Jewish World Review
Dec. 17, 2009
/ 30 Kislev 5770
Belt-tightening presidential aspirant leaves room for Spam
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty isn't officially running for president.
But that's just semantics. Last week, he was in South America on a trade mission with state business leaders. And before the end of the year, he's expected to make speeches in New Hampshire.
No Minnesotan goes to New Hampshire for a winter vacation. If Pawlenty wanted to freeze his face off, he could stay home and eat his favorite Spam sandwiches. So he's running.
Pawlenty is a conservative Republican governor of a liberal state known for excellent fishing and clean government. Minnesota couldn't get any more blue, not after Democrats elevated "Saturday Night Live" character Stuart Smalley to the U.S. Senate in the form of liberal Sen. Al Franken, the comedian who played the pastel-sweatered nerd Smalley years ago. Now Franken votes on domestic and foreign policy.
"Well, the people spoke," Pawlenty said with a shrug.
Pawlenty was in Chicago to raise funds for his political action committee, Freedom First. I wanted to meet this budget cutter who thwacked expenses, and who speaks in an economic language foreign to Washington, with ideas of cutting taxes and forcing government to live within its means.
I expected some policy wonk. What I didn't figure on was meeting a guy who grew up in a union family, the son of a truck driver, with a sense of humor and vast knowledge of Spam.
"In South St. Paul, where I grew up, it was a meatpacking town in the 1960s, and I think this may resonate with the people of Illinois," he said during an interview at the Hilton. "It was home to some of the world's largest meatpacking plants, the Swift and Armour plants, and we claimed, at least for a moment in time, the world's biggest stockyards."
I was compelled to mention Spam, the processed cube of canned mystery meat that, along with walleye and the Minnesota Twins, is one of the pillars of Minnesota culture.
Governor, I said, your state is the leading producer of Spam. Are you proud of this?
"Proud of it? We built a museum. An ode to it," Pawlenty said. "What are you talking about? I love Spam. We have Spam kebabs. We now have lower-fat Spam, you can get turkey Spam and lower-sodium Spam. This is your wonder meat in a can."
Pawlenty insisted that I grill some Spam and write a series about the experience.
"You should do Spam kebabs," he said. "Or, if you want to get a very good sandwich, get some nice, fresh sourdough, butter it up good and pan-fry it so it's browned with the butter. Don't overdo it. Then grill a nice thick slab of Spam, and put a chunk of cheddar — not the low-fat cheddar but the full fatty cheddar — and you have a Spam sandwich. You might want to top it off with a nice little squeeze of Parkay."
"You can go with it either as a flavor additive or a lubricant," Pawlenty said. "Either way, it's good."
Jokes aside, Pawlenty is deadly serious about this phase of his unofficial campaign, which is to tap into legitimate American worries about uncontrolled federal spending and debt. Clearly there are other leading personalities in the mix, from Mitt Romney (too much the mannequin in the last presidential campaign cycle) and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (charisma, but perhaps too much the lightning rod).
Pawlenty, like another unannounced presidential aspirant, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, is trying to break into the Republican alpha group by concentrating on fiscal issues.
"He talks to his constituents about running the state in tough economic times as they run their households," said Morgan Stanley Vice Chairman Bill Strong, a Chicagoan who, with former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, chairs the Pawlenty PAC. "He talks about belt tightening and cutting expenditures, as all Americans have been doing in their own homes. And this resonates."
Whether it does or not will be measured by polls and politics in the months ahead.
"I don't think that the Congress even seriously tries to balance the budget anymore," Pawlenty said. "Politicians get rewarded for saying 'yes,' not for saying 'no.' The pattern of spending out there is troubling, and you see it in the polling data. The public is saying that what's going on in Washington is way more than they bargained for. That pendulum is swinging back, away from profligate spending to the idea that we have to rein it in."
In Minnesota, Pawlenty outfoxed the ever-spending Democratic state legislature by relying on a little-used provision in state law called "unallotment." Under this provision, Pawlenty was able to remove state programs that weren't accompanied by the money to pay for it. He took his budget ax and chopped and chopped.
"In Minnesota, I'd guess you'd say I'm unusual," he said. "Even the Republicans are liberal there. But I'm the first mainstream conservative who's been governor of Minnesota in a long time."
And now he's taking other steps, from Chicago to New Hampshire, with his eyes on Washington.
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John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Comments by clicking here.
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