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Profile: Tim Pawlenty
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
September 13, 2002


Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty says he's running for the job he's always wanted. But Pawlenty's road to the governor's race has taken a few twists and turns. Pawlenty, the House majority leader, dropped out of the race four years ago - and considered running for the U.S. Senate this year, before a call from Vice President Dick Cheney changed his mind. During his 10 years in the Legislature, Pawlenty has developed a reputation as an able leader and a quick wit. His critics say he moved to the right to get his party's support this year.

Tim Pawlenty
Tim Pawlenty
Born: 1960
Personal: Married to Mary, two children (Anna, Mara). Protestant.
Education: South St. Paul High School. BA in political science from University of Minnesota. Law degree from University of Minnesota.
Political background: Served on Eagan City Council, Elected to Minn. House, 1992. Elected Majority Leader, 1999.

(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

Tim Pawlenty may be best known at the Capitol for his sound bites. In his role as House majority leader, Pawlenty is usually the guy who gets quoted for criticizing House Democrats on the floor, or attacking Gov. Ventura's policies.

"There's an old saying that folks should lead, follow or get out of the way, and DFL should not stand for 'do-not-follow-or-lead," Pawlenty said of his DFL counterparts.

"In some respects, we feel like maybe we've bought a ticket to an over-hyped pay-per-view event. During the campaign, we saw the bold speeches, we saw the laser light shows and we saw the fireworks. But now that the match has started, we're realizing we're not getting the crusher of tax cuts, we're getting Sodbuster Kenny J," Pawlenty said of Gov. Ventura.

But outside the Capitol, Pawlenty isn't as well-known as two of his opponents, longtime Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and former Congressman Tim Penny.

With two "Tim Ps" in the race, Pawlenty knows he needs to distinguish himself. At nearly every campaign event, Pawlenty talks about his working-class roots.

"My dad used to say, who you are depends in part upon where you came from," Pawlenty told an audience recently. "I grew up in South St. Paul."

Pawlenty tells audiences his dad was a truck driver and his mom was a homemaker. Pawlenty grew up in a Catholic family, the youngest of five kids who used to play hockey in a backyard rink, and ball in the streets.

Rosie Atkinson and Peggy Stevenson
Pawlenty is the youngest of five children. His sisters are Rosie Atkinson (left) and Peggy Stevenson. They say Tim wasn't especially interested in politics when he was younger - he talked more about sports.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

Pawlenty's two brothers and two sisters say they knew Pawlenty was smart as a kid. But he wasn't particularly interested in politics, since there was more talk about sports than politics at the dinner table. He told his siblings he wanted to be a dentist. His oldest sister, Rosie Atkinson, says their mom wanted to make sure Tim went to college.

"That was one of her desires. She was very education-oriented, and she was hoping somebody would go to college, and Tim was her last hope - because it wasn't going to happen with us!" says Atkinson.

Pawlenty did become the only member of his family to graduate from college. But his mom didn't live to see that - she died of cancer when he was 16. Around that time, his dad lost his job. His oldest brother, Steve, says the family turmoil only made Pawlenty more determined.

"He grew up through some real tough times. And I think that's part of his personality, and one of the reasons he stays focused and stays on track," says Steve Pawlenty.

Pawlenty worked odd jobs as a teenager, stocking shelves at a grocery store and delivering newspapers. He put himself through the University of Minnesota, getting both an undergraduate degree and a law degree.

Steve and Dan Pawlenty
Brothers Steve (left) and Dan Pawlenty. Their mother died when Tim Pawlenty was 16, and that same year their father lost his job. Steve says the family turmoil made Tim more determined to succeed.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

"I worked my tail off," Pawlenty says. "I have kind of this attitude that if you're able-bodied and able-minded, you should get some fair shakes in life. You should have access to a good education, you should hopefully have access to a good job market. But if you're able-bodied and able-minded, you also gotta work hard."

While in law school, Pawlenty started working for the Rider, Bennett, Egan and Arundel law firm. The man who hired him was Dennis O'Brien, a mentor of Pawlenty's who says he saw potential in the young lawyer.

"He is ... bright, and he's also a very kind, gentle person. I think those are remarkable qualities," says O'Brien.

O'Brien says Pawlenty's specialty is trial work. He says Pawlenty's ability to think on his feet is an asset in the courtroom. Pawlenty worked in the area of education law, and represented the Minneapolis School District for 10 years. O'Brien says Pawlenty can also be very persuasive, a quality that has served him well as a legislative leader.

Over the past four years, Pawlenty was often one of only a few people trying to work out a budget deal in the final days of the session. One of the other people in the room was Gov. Ventura's former finance commissioner, Pam Wheelock.

"Tim realized - when all is said and done, you still have to close," she says.

"He is ... bright, and he's also a very kind, gentle person. I think those are remarkable qualities."

- Attorney Dennis O'Brien, Pawlenty friend and mentor

Wheelock says Pawlenty was one of the few House leaders she worked with who understood the need to compromise to finish the session.

She remembers at the end of last year's special session - which narrowly averted a government shutdown - the Ventura administration had major objections to some provisions in the state government bill. Wheelock said at one point she stood outside Pawlenty's office waving a copy of the bill.

"He immediately went and talked to their state government chair, and obviously the same conversation was going on over on the Senate side. And a number of the really objectionable aspects were addressed before the final bill was passed," Wheelock recalls. "Because it may well have resulted in a veto of that bill, and if that bill is vetoed, it probably wouldn't have been the only bill."

Critics say Pawlenty's pragmatism has tarnished his ideological purity. When Pawlenty battled entrepreneur Brian Sullivan for the Republican endorsement this year, Sullivan called Pawlenty a career politician whose voting record will be used against him by his opponents.

Sullivan sent brochures to Republican activists, criticizing Pawlenty for casting at least three votes for light rail, and voting at least once for the Profile of Learning graduation standards. Both issues are vehemently opposed by Republican activists.

During the Republican state convention, the Sullivan campaign distributed fliers attacking Pawlenty for supporting a gay rights amendment in 1993. In a late-night speech to convention delegates, Sullivan questioned whether Pawlenty was a true conservative.

Tim Pawlenty
"My attitude in life is, you can be a strong advocate without being a jerk," says Pawlenty, who is generally well-liked by legislators on both sides of the aisle.
(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

"Should we have someone who believes our principles less? No. Believe in me, believe in our conservative principles," Sullivan said.

After that speech, Sullivan picked up some delegate support, but Pawlenty ultimately won the endorsement. Before the convention, Pawlenty signed a pledge not to raise taxes to balance the budget. He's the only major party candidate to do so, and says he has no regrets about signing the pledge.

Pawlenty says in his 10 years at the Capitol, he's probably cast 10,000 votes. He says there are probably a "few clinkers" among them. The one vote Pawlenty wishes he could redo is his vote for the gay rights amendment. He says the bill protects people who are transgender and cross-dressers.

"There's a whole series of behaviors protected in that bill that have nothing to do with biological makeup. They have to do with, just, simple preferences, for example, of wearing women's clothing," says Pawlenty. "I don't know that we need to ... use our antidiscrimination laws in Minnesota and nationally to protect that kind of behavior."

Democrats say Pawlenty moved to the right to get the Republican party endorsement. State Rep. Tom Rukavina - an Iron Range DFLer who often spars with Pawlenty on the floor - says he was disappointed to see Pawlenty denounce the gay rights vote this year.

"I think Tim has a heart. And I've been trying to find it for several years on the House floor!" Rukavina says. "But I think he was raised in a good working-class household, and somewhere beneath those fancy suits of his, I'm sure that he has a soft spot in his heart for working people."

Rukavina says while he doesn't agree with Pawlenty's politics, he could work with Pawlenty if he's elected. Pawlenty is generally well-liked by legislators on both sides of the aisle. He says that's because he tries not to make personal attacks.

"My attitude in life is, you can be a strong advocate without being a jerk."

Pawlenty's attitude may be tested during what's likely to be a highly competitive race. The last poll showed Pawlenty, Moe and Penny running neck and neck.

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