DES MOINES – T-Paw. He’s not the next big thing in rap music.
He is Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota and, as of Monday, Republican presidential candidate. But just less than half of Republicans know that.
As primary season picks up speed, Pawlenty faces an uphill battle. At 48 percent, his name recognition is about half that of Sarah Palin and lags about 10 percent behind fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann.
Yet the race for the Republican nomination is still wide open, and victory in Iowa will almost certainly give a middle-of-the-pack candidate a viability credential. More than any other candidate, Pawlenty is betting his national fate on his performance in the Hawkeye state. Since last year, he has visited Iowa more times and has been to more counties than any other candidate.
Although Pawlenty’s past reveals some moderate political views that would be anathema today, he now is bringing a message more attuned to Iowa conservatism. Significantly, he chose Des Moines to officially announce his candidacy and to continue playing to the hearts of Iowa Republicans.
“I’m not some out-of-touch politician from some other part of the country,” he said during Monday’s announcement.
Pawlenty champions the Tea Party cause, which worked for state Republican lawmakers in 2010. He touts his strong Christian faith and pro-life stance, characteristics that helped Huckabee to an Iowa victory in 2008.
“People getting paid by the taxpayers shouldn’t get a better deal than the taxpayers themselves,” he said during his announcement. “At a young age I learned the value of putting my faith in God, in challenging times and at all times.”
Jim Kirkpatrick, chairman of the Fayette County Republican Party and creator of the unofficial Iowans for Pawlenty website, said, “T-Paw is custom fit for Iowa. He’s genuine, a person of faith, a good family man, a true fiscal conservative. You just don’t see all that in a single candidate anymore.”
Central to Pawlenty’s campaign to win Iowa is his effort to depict his background as American-as-apple-pie. He grew up in South St. Paul, a working-class neighborhood that sits near stockyards. His mother died of cancer when he was 16. His father, a truck-driver, lost his job that same year. Pawlenty worked as a stocker in a local grocery store to help the family, yet still found time during his senior year at South St. Paul High to play ice hockey and soccer.
Pawlenty’s blue-collar roots underlie his populist messages. In 2001, he told Minnesota Republicans, “We need to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”
During his announcement in Des Moines on Monday, Pawlenty’s rhetoric had a similar tone. “Fluffy promises of hope and change, they don’t buy our groceries,” he said.
Pawlenty was the first in his family to go to college. He got his B.A. in political science from the University of Minnesota in 1983 while still working at the grocery. He earned his J.D. from UM three years later. In law school he met his wife, Mary, who was responsible for Pawlenty’s religious transformation. Though raised Catholic, Pawlenty joined Mary’s evangelical Wooddale Church, a 2,000-seat megachurch located in Eden Prairie, a Minneapolis suburb.
Boldly entering politics
He began his political career in 1988 as city planning commissioner for the Twin-Cities suburb of Eagan. Two years later, Pawlenty became a member of the Eagan city council, and in 1992 he won a seat in the Minnesota state house, where he became majority leader in 1998.
In 2001, Pawlenty received a life-changing phone call from Dick Cheney. Pawlenty had been considering a run for the U.S. Senate, but Cheney asked him to refrain and instead allow former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman to run. The call pushed Pawlenty toward the 2002 race for governor.
Then, as now, Pawlenty campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism. While running for governor, he signed a “no-tax pledge” for the conservative group Taxpayers League Of Minnesota. He promised to cut Minnesota’s corporate tax rate, the third highest in the nation at the time. As governor, Pawlenty did cut corporate taxes by 20% in 2010.
“Everything took a backseat to ‘no new taxes,’” said Rep. Keith Langseth, D-Glyndon.
Other sources of income were needed to replace lost income tax revenue. These included higher fees on licenses, increased property taxes, and a cigarette “health impact fee” of 75 cents per pack. Pawlenty has expressed regret for the fee, but to this day he maintains that it was not a tax.
“The Taxpayers League at the time did call it a tax increase,” said Phil Krinkie, president of the Minnesota Taxpayers League. “The State Supreme Court called it a fee.” Krinkie was a Ramsey County representative in the Minnesota State Legislature from 1991 to 2006.
Pawlenty did cut spending in Minnesota’s two-year budget for 2010 and 2011, the first biennial decrease since 1960. However, Pawlenty’s critics argue that the governor simply pushed to fund projects through bonding bills and federal programs, thereby avoiding blemishes of increased government spending on his record.
In 2009, Pawlenty was sued over his use of the executive power of “unallotment.” Unallotment allows the governor to make budget cuts in order to keep the budget balanced and the state functioning in the event the legislature cannot create a balanced budget.
Faced with a $2.7 billion budget deficit, Pawlenty used unallotment to cut funding to various programs in the Department of Health and Human Services. In Brayton v. Pawlenty, the Minnesota State Supreme Court ruled 4-3 against Pawlenty, saying that the governor exceeded his authority in wielding the unallotment power.
Nevertheless, Kirkpatrick praises Pawlenty for taking a stand on spending.
Aside from the Brayton ruling, Pawlenty has kept clear of controversy and scandal. As a legislator, he consistently abstained from voting on any bill involving his own legal clients.
However, critics have cried foul over Pawlenty’s past ties with the unscrupulous telemarketing firm New Access. He served on the board for New Access from 2000 to 2001, during which time slamming complaints began coming in. Pawlenty denies having any knowledge of the complaints during his time with the company.
In 2004, New Access paid a $2 million settlement after consumers in 10 states, including Iowa, sued the company for misleading them in sales calls.
Although Pawlenty’s political career survived that controversy, his past stances on some social issues offer some fodder to his competitors.
Changing stances, regret
Pawlenty has shifted his views on gay rights and climate change. In 1993, he voted for a bill that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodation, housing, and employment. He has since regretted his support of the bill, and in 2010 he vetoed a bill that would have allowed a surviving same-sex partner to carry out a deceased partner’s funeral wishes and sue in the case of wrongful death.
In 2007, Pawlenty signed a bill that required Minnesota to reduce its emissions 15 percent by 2015 and 80 percent by 2050.
“The nation has been asleep at the switch, but here in Minnesota we are kick-starting the future by increasing our nation-leading per capita renewable fuel use, boosting cost-saving measures and tackling greenhouse gas emissions,” he said at the time.
Now, perhaps hoping to put his conservative credentials more in order, Pawlenty has since apologized for the legislation, and he has questioned how much of a role humans play in climate change.
In April, at a Tea Party rally in Des Moines, Pawlenty touted his conservative record in a blue state. “To quote Frank Sinatra, if we can bring conservatism here, we can do it anywhere,” he said.
Now that Pawlenty’s candidacy is official, Kirkpatrick advises his man to stick to his guns as he battles for Iowa and beyond.
“Be a Reagan conservative, stress Christian values, and don’t give too much to the middle,” he said.