War Torn

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

On a recent Tuesday, more than 50 people gather on the shores of Bryant Lake in Eden Prairie. They tote placards reading, "Bush Lied, Iraqis Died," and "Support the Bridges, End the War." A massive red-and-white banner reads "Dump Norm!"

Rick Hanson, whose 21-year-old son is a Marine currently serving his second tour of duty in Iraq, sums up the mood of the crowd when he refers to Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minnesota) as "Little Bush."

"We all know the truth and we will not let these warmongers run our country anymore," Hanson shouts.

Lawrence Jackson

The occasion is a Coleman fundraiser featuring President Bush held at the Eden Prairie home of Bill and Tani Austin, owners of Starkey Laboratories, a hearing-aid company. A white tent where the well-heeled GOP supporters will gather can be seen just across the lake from the protest. The admission price is $1,000 minimum. For $10,000, donors get the honor of being listed as a co-host. The event is expected to bring in roughly $1 million for Coleman's campaign coffers.

Although the Bush visit shines an unwelcome spotlight on Coleman's close association with the lame-duck president—and by extension, the Iraq war—most political observers say the senator is smart to make the cash grab now, banking on the belief that voters have short memories. He still has 14 months, after all, before he faces voters.

"Most people are not paying attention to politics right now," says Sarah Janecek, publisher of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter. "Given that you've got a couple of millionaires running against you, all you can do right now is focus on raising money."

Coleman will need all the help he can get. His re-election prospects suddenly look tenuous. A July SurveyUSA poll found that his approval ratings had bottomed out at 43 percent, with 48 percent disapproving of the job he's doing. As recently as January, Coleman seemed set to coast to an easy re-election, with 55 percent of those polled giving him the thumbs up.

Chris Cilliza, who writes "The Fix" blog for the Washington Post, lists Coleman's Senate seat as the seventh most likely to change hands in next year's elections. Democrats are eager to take on the wounded senator, with lawyer Mike Ciresi and celebrity Al Franken already jumping into the race.

The 58-year-old former mayor of St. Paul was handpicked by President Bush to vie for the Senate post in 2002, and he has frequently cited his White House access as an asset when it comes to bringing home the bacon. But with Bush's approval ratings at historic lows, Coleman's chumminess with the commander in chief has become a serious liability.

"It's clear he's in trouble because he tied his wagon to Bush," says political consultant Dean Barkley, who helped orchestrate Jesse Ventura's successful 1998 gubernatorial bid over Coleman and Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III. "I think it's that simple. He's still swimming with the shark that got him there, and it might end up biting him."

As public backing for the Iraq war has waned, Coleman has performed a delicate rhetorical dance, criticizing the administration's actions while voting in lockstep with the hawks. Last week Coleman, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, flew to Iraq to witness the situation firsthand. He will face a crucial test later this month, when Gen. David Petraeus testifies before Congress on the progress (or lack thereof) being made on the ground in Iraq.

"The most significant political calculation that Norm Coleman has to make is what he's going to say in the aftermath of General Petraeus's report," says Janecek. "At that point, I think members of Congress are going to have to make the call on where they stand and what they want to do."

Ironically, Coleman first rose to prominence as a radical antiwar protester during the Vietnam War on the campus of Hofstra University. Now, the notoriously nimble politician—who successfully switched from the DFL to the GOP in 1996—faces the prospect of having his political career upended by another unpopular war.

"I wonder how, on a personal level, Norman deals with the fact that 40 years ago he was the leading student antiwar activist on all of Long Island, and now there are war protesters demonstrating at his office, at his house, and wherever he speaks," says Norm Kent, who attended Hofstra with Coleman. "I wonder how he integrates that into his being, his essence, his soul."

Everyone called him Norman. The Brooklyn-born kid with the rail-thin physique and scraggly hair that extended halfway down his back was a striking presence at Hofstra University in the late '60s and early '70s. Carting a bullhorn around campus, he'd regularly lecture students about the immorality of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. He was the Abbie Hoffman of the sleepy Long Island commuter college.

"Hofstra's pretty milquetoast, but he was the campus radical," recalls Peter Schmitt, who often sparred with Coleman back in their college days and is now the Republican minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature. "We clashed. We debated. We used to get into it all the time."

Herbert Rosenbaum, a political science professor at Hofstra, compares his onetime student to the character Ralph in The Lord of the Flies. "He had the conch in the form of a bullhorn," Rosenbaum says. "He put himself forward and he was able to influence other people to come along with him."

Tom Buggeln enrolled at Hofstra in 1968 after serving five years in the Navy, including a stint in Vietnam. He resented what he viewed as the privileged college kids protesting the war and lambasting U.S. policies. Buggeln allied himself with Young Americans for Freedom—a conservative campus group associated with William F. Buckley—and frequently clashed with Coleman.

Buggeln remembers one particularly heated confrontation with Coleman after some antiwar students roughed up an ally who was distributing literature on campus. "I went to him and I bitched about it, and we got into it," recalls Buggeln, now a sheriff's deputy in Maricopa County, Arizona. The dustup culminated in Buggeln slapping Coleman across the face, giving him a bloody lip. "He ran down the hall screaming, 'First blood of the revolution!' or some shit like that."

Although Coleman styled himself as a hippie, he had no shortage of ambition. He successfully ran for president of the student senate during his junior year, and adeptly cultivated a network of professors and administrators. "Just like he has access to Bush now, he had access to those people," says Carolyn Sofia, who was co-editor-in-chief of the Hofstra Chronicle student newspaper during Coleman's senior year.

In the spring of 1970, Coleman picked a fight with the Chronicle, which had been critical of his decisions. Coleman thought that the senate should have greater influence over the direction of the newspaper, which was partially funded through student fees. In years past, the newspaper's staff had elected its editors, with the senate's approval a mere formality. But under Coleman, the senate refused to ratify Sofia and her co-editor, Martin Skrocki, and even cut $600 in funding to feed newspaper staffers working late nights on deadline. The Chronicle ran a special edition featuring blank pages to protest the senate's meddling. "We looked at this as a power grab, basically," says Skrocki, who now works in pubic relations.

The Coleman-led senate eventually approved Skrocki, but insisted at least one of the editors be selected by the student legislative body. But after refusing to swear in Sofia on four different occasions, the senate finally backed down.

"From my point of view, Norman wanted to take over the Chronicle," says Sofia, who now teaches writing at Stony Brook University. "He wanted to be a politician and control the press at the same time."

The other hallmark event of Coleman's college political life occurred at the close of the 1969-70 school year. The Nixon administration had recently invaded Cambodia, and campuses across the country erupted in civil disobedience. On May 4, Ohio National Guardsmen killed four unarmed students at Kent State University. Nationwide, violent clashes broke out between students and police on 26 campuses.

At Hofstra, students staged a campus-wide strike. Protesters took over the student center and the main administration building. Classes were canceled and many professors held teach-ins.

"Everybody went nuts," recalls Buggeln. "A lot of the faculty joined, and the university was effectively shut down."

Coleman was at the forefront of the unrest, but his triumph in shutting down the school was short-lived. When students returned to campus in the fall, they voted to replace Coleman with Paul Hearne, a wheelchair-bound student who went on to help draft the Americans with Disabilities Act before dying in 1998.

With graduation from Hofstra looming in 1971, Coleman faced the unhappy prospect of being drafted. But the antiwar activist flunked his physical. He was deemed too skinny to fight.

More than a decade after those tumultuous times, Herbert Rosenbaum was visiting family in the Twin Cities. Flipping through channels one morning, he came upon a public affairs show featuring the familiar face of Norman Coleman. The former student was now a prosecutor with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.

"I was surprised because he took a very hard, law-and-order line," Rosenbaum says. "I said to myself, 'He is on the move. He is obviously on the move.'"

Indeed, Coleman's career had been on a steady upward trajectory since his shaggy-haired Hofstra days. Following graduation, he briefly worked in the administration of New York Mayor John Lindsay, who famously converted from Republican to Democrat. Coleman then earned a law degree from the University of Iowa, further nursing his political ambitions by winning election as student body president.

Shortly after graduating, Coleman landed in Minnesota, taking a job as a prosecutor working for state Attorney General Warren Spannaus. Coleman stayed at the agency for 17 years, rising to the post of solicitor general and honing his law-and-order bona fides.

Coleman's return to politics came in 1989, when he sought the DFL endorsement for St. Paul mayor. He lost the endorsement to Jim Scheibel and subsequently became a fierce critic of Mayor Schiebel's administration, laying the groundwork for another campaign. After the embattled mayor opted not to run for re-election, Coleman again sought the DFL endorsement and again lost—this time to Andy Dawkins.

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."

Coleman even made a cameo appearance in the infamous outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. When the heat was on Rove for his role in disclosing Plame's identity to reporters, Minnesota's senior senator was one of three legislators tapped to be Rove's principal defenders in Congress. Coleman repeatedly attacked the credibility of Plame's husband, ambassador Joseph Wilson, and chastised Senate colleagues for deigning to debate the matter. "My Democratic friends would be doing the nation a great service if they spent half as much time getting legislation passed that will benefit the country as they do in attacking Karl Rove," Coleman said at the time.

Yet as Bush's approval ratings have plummeted, Coleman has sought to distance himself from the administration he once embraced. He parted with the White House on drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and called for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales way back in May. Last week, he was one of the first legislators to call for Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) to step down when a police report emerged alleging that he had solicited gay sex in a Minneapolis bathroom. The most telling incident, however, occurred in January of last year, when it was revealed that members of Coleman's staff had scrubbed his Wikipedia bio to hide the fact that he voted with Bush 98 percent of the time in 2003.

Coleman has had less success trying to unshackle his political fortunes from the Iraq war. The senator made national headlines in December after returning from a trip to Iraq and announcing that he would not support sending additional troops into Baghdad. But the key word turned out to be Baghdad—a nuance missed by most media outlets. In subsequent days, Coleman voiced support for deploying more soldiers to other parts of Iraq, such as Anbar province. And in January, he voted against a bipartisan resolution opposing the troop surge.

Coleman continues to defend the necessity of the Iraq war. "I have never considered myself a pacifist," he says in a statement issued to City Pages. "I draw a clear distinction between my opposition to the Vietnam War as a young man and my support for the war against Al Qaeda in Iraq and around the world. Vietnam did not attack the United States—nor was there ever any fear of the Vietnamese coming to our country seeking to destroy our way of life. Al Qaeda attacked the United States—it murdered 3,000 of our citizens—and they continue to threaten our nation, our allies, and our way of life."

But if Coleman is seeking cover, his onetime allies aren't letting him go quietly. Earlier this month, a group called Freedom's Watch launched a $15 million national ad campaign aimed at convincing wavering legislators to stay the course. The TV commercials feature wounded soldiers and evoke the attacks of 9/11 to make the case that Iraq is an essential front in the War on Terror. Freedom's Watch has spent more than $200,000 to air the ads in the Twin Cities, and although Coleman has never been mentioned by name, there's little doubt he's the primary target of their message.

"I think that Coleman is damned if he stands with the president and damned if he condemns the president," says Janecek. "Because anything Coleman does now is viewed through the rubric of trying to get re-elected."

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