Pages Navigation Menu

Nick Coleman

The State I'm In

Minnesota Gets a New Guv; What’s-His-Name Goes Away

Monday’s inauguration of Minnesota’s 40th governor, Mark Dayton, was the most somber such event in my memory. There was little of the pomp and circumstance that have marked recent inaugurals, such as 2007’s second swearing-in for Tim Pawlenty at the Fitzgerald Theater, which featured Roman columns, palm trees and gold medallions hanging from the ceiling – it looked like a cheesy high school dance in the gym, perhaps a winter cotillion called “The Emperor’s Last Ball.”

Even the Capitol, where Dayton headed a reception after the swearing-in at Landmark Center, seemed dark and dreary. That was, in part, because long-delayed repairs to the leaking Capitol dome have left the spectacular Rotunda chandelier covered: The lights are off – a metaphor, perhaps, as Minnesota enters 2011 with a $6.2 billion deficit and a new Legislature and governor deeply divided.

Dayton’s inaugural, thankfully, lacked the buzz of Jesse Ventura’s 1999 ceremony, which was held in the Rotunda and included a gathering of his boisterous old Navy underwater demolition team members who threatened that, at any moment, one of them might shout, “Skivvy Check!” requiring the new governor and his comrades to drop their trousers and bend over to prove that, as real men, they don’t wear underpants. We didn’t even know until the last moment whether Jesse would take the oath using his real name (James Janos) or go with his spandex-and-boa name, Jesse Ventura. He went with the fake name, and remained in performance mode for his four-year term. When he left the public stage, at Tim Pawlenty’s first inaugural (in St. Paul’s Landmark Center, like Dayton’s), he hopped into his Lincoln Navigator threatening to run over any jackals of the media foolish enough to obstruct his path. Pawlenty made no such threats Monday, but that doesn’t mean he’d hit the brakes for the jackals who crossed him over the past 8 years. Not that there were many.

Pawlenty was one of only a small handful of Republicans at the swearing-in ceremony, and most of them were of the venerable ODR variety – Ordinary Decent Republicans – like former Gov. Al Quie and former State Sen. George Pillsbury, who were tossed on their ear by Mad Dog Tony Sutton and his rabid pals in the new MN GOP. “You forget they tossed me out,” Pillsbury said when I mentioned he was one of the few Republicans in attendance. “They won’t let me be a Republican anymore.”

Pawlenty sat politely in the second row, along with his smokin’ hot wife, Mary (Gail Collins of the New York Times included that notorious faux-pas of TPAW’s in her year-end quiz column) near Quie and the only living former DFL governor, Wendell Anderson. To his credit, Pawlenty did show up: Rudy Perpich, sulking after his 1990 defeat by Arne Carlson, skipped Arne’s swearing-in ceremony. But Pawlenty probably wished he had skipped, too, as he sat through Dayton’s coronation and took a drubbing.
The money shot from Dayton’s sober-minded speech was a naked challenge to the bullshit at the heart of Tim Pawlenty’s political pretensions, and of his empty national ambitions: That government budgets can be balanced without raising taxes on the rich, and without damaging the structure of Minnesota that was built, over generations, by the Andersons and Quies and Pillsburys and others who, in more decent times, squabbled over petty things but pushed, together, for important ones.

“To those who sincerely believe the state budget can be balanced with no tax increase – including no forced property tax increase,” Dayton said, “I say, if you can do so without destroying our schools, hospitals, and public safety, please send me your bill, so I can sign it immediately.” (Full text of the speech, here).

TPAW, your bluff has been called. Q: What’s the difference between Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty? A: Lipstick.

(For a good explanation of the deficit mess: See Bill Salisbury in the Pioneer Press).

It had to be tough to sit and take it, but Pawlenty declined to reply to the criticisms, and left the building. He now leaves to chew the rubber chicken in Iowa and New Hampshire and other boulevards of broken dreams where his Quixotic hopes of being president are likely to expire by next November. Even the StarTribune editorial page, which stayed remarkably quiet on Pawlenty’s demolition tactics for years — and where the unlamented bankrupt publisher Chris Harte once forbid any criticism of Pawlenty — turned in a last-minute critique of his two terms in office that lacked flowers. In essence, the editorial said, Pawlenty was a cipher and an empty gong, a poseur who did little to make Minnesota better, and leaves the state unprepared for the future.

In other words, it’s been fun, Tim. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.

Brian McClung, TPAW’s second-banana on the governor’s weekly Gee Whillikers radio show and former press secretary who – like many Pawlenty pals – has made a smooth transition to financial security in the private sector, reacted angrily (and like a true foot stool) with a commentary piece charging that the mild-mannered Strib edit – which was published on TPAW’s last day in office –  had “dropped a burning pile” on the steps of the governor’s mansion.

McClung is right about the smell. But he was wrong about who left it there.