campaign finance and disclosure questions, though rare, might create a conflict with the above-board image put forth by McCain.
In 2002, only weeks before Election Day, the state’s Republican Party and Pawlenty’s campaign were accused of illegal coordination over two television advertisements paid for by the state party. Pawlenty’s campaign paid a $100,000 fine and was required to report a $500,000 in-kind contribution from the state party.
Months after the election, Pawlenty’s political adversaries raised new questions about whether he had properly disclosed consulting work he did in 2001 and 2002 for a telecommunications company owned by a longtime associate. Pawlenty had received $4,500 a month for more than a year, but did not include the consulting fees in the wages section of his financial disclosure form. Instead, he cited the consulting work – and a sole proprietorship company he had created and done the work under – as an investment or a security.
Pawlenty eventually amended his disclosure forms to include the consulting payments in both sections of the form, and the state’s campaign finance board ultimately found no wrongdoing in the matter.
“He said he was sorry,” said Moe, Pawlenty’s Democratic opponent that year. “He always says ‘sorry.”’
A year ago, Pawlenty faced the most visible crisis of his tenure. On a busy Wednesday evening, the Interstate 35W bridge through downtown Minneapolis collapsed, plunging cars into the Mississippi River and killing 13 people.
Many praised Pawlenty for his swift, empathetic response. The political battle that followed – in what, by 2007, was a Democratic-dominated state House and Senate – was far more complicated.
Democrats raged about the state’s aging bridges and roads, and blamed Pawlenty for vetoing a gasoline tax increase and for putting Carol Molnau, the lieutenant governor, in charge of the state’s Transportation Department.
After months of argument, the Legislature this year passed a transportation package that included a gasoline tax increase. Pawlenty vetoed it, but was overridden for the first time.
Pawlenty vetoed the package because it contained $6.6 billion in tax increases and hundreds of millions of dollars in additional local sales taxes, aides said. But Lawrence J. Pogemiller, the Senate majority leader, said Pawlenty had waffled over the gasoline tax increase. Pogemiller said Pawlenty had called him for a meeting two days after the bridge collapse and had said he would support a gas tax increase, only to withdraw that support three days later under criticism from conservatives. The governor’s aides dispute that account.
“Look,” Pogemiller said, “to me, this is verification that he does and says whatever is necessary to look good at the moment.”
Mary Pawlenty dismissed claims that her husband’s ambitions had driven policy choices. “That’s not who he is,” she said.
Nor, for that matter, she added, has McCain’s vice-presidential search driven her husband’s hairstyle. The governor has cut and grown out his hair at various times over the years, she said.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.