The former Minnesota governor searches the suburbs for a winning identity.

One Sunday morning seven years ago, a suburban dad from the Twin Cities was going through the Sunday morning routine: he got up, ate breakfast, went to church, then came home and listened to a popular radio talk show. “The Sports Huddle with Sid and Dave” features Minnesota’s venerable sports columnist Sid Hartman, still broadcasting at 91.

On this Sunday, this particular dad decided to give Sid and Dave a call. On the air he gave his handle as “Tim from Eagan” and proceeded to talk about a new sports stadium, an issue that dominated politics in Minnesota for much of Tim Pawlenty’s tenure as governor. It took a minute or two before Hartman and his sidekick realized it was the governor on the line, his demeanor not markedly different from their usual callers’.

Many pundits like Pawlenty because they see him as the ideal Republican. He comes from a white, working-class, ethnic background in the Midwest. He’s a former Democrat and Catholic, now a Republican and evangelical—but think Rick Warren, not Pat Robertson. He attends a suburban megachurch, wears blue jeans, and likes Bruce Springsteen. In short, he’s the modern dad, or at least the idealized version of one. He’s a conservative but not too far to the right.

In the pundits’ view, he’s the perfect GOP nominee for these reasons alone. Pawlenty has received glowing profiles in major newspapers and magazines, and while he isn’t as widely known as Sarah Palin, he has certainly received more attention than the average governor of Minnesota not named Jesse Ventura.

Given this background and good PR, it is surprising that Tim from Eagan polls so poorly in the summer prior to the 2012 campaign, even while he is still regarded as a top-tier candidate by the political Greek chorus. (Compare Pawlenty to Ron Paul, who often polls better but is not taken seriously by the same crowd.) But political journalists seem to be afflicted with the same kind of over-committed passion to phenoms, future all-stars, up-and-comers, and can’t-miss-prospects as callers to sports radio are.

Pawlenty, like the proverbial five-star recruit, has a great deal of potential as a national politician, but there’s a reason his polling numbers are dismal—an explanation beyond simple lack of name recognition. In a new era where the search for authenticity dominates our political discourse, Pawlenty’s lack of it makes him a has-been before he ever was.

Minnesota Nice

Pawlenty epitomizes Midwest meekness and a boyish, “aw-shucks” style. Up here it’s known as “Minnesota Nice.” This served him well as he rose from city councilman in Eagan to the Minnesota House of Representatives and finally to the governor’s office. (In his first term, he didn’t live in the governor’s mansion on St. Paul’s ritzy Summit Avenue because of residency requirements for his wife, who was a Dakota County judge.) And what better counter-programming for the GOP in 2012 than the mild-mannered Pawlenty in place of the angry Tea Party candidates of 2010?

Yet voters are having trouble connecting with a politician who has conducted an extensive “apology tour”—not unlike the one for which Pawlenty criticized President Obama—which has covered much of his record in public office. He apologized at the May 5 GOP candidates debate for his previous support of “cap and trade” legislation on carbon emissions. He apologized for raising Minnesota’s cigarette tax while governor. He apologized for proposing a gas-tax hike to pay for transportation improvements after the I-35 bridge collapse in 2007.

As far back as 2002, Pawlenty had to apologize to delegates at the Minnesota GOP convention in St. Paul for being one of a handful of Republicans in the state legislature to support giving homosexuals coverage in the state’s Human Rights Act. So many regrets and changes in direction leave voters wondering if Pawlenty has done anything as governor for which he should be proud. If you ask conservatives in Minnesota, the answer would be “No.”

While Pawlenty never raised state income taxes and was a down-the-line stalwart on most social-conservative causes, he also raised cigarette taxes, covered budget shortfalls with short-term borrowing, and supported government spending on projects like new stadiums for the Minnesota Twins baseball team and the University of Minnesota football team, as well as a new commuter rail line for the Twin Cities suburbs. Pawlenty certainly wasn’t a Chris Christie, Scott Walker, or Rick Scott—the new breed of GOP governors elected since 2009 who are dedicated to slashing state government. State spending declined during his tenure, but not by much.

Tim from Eagan is almost the last of a breed of Midwestern Republican governors—stretching from Illinois’s Jim Thompson in the early 1980s and his successor Jim Edgar to Michigan’s John Engler, Wisconsin’s Tommy Thompson, South Dakota’s Bill Janklow, Minnesota’s Arne Carlson, and Iowa’s Terry Brandstad (who is now back in office). They were not notably budget cutters, especially when boom times poured ample tax revenue into their states’ coffers. They were believers in activist government, as Pawlenty indicated when he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2006, “Government has to be more proactive, more aggressive” and cited neoconservative David Brooks’s contention that “the era of small government is over.” Now he wants to take back that statement too: “I didn’t say those words myself,” he told Rush Limbaugh in May.

Pawlenty’s serial apologies are not gaining him votes—or respect. Establishment Republicans in the market for a moderate prefer the Romney they know, the one with an unlimited campaign account, to Pawlenty’s imitation Mitt. And Tea Partiers have a hard time supporting someone who has been a political insider his whole career. Pawlenty got his start interning for former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and, fresh out the University of Minnesota’s Law School, was appointed to the Eagan Planning Commission in 1988 by Durenberger ally and Eagan mayor Vic Ellison. From there he went to the Eagan city council in 1989 and the Minnesota legislature in 1992. He rose to majority leader in 1999, and his legislative colleagues and state party officials helped him win a fight for the party’s 2002 gubernatorial nomination against a pre-Tea Party populist conservative named Brian Sullivan. Pawlenty finally prevailed in that contest on the 13th ballot, despite trailing in polls taken of delegates going into the convention.

Pawlenty was so ensconced in the party establishment that he broke state law by coordinating his advertising with the state Republican Party, an infraction that forced him to pay a $400,000 fine in the middle of that campaign. But the provincial party establishment that made him is now just one of many communities in Pawlenty’s life and career that has come and gone, leaving his rhetoric and political identity adrift.

Call From the Boss

The moment Pawlenty became a conservative is something he can’t really pinpoint. In his book Courage to Stand, he vaguely refers to the Ford-Reagan nomination battle of 1976 as a turning point, but it’s hard to understand why the Pawlenty household—living in an industrial suburb of South St. Paul populated by Croatian Catholic ethnics, union members, and Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members—would be so interested in the nominating contest of a WASP party, especially when the Minnesota DFL’s own Walter Mondale was nominated for vice president on the Democratic national ticket.

In any event, Pawlenty had more on his mind than politics at the end of the 1970s. Not only did he lose his mother to cancer in 1977, but his father lost his trucking job and the Armour meatpacking plant in South St. Paul, which provided thousands of jobs to families like the Pawlentys, closed its doors in 1979. Caught in all this upheaval, the young Tim Pawlenty, a Bruce Springsteen fan, might have identified with The Boss’s hit “The River,” written in 1979 for an album originally to be titled “The Ties That Bind”:

I come from down in the valley where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done
Me and Mary we met in high school when she was just seventeen
We’d ride out of that valley down to where the fields were green

Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle
No flowers no wedding dress

I got a job working construction for the Johnstown company
But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air.

Pawlenty had a different kind of Mary himself—one Mary Anderson. Pawlenty met her in law school, after becoming the first in his family to go to college. Mary didn’t grow up in the valley like Tim. She was from the leafy Twin Cities suburb of Edina and attended Bethel College in the suburb of Arden Hills, founded by Swedish Baptists in the 1800s. She was a born-again Christian whose pastor, Leith Anderson (no relation), had been in charge of the Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie since 1977. As Eden Prairie and other Twin Cities suburbs boomed in the 1980s, so did Wooddale, filled with economic refugees from places like South St. Paul, inner-city Minneapolis, the shuttered mines of the Iron Range, and the foreclosed farms of Greater Minnesota.

These economic upheavals, even more than his marriage to Anderson, might account for Pawlenty’s conversion from Catholic to Protestant. Catholicism is as much a culture as it is a faith. It was a way of life for white ethnics like the Pawlentys, whether they worked in cities, in the mines, or on the farms. Take away the old economy and ethnic neighborhoods and towns—which sprang up around the plant, mine, or farm—die too. Churches are not spared by the devastation. And so German, Irish, Italian, French, Croatian, Slovene, Polish, and Hungarian Catholics were uprooted and jumbled into a new mass in the suburbs. They were looking to establish new ties and new communities in their new homes, and Wooddale Church was a perfect place to do so.

As Pawlenty himself points out, he’s not the only ex-Catholic who goes there. Now repeat the process for the rest of the nation. Had nothing changed, Pawlenty might very well have entered politics through union activism, much the same way DFLers on the Iron Range still do. Instead, when “all them things that seemed so important … vanished right into the air,” he became Tim from Eagan.

Pawlenty’s ascent in politics was enabled not only by the state’s political establishment but also by his new evangelical community, to which he had bound himself by marriage and conversion. The community was a conservative one to be sure, but with a veneer of “Minnesota Nice.” They were not firebrands—unlike Michele Bachmann’s network, a key difference between them—but they certainly began to use their faith to influence state politics. Thus in 1990, when Pawlenty worked on his first statewide campaign, it was with conservative GOP gubernatorial nominee Jon Grunseth, who with the help of new evangelicals like Pawlenty took control of the state party from moderates like former governor Arne Carlson. Being popular with both wings made Pawlenty’s rise possible—over time, the party began to bridge the gap between regulars and newcomers like Pawlenty, which enabled it to become a credible opposition to the once-dominant DFL.

Tim From Where?

His openness to conversion helped Pawlenty become governor, and he no doubt feels it can help him win the GOP nomination and the White House too. But his turn away from Minnesota Nice toward hard-edged conservatism is coming too fast and too easily for many voters. The struggle for the Republican presidential nomination next year—as in so many years past—is really two contests: one to be the establishment candidate and the other to be the activist candidate. Because of his background, Pawlenty is perceived as the only establishment contender who can reach over and grab votes from the activist side—this is why so many experts think he can rise from low poll numbers to being the nominee. And to be fair, if polls months before the first primaries and caucuses were any real indication of future events, we would have had Democratic nominee Howard Dean in 2004 and GOP nominee Rudy Giuliani in 2008.

But Pawlenty’s campaign is having a hard time breaking out. He is boxed in by lack of activist trust—which fellow Minnesotan Michele Bachmann is winning instead—and no solid establishment support, which perhaps explains Jon Huntsman’s entry in the race. Pawlenty’s over-the-top campaign videos are more exciting than the candidate himself on the stump, but primary voters still are left to wonder whether this is the same man who said (quoting Brooks or not), “the era of small government is over.”

Yet there’s a deeper reason Pawlenty finds himself struggling. Tim from Eagan is Pawlenty’s clearest identity, yet it pales next to Tim from the Valley. But Tim from the Valley is long gone. Americans have tried since the end of World War II to put down roots in the suburbs, leaving the old neighborhoods for Levittown and beyond. But how can one create community when people keep moving further away and building bigger houses on larger lots?

The Great Recession has hollowed out the exurbs, just as the economic turmoil of 1970s and early ’80s did to places like South St. Paul. That leaves no real base for Pawlenty to latch onto, no rooted identity through which voters can connect to him and find in him—as in “Mama Grizzly” Sarah Palin—an expression of their hopes and anxieties. So once again, Pawlenty finds himself looking to be something else. Where will Tim hail from today?

Sean Scallon is a journalist and author from Arkansaw, Wisconsin.

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