Norm's Conquest

Ken Avidor

In 1970 Norman Coleman was just another long-haired radical protesting the draft at Hofstra University. But even then he knew how to work a crowd, talk its talk, capitalize on the moment. "I know these conservative kids don't fuck or get high like we do (purity, you know)," he opined in the student newspaper apropos an upcoming student-senate election. "Already the cries of motherhood, apple pie, and Jim Buckley reverberate thorough the halls of the Student Center. Everyone watch out, the 1950s bobby-sox generation is about to take over."

Over the years, as the political tides have shifted, Coleman has slowly, surely drifted along. After graduating, the New Yorker eased into the Democratic Party's mainstream, got a law degree at the University of Iowa, and went to work for Skip Humphrey in Minnesota's crusading office of the attorney general. He worked there as a human-rights attorney, criminal prosecutor, and lobbyist for 17 years. In 1993 he ran for mayor of St. Paul--as a Democrat, but without the DFL endorsement--and won.

It wasn't long into his term that rumors started flying about Coleman getting ready to run for governor. The mayor steadfastly denied them. But behind the scenes, he was quietly talking to hotshots in the Republican Party. He struck up friendships with Vin Weber, a Minnesota congressman turned powerful D.C. lobbyist and Gingrichian revolutionary; then-Minnesota GOP Chair Chris Georgacas; and Bill Cooper, head of TCF Financial System and a Republican fundraising powerhouse.

In December 1996, less than a year before easily winning re-election over DFLer Sandy Pappas, Coleman told reporters he was "switching jerseys" and becoming a Republican. Within days of the announcement, according to phone records from his office, he began to trade calls with Republican national pollster Frank Luntz, an architect of the party's Contract with America.

During the mayoral race, Coleman's face started showing up on billboards all the way to the Iron Range. TV commercials--paid for with contributions from suburban donors and big-business interests--were broadcast statewide, telling people he'd rejuvenated St. Paul, recaptured pro hockey, brought the "pride back."

In less than the time it takes most fledgling politicians to move from the school board to the city council, the 47-year-old became the darling of the GOP elite and the envy of his former DFL allies. Blois Olson, a St. Paul-based political consultant affiliated with the DFL, compares Coleman's already mythical public persona to that of the late Hubert Humphrey. Republican National Committeeman Jack Meeks likens the mayor's long-term potential to that of another former Democrat--Ronald Reagan.

But Coleman has one more group to woo, one more ideological hurdle to jump. His remarkable transformation, it turns out, hasn't stopped at the moderate end of the Republican Party: Over the past year he has started a love affair with the pro-life, anti-gay-rights, hard-line activists who in 1994 powered Allen Quist's gubernatorial run. It is that group which, by Coleman's calculus, will propel his bid for the state Capitol. If his plan works out, the onetime radical could soon become the first Minnesota governor to owe his office to the Republican Right.

With just a few weeks to go until the March caucuses--where activists from each party will choose the delegates who bestow party endorsements--many Republican insiders believe Quist, who's running for governor himself, is about to throw his support behind Coleman. They say Quist's switch could come as early as next week, when the mayor is expected to officially begin his bid to succeed Arne Carlson. (On Monday, Coleman sent out a coy press release announcing that "he has reached a decision regarding a possible run for governor," and that he would make a public statement on the matter Sunday.) "Do I know if Allen will get behind Coleman now or at the convention? No," says one St. Paul Republican and two-time delegate. "But all indications are that he will do it sooner than later." Neither Coleman nor Quist would comment for this article.

Of course, Coleman is not alone in his quest for power. Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson, a former state senator and pro-life conservative, has been pressing the flesh and vying for delegates for close to a year. And while Benson and her supporters insist she's ahead of Coleman, many insiders say the newcomer has momentum on his side.

"Eighty percent of the delegates to the convention will be repeats [from '94]," says Republican political consultant Sarah Janecek. "And if there's one thing that's happened in the last five years, it's that the conservative movement has moderated toward focusing on people who not only agree with them on the issues, but who they think can win a general election. And right now, they have to know Norm is red hot."

Six years ago Tom Gerard, now the vice chairman of the 8th Congressional District GOP, was driving home from his union job at the Potlatch paper mill in Cloquet when he heard Allen Quist speaking on the radio. This guy didn't sound slick like most politicians, Gerard remembers thinking, but inviting: Here was a rural, grassroots gubernatorial candidate who would battle for fiscal responsibility and basic biblical values. On the spot, Gerard decided to attend an organizing meeting 18 miles down the highway in Duluth.  

After meeting Quist, Gerard became an advocate, and soon a coordinator for Quist's campaign in Carlton County. To this day, Gerard refers to the effort as a "special time."

"We made a float for Allen, an old trailer that we sandblasted and painted up," Gerard says. "We had the official logo and sign on each side of the trailer, and in each parade we had an entourage of six to 14 people. We had an excellent telephoning system, identifying moderate to conservative voters, not only in the Republican Party but the Democratic Party. We had several events where Allen was present. We had him here at our house."

A fearless farmer-cum-populist, Quist tapped into an impassioned group of followers angered by Gov. Arne Carlson's fiscal incrementalism and temperate social agenda. On the stump, he argued that protecting and rebuilding the family was the only way to reform education, eradicate the welfare state, and decrease crime. When he trounced Carlson for the Republican endorsement, the story made headlines nationwide.

Political newcomers, mainly from rural, evangelical churches, rallied behind Quist just as independents rallied behind Ross Perot in 1992. Like Gerard, Gail Weinholzer--who worked as Quist's political director in '94 and is married to former Party Chair Bob Weinholzer--still revels in the purity of the effort. "That campaign was about more than winning," she says. "It was about sending a message."

By the time the primary election came around, however, the message itself was what tripped Quist up. His comment to the Twin Cities Reader that men were "genetically predisposed" to be the leaders of the household drove scores of moderate suburbanites to the polls for Carlson. Quist was buried by a 2-1 margin.

Today Weinholzer is the communications director for Lt. Gov. Joanne Benson's gubernatorial campaign. She still respects Quist, still admires his talent. But when he announced last year that he was running again, she decided not to back him. "I think the bulk of the people who helped endorse Allen don't want to ride that same horse again," she says. "They want to elect a governor."

The natural choice for these people, Weinholzer believes, is Benson. The lieutenant governor, she notes, works for a popular administration; has a consistent, conservative voting record; and is an "articulate, intelligent, electable woman."

All that is true, and in any other year might have been enough to sweep Benson to an easy endorsement win. But not this year--not even among Weinholzer's fellow former Quistians. Witness Tom Gerard. "The main thing that really attracts me to Norm is that I feel he can be a unifying force within the Republican Party," he says. "I believe he is the only one of the Republican candidates that can beat a Humphrey, Mondale, or Freeman."

When pressed, Gerard and other Coleman converts are unable to put their finger on what specifically would enable Coleman to pull off this feat. They simply believe he has that special something, the intangible cachet of a winner.

But electability alone might not get Coleman anywhere in the GOP; it didn't help Carlson, a lifelong Republican whom party activists refused to endorse twice. To get the nod from the Minnesota party, a candidate must show he is willing to carry the conservative banner. And Coleman has let it be known that he is.

As far back as May 1997 Coleman was featured on the cover of a newsletter published by the Minnesota Family Council, the state's premier advocacy group for social conservatives. The article described Coleman as a modest "family man" who doesn't work on Sundays, weighs the needs of politics against "moral absolutes," and attributes his success to God, his parents, and his wife. In an accompanying interview, Coleman addressed the key issues on the council's agenda.

On what the council refers to as "the homosexual movement": "What we have had in St. Paul and Minneapolis for many years is [the ritual of] signing a joint proclamation making it gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender month. I will say that I support human rights... And of course that includes sexual orientation. On the other hand, I've felt very strongly that is wasn't government's responsibility to give proclamations for people's sexuality. I don't think government has a responsibility to issue awards for one's sexuality."  

On school choice: "Public education needs to be strong, but so does private education. I got an award from the Conference of Catholic Educators... I believe giving choice to families is important."

On abortion: "I'm not always with you there on the stump about it, but I am who I am."

"Who I am" may sound a little equivocal, but Coleman is emphatically pro-life. And while he doesn't bring the matter up much when interfacing with the general public, the heart-wrenching personal trials that he says convinced him abortion is wrong play well on the conservative campaign trail. They began in 1983, when Coleman's wife, Laurie, gave birth to a boy they named Adam.

The child, who suffered from a genetic ailment that affected his ability to metabolize food, lived just two months. The Colemans later had two healthy children, Jacob, now 11, and Sarah, 7. In 1992 their fourth child, a girl named Grace, died after only five months. She, too, suffered from the disorder. "I have a very deep and profound appreciation for life--very deep," Coleman told the Family Council newsletter. "I've felt the power of life [when] I had a child who was going to die."

January 22 marked the 25th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Outside the state Capitol more than 5,000 bundled-up protesters gathered under gray, snowy skies, praying in unison and holding up signs reading "Repent" and "Stop the Murder."

Both Benson and Coleman spoke to the gathering, organized by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Both articulated their absolute opposition to the spirit of Roe. "Abortion is a tragedy for all of us," Coleman said. "It is saying no to life and to promise and to hope."

From a political perspective, the appearance was a no-brainer. For almost two decades now Minnesota's GOP has been one of the most uniformly pro-life in the nation; at the Republicans' 1996 national convention, the Star Tribune, NBC News, and L.A. Times found that while one-fourth of the 1,785 delegates favored abortion rights, not one of Minnesota's 33 representatives did. Only one Minnesota delegate thought the procedure should be allowed even in cases of rape or incest, a position held by more than 50 percent of the Republicans at the convention.

Linda Koblick, a member of the GOP Feminist Caucus who favors abortion rights, says Minnesota conservatives may talk about moderating their tactics, but they remain philosophical absolutists: "The moderates in our party just aren't energized. So, although abortion is the least important issue to most voters, at the caucus level we end up fighting in vain for a woman's right to make a choice."

One example of GOP conservatives' hard-nosed attitude about abortion, Koblick claims, is that many of them don't trust Benson's pro-life credentials. Koblick says that's because Benson, unlike Coleman, has actually had to vote--and, in some cases, compromise--on the issue.

Other Benson supporters, such as state Sen. Steve Dille, echo that concern. Dille says some party pro-lifers still bring up the time, in 1994, when Benson advocated a small change in the "woman's right to know" bill then before the Legislature. If made into law, the proposal, backed by anti-abortion advocates, would have required a woman seeking an abortion to be informed of medical risks and options 24 hours before the procedure. Civil penalties would have been levied against doctors who refused to comply.

"[Gov. Carlson] said he wasn't going to support the legislation if there were penalties attached, so Benson worked for a compromise," Dille says. "The compromise was viewed as not pro-life enough. That was a bunch of baloney. They [anti-abortion activists] don't understand the concept of compromise, that's their trouble."

Coleman, by contrast, has had no record impeding his courtship of the pro-life movement. "I don't see [Benson's] face on a lot of anti-abortion literature," notes Thomas Webber, president of Planned Parenthood-Minnesota. "I do see the mayor's face. I think he's using this issue more to his political advantage."

Among DFLers, a new joke has been circulating about what the mayor's supporters should print on campaign signs for the Iron Range: "Norm Coleman: Pro-life, pro-gun, pro-hockey." It's funny, but party operatives seem to tell it through clenched teeth--perhaps because it runs painfully close to the truth. Coleman has stolen a lot of DFL voters in St. Paul, and he could conceivably do the same in the party's socially conservative rural strongholds.

At DFL headquarters in St. Paul's Lowertown, Coleman's phantom-like presence is almost tangible. When party chair Dick Senese catches wind of a discussion about the mayor, he pokes his head out of his office and shakes it knowingly: "Our boy," he says, forcing a wry smile. When party executive director Kathy Czar finds out a reporter is on-site to view the party's Coleman file, she becomes animated. "It's good to see someone doing God's work," she says.  

That file is both entertaining and revealing. The well-worn dossier contains the harmless, admittedly hilarious editorial Coleman wrote at Hofstra. There's a copy of a speech Coleman gave at the DFL state convention in June of 1996, when as co-chair of the committee to re-elect Clinton/Gore, he repeatedly praised liberal Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. And there's an economic analysis detailing the taxpayer cost of Coleman's vaunted downtown-development deals.

In one form or another, the documents have been sent to every politico, reporter, or otherwise interested party in town. Nothing sticks, not even the jokes. DFL Communications Director Tom Kelly complains that things which might damage any other politician--Coleman's inexperience, the appearance of inconsistency, what critics call his shameless politicking--seem to actually work in the mayor's favor. "It's February and he hasn't even declared his candidacy," Kelly says. "And people are already lining up to cast their votes. It's unbelievable."

In fact there's nothing "unbelievable," nothing magical about Coleman's meteoric rise in the GOP. Besides charisma and a freshly minted conservative agenda, he has one more advantage: the support of old-school politicos who can assemble, finance, and manage a powerful campaign organization.

Take Chris Georgacas, one of Coleman's key supporters who was state party chair before the current chair, TCF's Bill Cooper, and who now works at the Center for the American Experiment. He's in the midst of a 16-month, $400,000 study of state and local government designed to culminate in a blueprint for a post-Carlson Republican administration--a kind of Contract with Minnesota.

In January, the insider newsletter Politics in Minnesota reported on Georgacas's project, noting that because of its tax status, the center "can't and doesn't admit out loud that the whole exercise is designed specifically to be given to Norm Coleman upon his expected ascension to the governorship. But... it's a bit difficult to dodge the obvious." Soon afterward the newsletter printed a clarification ("Dear Tax Man--Don't Take Us Too Literally") emphasizing that the center was not "committed to a particular candidate."

Tax consequences aside, the episode signaled the extent to which insiders believe Coleman has become the GOP elite's favorite son. And on that score, there is more concrete evidence as well.

The day after the mayor's re-election in November, a group of the party's most powerful playmakers announced the formation of a draft-Coleman effort called "The Committee for Minnesota's Future." Co-chaired by Meeks and Georgacas, the committee was supported by Marsie Leier, who helped orchestrate a conservative takeover of the Republican Party in the 1980s; former Hennepin County Commissioner Tad Jude, another ex-DFLer; conservative writer and commentator Peter Bell; and Republican National Committee member Evie Axdahl.

Last Friday, members of the committee presented Coleman with more than 4,500 signatures on petitions urging him to run. According to Georgacas, most of those autographs belonged to party activists likely to be delegates at the GOP's state convention in June. Meeks says the committee's chief purpose was to round up delegates for Coleman in the March caucuses--a job less-fortunate candidates must accomplish themselves through endless road trips and bottomless cups of coffee at VFW meetings. On Monday, the committee announced it was ceasing operations; if Coleman begins his official campaign this weekend, chances are his supporters' efforts will be funneled through his official campaign committee.

Financially, Coleman is blessed with similarly stellar connections. According to a report filed last week with the Ramsey County elections office, contributions to Coleman's mayoral campaign committee since 1989 total $1.3 million. Of that money, $960,000 was raised for his re-election effort. Since nowhere near that amount was necessary to defeat Pappas, who spent less than $250,000, Coleman was able to run TV ads and billboards to give him statewide exposure.

Given where the money originated, that made perfect sense. Last summer, the advocacy group Minnesota ACORN found that two-thirds of Coleman contributors lived in the suburbs. They also concluded that more than 60 percent of the contributions came from business interests, which out-contributed labor 42 to 1. Marcia Erickson, ACORN's board chair, says the group believes Coleman was using his mayoral campaigns to set up a fundraising machine. "We believe he is pandering to the monied, and that he will rely heavily on these sources for his gubernatorial bid," she says.

In the gubernatorial campaign, Coleman--having yet to announce his candidacy--so far has raised no money directly. But the Committee for Minnesota's Future, unaffiliated with him and operating by different fundraising rules, has been able to raise $112,767 in just two months. That's about half as much as Benson's committee was able to pull in over an entire year.

What sets the committee's hurry-up efforts apart from other caucus organizing efforts is that it has relied on a small cadre of big-money interests. Declared candidates, like Benson, Quist, and moderate Roy Terwilliger, were limited to donations of less than $500 in 1997 and less than $2,000 in 1998. The Committee for Minnesota's Future, however, was defined as an independent political committee, with free rein to collect any amount from any individual.  

As a result, while Benson's campaign took in an average of $70 per donor, Coleman's draft committee averaged $400 a donor. The largest contributors were Twin Cities businessmen Ron Eibensteiner and Ben Whitney, who each gave $10,000.

The growing public support for Coleman from the GOP's good old boys has some supporters of other candidates, and of Benson in particular, furious. "Look at the history of this party," says Koblick. "Look at the women, like [former Lt. Gov.] Joanell Dyrstad, who work hard and then when it comes time for a gubernatorial race the party just drops them. I think that's a gender issue."

Benson, whom even adversary Jack Meeks describes as "one of the nicest people in politics," refuses to criticize GOP higher-ups who've jumped on the Coleman bandwagon. She's also loyal to her boss, Gov. Carlson, despite his penchant for advertising Coleman's accomplishments in St. Paul. But, she asks rhetorically: "Am I surprised certain people in the party aren't supporting me? Yes. Am I disappointed? Yes. Everyone has the right to support who they want. But these are the same people who begged me to run against Paul Wellstone. These are the same people who asked me to run with Governor Carlson."

For now, Benson's supporters are working hard to keep up the appearance of a front-runner. Money and big-shot support may matter later on, they insist, but the caucuses are different. There, what counts is personal, face-to-face campaigning and old-fashioned envelope-stuffing credentials. "This is grassroots stuff," Weinholzer argues. "Norm knows the process, but he doesn't know the people. He can't just walk up to someone and start a conversation like Allen or Joanne."

But Weinholzer may be underestimating her opponent. Political consultant Janecek, for one, suggests that Coleman's heavy-hitting supporters will not only make up for his lack of interpersonal contact, but turn it into an advantage. After all, the GOP's future delegates know all they need to about Norm Coleman. He's pro-life, pro-gun, and pro-hockey. The Democrats hate him. And Jack Meeks thinks he's the next Ronald Reagan.

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