The Pit Bull as Pragmatist

With the DFL gubernatorial endorsement, will Mike Hatch have to play nice?

Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch is not by nature a humble man. But after seven ballots and eight hours and 43 minutes worth of wrangling Saturday at the Rochester Civic Center, the DFL Party had

chosen Hatch over State Senators Steve Kelley and Becky Lourey as their endorsed candidate to challenge Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty in November. With a nervous laugh, Hatch wanted to get something off his chest.

"There is a great story in the Bible about the prodigal son," he said, alluding to his sparring with the party's status quo. "And to that end, I want to thank you for letting me come home."

Among the 1,300 or so delegates who would ultimately determine this three-way race that many observers considered too close to call, Lourey was the candidate most widely cherished for her decency and charming biography. Kelley was the candidate who engendered mutual respect by saying he would abide by the process and drop out of the contest if he was not endorsed. Hatch? He was the prick who, after serving as statewide chair of the party from 1980-82, unsuccessfully ran in the primary against the DFL endorsed candidate for governor in 1990 and 1994, successfully bucked the DFL endorsee for attorney general in 1998, and said he had every intention of running in the gubernatorial primary this year even if the delegates didn't endorse him.

Overcoming this animus is good news for both Hatch and the DFL. When push came to shove, delegates held to their judgment of Hatch as an abrasive presence, maybe, but one who just might prevail in November. He is, after all, the only DFL politician in 12 long years who has won a statewide race with more than 50 percent of the vote. His gubernatorial campaign had raised more money than Kelley's and Lourey's combined coming into the convention. Hatch had the most visible and disciplined floor operation inside the civic center. And while Kelley probably gave the most effective opening speech of the trio, Hatch's responses in the more spontaneous question-and-answer session before the first ballot were more knowledgeable, nuanced, and self-assured than were those of his rivals.

They were also more revealing. Long regarded as conflicted on the abortion issue, Hatch referred to a statewide legal precedent, known as the Gomez case, to claim his opinion that recent legislative efforts to restrict abortion in Minnesota were probably illegal beyond Roe v. Wade, a dramatic strengthening of his pro-choice position.

Conversely, in response to a question about the death penalty, while Lourey and Kelley were reflexively opposed to the notion, Hatch shifted the focus to the families of crime victims and how much their suffering had affected his view of the issue. Some people are beyond rehabilitation and probably deserve to die, he said—before acknowledging that because the system isn't foolproof, and innocent people can be executed, he ultimately must oppose the death penalty. This sort of fiery but centrist populism broadens Hatch's appeal with the electorate, and echoes his equally emotional determination to go to bat for families without health insurance.

 

That doesn't mean Hatch had an error-free convention, however. After Lourey's third-place showing forced her to drop out after the fourth ballot, he got into a pissing match with Kelley, one that had the two campaigns flooding the delegates with negative flyers. This reminded people that Hatch has a nasty streak.

Hatch's other major faux pas was his acceptance speech, which was a 22-minute, agenda-setting address at a time when delegates just wanted to be propelled out of the hall with some heartfelt gratitude and inspirational rhetoric after a long day's work. Republican Party Chair Ron Carey quickly spun it as angry and overly aggressive, obviously hoping to draw the contrast between Hatch's reputation for taking no prisoners and Pawlenty's affability. Certainly Pawlenty is regarded as the guy with whom you'd rather go have a beer—but you'd better be ready to pay his bar tab.

During his four years in office, the governor has relied on regressive ways of raising revenue: shifting more of the education burden back to property taxes and tuition, imposing billions of dollars' worth of new fees, deploying borrowing programs for transportation and other state bonding projects, and signing a stadium bill to raise the sales tax. This, rather than make the wealthy pay a greater share by boosting state income taxes. Pawlenty's fabled friendliness stems from having the chutzpah to smile convincingly and slap you on the back while shifting more of the burden of government onto those shoulders.

Judging from his acceptance speech, Hatch intends to campaign on the themes of Minnesota's last DFL governor, Rudy Perpich, and emphasize quality education and research and development as the means of stimulating the state economy. It's a sound, middle-of-the-road strategy that should play well in rural and suburban areas of the state as well as the DFL strongholds in the Twin Cities and on the Iron Range. But it ignores a couple of areas where Hatch is trying to skate, issues he will have difficulty eliding between now and November.

One is his insistence that no new taxes are necessary to pay for the upgrades he wants to make in government. Instead, he proposes to generate at least $1.3 billion more per biennium through better auditing by the Department of Revenue (worth a billion dollars, according to a Legislative Auditor's report) and by closing corporate tax loopholes. Reaping a billion through better auditing is obviously much easier said than done. Second, Hatch is carping on Pawlenty's support of stadiums for the Twins and Gophers, but has said publicly that he too would have signed both stadium bills. He can't have it both ways.

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