The Spoiler

Consultant and candidate Hutchinson won't "shock the world"—but will he tip the race for gov?

If elections were decided by the sheer number of slogans and gimmicks deployed in a campaign, Independence Party candidate Peter Hutchinson would be the next governor of Minnesota. On June 24, the IP held its convention in the stands at Midway Stadium while the St. Paul Saints conducted batting practice and fielding drills in front of them. A hulking buffalo named Cody, the IP's new mascot, roamed the asphalt outside the gate. The party's catchphrase—"Not Right, Not Left, Forward!"—was everywhere.

The 56-year-old Hutchinson, whose longest-running job has been managing a consulting firm called Public Strategies Group, is nothing if not a clever wonk. He has hit upon a succinct and ingenious way to delineate the issues, listing education, health care, transportation, and the environment as part of his promise to "keep the main things the main thing" and dubbing divisive distractions to those main things as "the five G's—guns, gays, God, gambling, and gynecology." The party's statewide slate is "Team Minnesota," in another branding gesture. True, there are some surprisingly high-profile names involved, especially for a third party, including MPD deputy chief Lucy Gerold, a candidate for state auditor, and attorney general candidate John James, who, like Hutchinson, once served in the administration of Governor Rudy Perpich in the 1980s. (Disclosure: I worked as Perpich's speechwriter during that same period.)

"I don't know who is going to be doing our media. But as you can see," Hutchinson said, indicating the unconventional ballpark surroundings, "if you think of the other two parties as Pepsi and Coke, we're not going to be RC Cola."

Almost exactly a decade ago, Hutchinson and his PSG firm were serving as superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools. When it came time to grade their efforts (PSG's unusual contract pegged fees to the performance grades it got from school board members), then-MPS board member Bill Green notoriously gave Hutchinson's crew a grade of F. In response to Hutchinson's claim that PSG was "getting rid of bureaucracy and impediments to change," Green said, in May 1996, "The district is being modified but it remains to be seen if those modifications mean anything. Associate superintendents are now called executive directors, and they might oversee areas D, E, and F rather than A, B, and C." A year later, in the midst of protests led by the Minneapolis NAACP over the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students in the MPS, Hutchinson and PSG were terminated by the school district.

Hutchinson's experience in the Minneapolis schools is counterbalanced by some successes, most notably his role in helping then-Washington Governor Gary Locke set priorities for government spending and then allocate budgetary resources to each. This approach, long championed by Hutchinson and his colleague, David Osborne, enabled Locke to solve a $2.4 billion deficit in the Washington state budget with minimal pain. Democratic governors in Iowa and New Mexico have emulated this budget-cutting efficiency, earning Hutchinson and Osborne the admiration of the moderate/conservative Democratic Leadership Council.

But Hutchinson, who was Minnesota commissioner of finance under Perpich, becomes rhetorically fuzzy when discussing Minnesota's budget process. In the midst of the unprecedented state government shutdown two summers ago, when the two major parties were fighting over every comma and parenthesis as they inched toward the endgame, Hutchinson wrote an op-ed in the Star Tribune essentially recommending that they start from scratch and dream up what kind of government they wanted. It was exactly the sort of ill-timed, pie-in-the-sky consultant-speak that plays into negative stereotypes about his résumé.

More recently, under the "Issues" link on the party's "Team Minnesota" campaign website, Hutchinson and company talk about the possibility of doubling the odds of Minnesota students getting an affordable college education, creating a world-class health care system at the nation's lowest cost-per-person, and reducing congestion on our roadways. Yet when asked point-blank if he will propose any tax increases, Hutchinson first says he would have signed the 10-cent gas tax hike vetoed by Tim Pawlenty two years ago, but then adds, "I think we've got enough money; I don't think we use it very well."

That's not much different from Pawlenty's de facto strategy of shifting the burden to local property and sales taxes, or DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Hatch's plan to unearth a billion dollars through better fiscal auditing of taxpayers. Put simply, none of the three endorsed candidates for governor is offering a realistic scheme to pay for the programs they are promoting. And as a third-party candidate, Hutchinson is the one who most needs to differentiate himself if he is to have any chance of springing a spectacular upset in November.

Hutchinson claims it will take a million votes to win, and figures half will come from those who have previously voted for Independence Party candidates. He wants to siphon 400,000 from disaffected Republicans and Democrats and another 100,000 from habitual nonvoters.

The obstacles are huge: First, polls indicate that fewer than one in five citizens even knows Hutchinson's name, making him significantly more obscure than the IP's past two standard-bearers for governor, Jesse Ventura and former Congressman Tim Penny. Second, when Ventura "shocked the world" in 1998, there was no incumbent standing for reelection, and Minnesota had a budget surplus of more than $4 billion, a cushion that made it easier to lodge a protest vote against the two major parties. "The mentality in '98 was, 'Jesse can't mess this up too much,'" says Blois Olson, co-publisher of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter. "This time, it is a referendum on the incumbent Pawlenty's performance." Third, with Pawlenty proposing free college tuition for thousands of students and nixing another no-new taxes pledge, and with Hatch turning thumbs-down on a gas tax hike that was even endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, both major party candidates are taking their base for granted and tacking hard toward the middle of the political spectrum—where IP candidates have traditionally enjoyed their greatest success.

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