War Torn

As a young radical, Norm Coleman protested the Vietnam War. Now his support for the Iraq quagmire may swallow his political career.

Twice spurned, Coleman opted to run without the party's blessing. He received a vital endorsement from Skip Humphrey, who'd been his boss at the Attorney General's Office for a decade, and whose name carried significant weight in DFL-dominated St. Paul.

"I have this streak of loyalty in me," Humphrey says of his decision to support Coleman. "And I believed at the time that he was philosophically oriented very much toward where I am."

Dawkins's campaign was dogged by revelations of his marijuana use—ironic, considering Coleman's own pot-smoking past at Hofstra—and Coleman went on to win the election handily, 55 to 44 percent.

Despite this triumph, Coleman's relationship with the DFL remained uneasy, in no small part because of his pro-life stance. Coleman insisted that his views on the matter were deeply personal, influenced by the loss of two children to genetic disorders early in their lives. The first-term mayor openly flirted with running for governor, but his anti-abortion stance presented a serious roadblock to higher office.

"That was clearly going to be a big problem for him if he was ever going to run statewide," says former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minnesota), who began wooing Coleman to join the GOP.

A more cynical take on Coleman's political conversion is that he simply saw an opening on the Republican side of the gubernatorial ticket. With Gov. Arne Carlson stepping down at the end of his term, there was no clear conservative successor. But on the DFL side, both Ted Mondale and Skip Humphrey, Coleman's old boss, were set to vie for the party's backing.

Regardless of his motives, with much fanfare Coleman announced in December 1996 that he was switching parties.

"I am a Republican," Coleman told a crowd of 500-plus newfound supporters at the St. Paul Radisson Hotel, including GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp.

Coleman went on to whip Sandy Pappas in the next year's mayoral election (59 to 41 percent), becoming the first Republican to be elected to the city's top post in more than 30 years.

Just two months into his second term, Coleman announced that he was seeking the Republican endorsement for governor. In the primary, he successfully fended off challenges from Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson and social conservative Allen Quist to win the party's blessing.

This meant Coleman would be squaring off against his former boss, Skip Humphrey, the very man whose endorsement had jumpstarted his first campaign for mayor.

In the end, Ventura crashed the party, collecting 37 percent of the votes—compared to 34 for Coleman and 28 for Humphrey—to win the governorship. Coleman had a soft landing, however, taking a job at the law firm of Winthrop & Weinstine.

 

The impression that Coleman is a Bush sycophant is rooted in the 2002 campaign to unseat Paul Wellstone. The president personally asked Coleman to challenge the incumbent, who held one of the most vulnerable Democratic seats in the Senate. The White House also helped clear the field of competition. The night before Tim Pawlenty was set to announce his campaign, he received a call from Bush consigliere Karl Rove, who failed to convince him to sit out the race. The next morning, just 90 minutes before Pawlenty's scheduled campaign announcement, he got a call from Vice President Dick Cheney. "We're asking you for the good of the overall effort to stand down," Cheney instructed Pawlenty. The then-state representative groused about the heavy-handed intervention, but eventually regrouped to successfully run for governor. Thanks to the Bush administration, the path to the Republican nomination was now wide open for Coleman.

Coleman didn't disappoint his patrons. In his first year as a senator, Coleman voted with the president a remarkable 98 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly. In subsequent years, he's become only slightly more independent, siding with the White House on 84 to 92 percent of votes, depending on the year. And Brian Melendez, chairman of the state DFL party, argues that most of the dissenting votes were cast when the fate of a bill was already sealed. "It's only when his vote can't possibly affect the outcome that they let Norm off the leash," he says.

Cullen Sheehan, Coleman's campaign manager, says that's nonsense. "Senator Coleman is an independent leader who gets things done," he says. "I think people respect that. That's what they'll judge him on, and ultimately, I think that's why he'll get re-elected."

Coleman has proven valuable to the administration in nonlegislative matters as well. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Coleman was tapped to join the GOP's "truth squad"—a group of Republican legislators dispatched to trash John Kerry at the Democratic Convention. They set up shop just two blocks away from the Fleet Center in Boston and spent the week ridiculing the Democratic nominee as a flip-flopping, out-of-touch liberal. "We're talking about flip-flops back and forth on a regular basis here," Coleman told reporters at the time.

The performance certainly didn't lack for chutzpah, considering Coleman's own transformation from '60s-era radical to conservative Republican. "Norman's one of the classic flip-floppers," says Warren Spannaus, the former Democratic attorney general who initially hired Coleman as a prosecutor. "I suppose by the time we get to the election he will have switched over to being against this war, too."

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