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Jewish World Review May 16, 2003 / 14 Iyar, 5763

John H. Fund

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GOPers gain in the land of Humphrey and Mondale | Minnesota has produced many liberal politicians, from Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy to Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. But the state is changing and is now also producing conservative leaders such as Tim Pawlenty, the new governor, and Sen. Norm Coleman, who defeated Mr. Mondale last year in a classic left-right confrontation. Al Gore won Minnesota by only 2.4% of the vote, as George W. Bush carried 10 counties that voted for George McGovern in 1972. Compassionate conservatism may be about to get the upper hand over old-fashioned progressive politics in one of the nation's original welfare states.

Minnesota has a feisty, populist tradition. In 1998, young homeowners and entrepreneurs in the Minneapolis suburbs declared their independence from both parties and elected former wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor on the Reform Party ticket. But Mr. Ventura proved to a petulant camera hog. While he appointed competent administrators, he never had a coherent vision of what state government should do. Facing likely defeat, last year he retired after one term. Soon after he left office, MSNBC hired him as a talk-show host.

Mr. Pawlenty, a Republican, emerged victorious in the three-way race to succeed Mr. Ventura. The effervescent 42-year-old state House majority leader captured 45% of the vote.

The very liberal Minneapolis Star Tribune concedes that Gov. Pawlenty, in contrast to the hard-charging Mr. Ventura, "has demonstrated a nearly perfect pitch ear for how to present his agenda in a moderate and compassionate tone." His signature campaign issue was a firm pledge not to raise Minnesota's taxes to cover a $4.2 billion deficit. Since his election he has resisted constant efforts to steer him away from his commitment. Just this week, three former Republican governors met at a conference and agreed he should raises taxes to preserve the state's generous social services programs rather than restructure them.

But Mr. Pawlenty is, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, not for turning. The Minnesota Legislature's session is scheduled to end this week, and so far no budget has been passed. Mr. Pawlenty is backing a plan passed by the Republican House, which spends $28.4 billion, a 5% increase over the last budget. The Democratic Senate wants a $29.2 billion budget that raises spending by 8%, funding it in part through increases in cigarette taxes and a "soak the rich" income tax hike for filers earning over $135,000 a year. It looks as if the dispute will have to go into a special session.

Gov. Pawlenty is cheerfully standing with the voters who elected him. Instead of raising taxes, he seeks to reform government. Last week, he met with GOP legislators and had a simple message: "We need to stand for what we believe in. Be strong. Keep the faith." His pep talk galvanized the Republican conference. GOP Rep. Marty Seifert made a reference to the CBS show "Survivor" when he lectured Democrats: "You were voted off the island last year. The tribe has spoken. We will balance the budget without raising taxes."

Despite months of organized protests against his budget, Gov. Pawlenty's popularity is holding up remarkably well. He breezily refers to the protesters outside his office as "victims du jour." The latest Star Tribune poll puts his popularity at 50%. That's down from 60% two months ago, but that contrasts favorably with most other governors facing budget crises. One reason is that Mr. Pawlenty is in constant motion, making an average of 15 public appearances a week so he can connect with voters and sell his plan. Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, credits Mr. Pawlenty with creating "a good chain of command" that has built Republicans into "a durable coalition."

That coalition also includes social conservatives, who have scored major victories in the Legislature for the first time in memory. Both houses passed a 24-hour waiting period for abortions and expanded the number of pistol permits. The state's touchy-feely "Profiles in Learning" program will likely be replaced with a back-to-basics approach that relies on factual knowledge and testing. Despite predictions that such an agenda would alienate suburban voters, it appears to be in accord with the common-sense attitudes of the electorate.

Mr. Pawlenty also knows where to stop. He scored major points for independence when he refused to back a bill that would have repealed protections for homosexuals in the state's antidiscrimination law. Despite such stands, Mr. Pawlenty has retained the enthusiastic backing of social conservatives. "He blows me away," says Paul Weyrich, president of the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington. "I've participated in meetings and heard him ask probing questions of officials that show he sees both the big picture and the troublesome details. He could easily be on a future national ticket."

Mr. Pawlenty also knows how to take his keen analysis of the state budget out of the legislative backrooms and explain it to average voters. Last February, local officials complained they could not cope with his plans to decrease their dependence on state aid and would have to lay off police officers and firefighters. Mr. Pawlenty promptly held a news conference and threw down the gauntlet. "If you can't manage your city with a 3% drop in revenue without having the first thing you do is run before the cameras and say you're going to lay off cops, then you shouldn't be in that position," he said. That rang true with voters, who often have to trim their own family spending.

David Strom, a leader of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, says that Mr. Pawlenty appeals to the growing number of suburban voters who want value for their money and question whether the "Minnesota Miracle" touted by such liberal giants as Messrs. Humphrey and Mondale is still relevant. "He is joining antitax business people with folks who think the government is engaged in excessive social engineering."

Mitch Pearlstein, head of a local conservative think tank called the Center for the American Experiment, says he regrets that the budget crisis has eclipsed the governor's positive agenda, which includes creating tax-free enterprise zones in 10 depressed rural communities and allowing private companies to build express toll lanes next to existing highways to accelerate road construction.

"If he can get through this budget intact, he will have established the credibility to be a truly innovative governor operating from conservative principles," says Mr. Pearlstein. That's not what one would normally expect to see coming out of liberal Minnesota, but it reflects an ongoing political shift in this country as the coastal areas in the Northeast and far West trend liberal while many heartland states are increasingly marching to a different drummer.

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©2001, John H. Fund