The drag party Tim Pawlenty never wanted takes over downtown Minneapolis

Activists either remember Tim Pawlenty's reign in Minnesota, or have looked up his record by now.

Activists either remember Tim Pawlenty's reign in Minnesota, or have looked up his record by now. Darin Kamnetz

As the sun set on one of the first warm days in April, volunteers for the Minnesota Family Council stood by the escalators inside the downtown Minneapolis Hilton.

The keynote speaker at this, their annual dinner was former Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- also the religious group's hoped-for future Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Yes, volunteer Naoimi Jirele said Friday evening, they know OutFront Minnesota had organized a protest right outside the hotel, and right when the dinner was supposed to happen.

Jirele's got no problem with it, she says.

“You guys have the right to share your opinions,” she says with a smile. Though not necessarily to learn theirs: No media was allowed at the council’s dinner.

Behind all the smiles, the Minnesota Family Council is one of the most vehemently anti-LGBTQ groups in the state -- the Southern Poverty Law Center has described the group as among "the most-obsessed anti-gay activists." And Pawlenty’s planned appearance before it on Friday was one of the first stops in his reelection campaign.

Meanwhile, outside the hotel, the protest crowd was beginning to build. A crowd that included the statuesque, spangled, bearded lip-syncing drag queen, Harrie Bradshaw.

“I didn’t know who Tim Pawlenty was, but now I do,” said Bradshaw, sporting a sequined gown and contouring strong enough to cut a diamond. Based on the signs popping up at the event -- “Pawlenty of hate,” “Stop trying to make Pawlenty happen” -- everyone else either knew the former governor well, or has brushed up on him by now.

“[Pawlenty] has a very long track record of anti-queer statements,” OutFront Minnesota spokesperson Jacob Thomas explained, as organizers set up the sound stage. This was more than just a protest. It was a dance party, a drag show and a speaking platform, with a DJ pumping music throughout. The council has their dinner every year, but it’s not every year someone with Tim Pawlenty's high profile shows up to kiss the ring.

Few know Pawlenty’s track record better than his former colleagues in the Legislature, a couple of whom were present at Friday's protest. Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) arrived at the protest shortly before the growing crowd took their dance party from the sidewalk into the middle of the street, and spent some time swapping stories with DFL House Rep Karen Clark (Minneapolis).

“I can’t even believe he’s running again,” Clark says of Pawlenty. He’d been a jerk during his time in the Legislature, says Clark, who is retiring after this year as the longest-serving openly lesbian state legislator in the United States.

Dibble demonstrates the move Pawlenty would make against him when passing in the hallway -- the kind of not-quite-hostile but not-quite-accidental shoulder bump you'd expect between rival sitcom characters, not fellow elected officials. That’s who Pawlenty was in the Legislature, Dibble says -- a bully and a blowhard.

Before Dibble became the first openly gay man to run and be elected to the Minnesota Legislature, in 2000, Dibble was an activist. He’s at home at a protest.

Dibble first met Pawlenty during his activist days on the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council, the forerunner group for OutFront Minnesota. He recalls meeting Pawlenty an hour or two before he and colleagues would vote on an amendment to the 1993 Human Rights Act, a bipartisan provision 20 years in the making, which would protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination.

“He was inclined to vote for it,” Dibble says, remembering that five- to 10-minute conversation. “But he wasn’t ready to commit.”

In the end, Pawlenty voted for the LGBTQ protection. A number of years later, Dibble joined the Legislature, and was serving alongside Pawlenty when he announced his candidacy for governor. It was around then that Pawlenty started talking about how much he regretted ever voting for the Human Rights Act amendment. As governor, Dibble remembers, Pawlenty shot down pretty much every LGBTQ community protection that passed his desk.

Dibble doesn't believe Pawlenty hates gay people. He just doesn’t care about them enough not to sacrifice them to his conservative backers.

“He’s a master of waffling and flip-flopping on issues,” Dibble says. When Pawlenty set his sights on running for president, “global warming” had become taboo for conservatives. So Pawlenty, up until that point a reasonable voice on climate science, began downplaying human influence on global warming.

“[Pawlenty] doesn’t stand for anything -- other than being cool and being a hotshot,” Dibble says.

That’s what’s so weird about the moment Dibble and Pawlenty find themselves in now. It’s 2018. Same sex marriage is legal. The majority of Minnesotans would bristle at the idea that a person should be denied resources or protection from harm because of who they are, or who they love.

There was a crowd in front of the Hilton testifying to that, including parents, couples, drag kings and queens, legislators, even an openly gay Christian pastor -- all Pawlenty’s would-be constituents -- denouncing him with songs, signs and looks.

Meanwhile, Pawlenty was inside, with the Minnesota Family Council. After all that waffling, all that flip-flopping, has he already picked this as the hill his campaign dies on?

“I think he’s shooting himself in the foot,” Dibble says.

As the cheers and the music got louder that night, OutFront organizers pumped up the crowd with recurring guarantee -- whatever they’re talking about in that hotel, it’s not as fun as what’s going on out here.