"They're set up as a PR operation, not a policy operation," one Minnesota-based lobbyist half-jokes. Steward vehemently disagrees: "Norm just has a real heart for people. When issues are brought to his attention, especially on the personal level, he needs no encouragement to go forward. He just gets things done."
What Steward forgets to mention is that every time his boss even talks about "getting things done," the people of Minnesota are sure to read all about it--especially when there's a chance that our conservative senator can look warm and fuzzy.
Pat Kessler, a political reporter at WCCO-TV, says Steward's office "is very aggressive about marketing Norm Coleman's Senate life" and has a sure sense of what makes for an eye-catching headline. They tailor their press releases, which sometimes come at a pace of four or five a day, for specific publications, knowing that if they "throw ten things at the wall, maybe only one of them will stick, but it will be a good story."
"When he's in Minnesota, he is out there in public and his office lets you know when he's going to be here, when he's not, and where he's going to be at all times," Kessler says. "In that respect, he really took a page out of Wellstone's book. Until just recently, it was rare if we ever heard from Dayton's office or knew where he was going to be."
Connections to the religious right and abstinence-only education notwithstanding, Coleman has made the fight against AIDS--on African soil, at least--a cause célebrè, complete with a personal connection (one of his sisters and a brother-in-law died of the disease, which was not widely reported until after last fall's election). The former roadie has been on the cover of Billboard magazine defending teens who share music online. He has made public appearances at the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture, the Minnesota AIDS project, and, earlier this month, when a Minnesota couple finally met the little girl they adopted from Liberia, was on hand for the front page photo op.
Lisi, who, Kessler notes, has already made noticeable progress simply by sending out frequent press releases and making her boss's daily schedule a matter of public record, is hoping Dayton's name and face will show up attached to more stories that resonate with constituents. And while she claims her motivations are "not political," it's a good guess that Dayton's colleagues in the Democratic party are urging the senator to step up in preparation for next year's presidential campaign, when the Republicans plan to work hard to put Minnesota in the Bush column. As Minneapolis-based political consultant Bill Hillsman sees it, though, expecting Dayton to save the day for Minnesota liberals is neither fair nor particularly realistic.
"Perceptually, the Democrats put themselves in a big hole last fall," says Hillsman, who is currently working on Arianna Huffington's California gubernatorial campaign. "After Paul's plane went down, it was Coleman and [Tim] Pawlenty campaigning around the state for the Republicans. For the Dems it was [Roger] Moe and Mondale; now, for all the great things those two have done for the state over the years, the perception was that you had two young, dynamic politicians campaigning against two dinosaurs.
"That's the image that people have of the Democrats in this state, and if you're expecting Mark Dayton to turn that around, that's asking a lot. It doesn't play to his strengths, and it's not a problem of his making."