Worse for Wear

Stars and swipes: Republican gubernatorial nominee Tim Pawlenty
Courtesy of Minnesota House of Representatives

Sometimes the "conventional" wisdom doesn't make sense. After state Sen. Tim Pawlenty (R-Eagan) finally gained the Republican endorsement for governor at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday, the Sunday editions of both metro dailies chose to spin the result as a sign of party amity. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Pawlenty "emerged without many visible bruises" from Friday's marathon endorsement fight with Orono businessman Brian Sullivan at the party's convention inside St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center. For its part, the Star Tribune declared the Republicans "more unified than they have been in years."

Oh really? Then why did it take 12 ballots and 18 hours' worth of name-calling, arm-twisting, and politically poisonous right-wing purity tests before Pawlenty was granted the endorsement?

Pundits who argue that Pawlenty is in good political health point to his lack of opposition in September's Republican primary, and to Sullivan's concession-speech pledge to toss some of his spare bags of money Pawlenty's way and otherwise do whatever is asked of him to ensure victory in November. But it's hard to imagine that the more than 1,000 conservative delegates who split the party down the middle by defying Pawlenty throughout the convention will share Sullivan's collegial enthusiasm. These grassroots activists have good reason not to trust their gubernatorial nominee. They bore the brunt of the Pawlenty campaign's strong-arm tactics, albeit while giving as good as they got nearly every step of the way. And they are the people Pawlenty will have to betray if he is to have any hope of winning in November.

The Pawlenty-Sullivan battle was rife with petty allegations and brass-knuckle tactics long before the first nominating speeches were uttered on Friday, June 14. That morning, an issue of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota described the race as "The Contest From Hades," adding that, "in their convention, Democrats didn't say anything real bad about other Democrats. The Republicans haven't been so lucky." Through some tortured logic, the Pawlenty campaign had tried to portray Sullivan--a family-values fanatic perhaps best described as a richer, more photogenic Rod Grams--as a liberal insider. Specifically, a series of press releases from the Pawlenty camp noted that Sullivan had interned for a Democratic congresswoman from Maryland (true, but it was a reward for Sullivan being the top student in his high school class); and that he had given money to DFL U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo and attended a retreat hosted by Bill Clinton (as if a fat-cat businessman greasing palms and rubbing shoulders with members of both parties is some sort of revelation).

If Sullivan's supporters are to be believed, the Pawlenty folks were nastier behind the scenes. Jaye Fritz, a Sullivan delegate from Winona County, claimed that Pawlenty supporters, including some Republican legislators, had been "spreading misinformation about Brian, personal issues about his personal conduct. I've worked in First District politics in excess of 30 years and I haven't seen anything like this before." Fritz responded with a letter-- one of a blizzard of Xeroxes put out by both candidates throughout the day--distributed on the convention floor, headlined, "This is our process, not the legislators [sic]!"

Another Sullivan campaign handout castigated Pawlenty for opining that a woman impregnated as a result of rape should be allowed the option of an abortion. Sullivan's people obviously (and probably accurately) thought the delegates would be more pleasantly disposed toward their guy's advice to the woman, which was to buck herself up through prayer and deliver the baby.

It would be interesting to know what Justin Krych thinks of the Star Tribune's declaration of Republican unity. Krych, who is running for the state senate in the Seventh District, says that when he attended the district convention on May 4, he was approached in the hallway by Rep. Larry Howes (R-Walker) and told that if he continued to support Sullivan, he would not be given any campaign funding by the Republican caucus. (Howes could not be reached for comment.)

"I kept my mouth closed about it for the benefit of the party. But it has happened twice more today," Krych said Friday. "On two occasions people wearing Pawlenty shirts, who identified themselves as elected representatives, told me that as soon as I take off my [Sullivan] vest, I can go see a guy about money for my campaign. I absolutely will not and cannot be bought. If it means I lose $5,000 or $10,000 for my campaign, so be it." (Krych was ruled out of order by the convention chair when he tried to bring the matter to the attention of the delegates.)

As the Pawlenty-Sullivan gridlock became more protracted, rancor between the mostly pro-Sullivan grassroots activists and the mostly pro-Pawlenty elected officials became harder to contain. At one point, Sullivan delegates evicted Steve Sviggum, the party's Speaker of the House, from the convention floor because he didn't have proper credentials.

"I've been telling these people that if we nominate Sullivan we'll lose [the party's majority in] the house and have no chance of taking the senate. 'Good!' they yell back at me," said one Pawlenty supporter. "They've totally lost sight of why we're here."

The debate over the final wording of the party platform, conducted during the long periods when the ballots were being counted, gave the activists a chance to discipline those officials they perceived to be selling out. For years moderate Democrats and Republicans alike have mollified party zealots by accepting extreme platform positions, which they promptly ignore after the convention adjourns. But early Friday, the Republicans had passed a resolution stating that candidates who do not align themselves with the platform can be denied party funding and other support. Financial cudgel in hand, the activists sought to press their advantage: At one point, delegates tried to toughen an amendment that already equated abortion with first-degree murder.

Many of the more Draconian amendments failed to pass. But one potentially troublesome platform addition involved a proposal that would essentially abolish school lunch programs, on the grounds that they promote economic socialism. (The number of subsidized meals provided in a given school helps determine its funding.)

Rep. Bob Ness (R-Dassel), a member of both the Education Policy and K-12 Education Finance committees of the legislature, told delegates that the proposal "would absolutely devastate virtually every district in terms of their cash flow. It is a bad idea." Recently retired Rep. Dave Bishop (R-Rochester), another legislator steeped in education policy, likewise scrambled to the microphone. "This amendment would be a huge embarrassment for the Republican Party," he warned. "It's elitist." No matter. The amendment passed.

Theoretically, at least, Tim Pawlenty is now in a position of either opposing funding for school lunches or losing his party's support in the election. In addition, to appease the party's right wing, he now has agreed not to raise taxes and has said that his 1993 vote for gay rights was "a mistake." If those don't add up to visible bruises on his chances of capturing the centrist, suburban, independent voters so crucial to victory in November, you can expect that gubernatorial opponents like Roger Moe, the Green Party's Ken Pentel, and perhaps Jesse Ventura, the greatest mud wrestler of them all, will go to work on making them visible in the months ahead.

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