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On a freezing day in mid-February, Gov. Tim Pawlenty took the podium at the St. Cloud Civic Center to deliver what everyone assembled knew could be his final State of the State address. Wearing his standard blue suit and tie, suburban-dad hockey haircut, and aw-shucks smile, the governor spent a few minutes talking up Minnesotans' strength, courage, and ingenuity. Then he got down to business.
A scowl replacing his smile, the governor reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a red pen, holding it out for all the audience to see.
"I call it the taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen," Pawlenty said, waving the miniature saber in the direction of the legislators assembled to hear him speak. "As you know, I will not hesitate to use it to stop government from digging into your wallets."
See our selection of the 15 Worst Tim Pawlenty Vetoes in slideshow form.
Over the next three months, the governor proved better than his threat. When the dust finally cleared from the 2008 legislative session, Pawlenty had vetoed an astonishing 34 bills. With the flourish of his pen, Pawlenty killed everything from a raise in the minimum wage to state support for stem cell research and even a nonbinding resolution calling for greater openness toward Cuba. It was a tally unparalleled in Minnesota history.
"Governor Pawlenty's vetoes reflect common sense and fiscal restraint," says Brian McClung, the governor's spokesman, who declined further comment.
For perspective, consider former Gov. Arne Carlson. In the 1990s, the two-term Republican overruled the Democratic-controlled Legislature with such frequency that he earned the moniker "Governor Veto." But even Governor Veto never killed more than 29 bills in a single session.
Then again, Carlson wasn't auditioning for a spot as the Republican vice presidential nominee.
"The governor's behavior is consistent with his national ambitions," says political scientist Steven Schier, a professor at Carleton College. "The minimal work got done. The budget hole was fixed. Basic services continued. But he decided to forego compromising with liberal Democrats. By doing so, he in no way damages his prospects as a national Republican leader."
Back in 2002, when Pawlenty was a suburban state representative with gubernatorial ambitions, he signed a pledge to never raise taxes. Wearing it like a Cub Scout's merit badge, he rode its power all the way to the governor's mansion. But times have changed. The prosperity of recent years has given way to abandoned mortgages, vanished jobs, and skyrocketing fuel and food prices. And the state's looming budget shortfalls and crumbling infrastructure, suffering from years of neglect made jarringly apparent by the 35W bridge collapse, cry out for major cash infusions.
As Pawlenty leads our state at this crucial juncture, and as he waits for a call from John McCain, we figured it was time to follow the trail of corpses Pawlenty has left behind. And so, in the pages that follow, we autopsy each of the 34 bills that Pawlenty killed this year. Viewed as a whole, his efforts, like stonewalling on state transportation funds, opposing easier union organizing, and stopping gay spouses from getting health insurance, show him to be an anti-tax, pro-industry, socially moralizing, obedient party hack. To those who have followed his tenure in office, this is not really news.
But these vetoes reveal something more: They shed light on the leadership qualities of a man uninterested in reaching across party lines, unwilling to allow sunshine to permeate his secretive office, unable to accept blame even when deserved, and adept at exacting coldhearted revenge.
There's a model for that kind of leadership. His name is Dick Cheney.
In the aftermath of the 35W bridge collapse last August, Pawlenty at last wavered on his steadfast no-new-taxes pledge.
"Everything is on the table," he announced three days after the collapse. "I will be moving to consider and put on the table a gas tax increase."
Six months later, the Democratic-controlled Legislature opened the new session by overwhelmingly passing a bill replenishing the barren coffers of the transportation department. Helping pay for it: a 20-cent gas tax hike.
But by the time the bill reached his desk, Pawlenty had experienced a change of heart. Whipping out his "taxpayer protection pen," he vetoed the bill.
The story didn't end there, however. In a rare act of defiance, six House Republicans voted with their Democratic colleagues to override the veto. Their votes proved crucial; with them, the transportation funding bill passed.
But Pawlenty and his allies in the statehouse made sure the six paid a steep price for their disloyalty. Their leadership posts were unceremoniously stripped, and the party even endorsed rival candidates to run against them in upcoming primaries.
It is little wonder that Pawlenty reacted so strongly. A veto override is a rare and embarrassing moment for any governor, and particularly one hailing from a major party. Of Arne Carlson's 179 vetoes over eight years in office, not a single one was overridden.
If Pawlenty learned any lessons from this defeat, they weren't in the area of prudence. As the session proceeded, he would keep his red pen close at hand.