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A Sudden Turn? You Betcha

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a far cry from Jesse Ventura. The conservative Republican is the beneficiary of a major new voter trend.

August 28, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Governing in these days of state budget deficits is not supposed to be easy or fun. Ask Gov. Gray Davis. It helps, however, if your predecessor was onetime pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, who bounded with a stage growl into the political ring in 1998 only to crawl back through the ropes last year, battered and grumpy.

It helps, too, if you're the anti-Jesse.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, virtually everyone agrees, is awfully nice. That might be enough, after four years of the perennially surly Ventura. The 42-year-old is also smart, boyishly handsome and a policy wonk. He holds two-hour news conferences rather than shutting out reporters and calling them "jackals," and he plays amateur hockey, or "human pinball," as he calls it -- a Minnesota kind of sport that voters find far less flamboyant than pro wrestling.

"Many people liked Ventura's style," said the staunchly conservative Pawlenty. "But then things turned serious."

In less than eight months in office, Pawlenty, who is often referred to as a "Boy Scout," has achieved more legislative change than the independent Ventura did in four years.

As Californians, incensed over the state's $38-billion budget gap, began a recall drive that now threatens to remove Davis, Pawlenty made swift work of his state's red ink. Minnesota faced a $4.6-billion shortfall -- the fourth-largest in the nation -- and Pawlenty threatened to shut down state government if legislators didn't balance the budget without raising taxes. Democrats all but stepped aside grumbling as he pushed through a massive budget-cutting bill.

With Republicans enjoying a virtual stranglehold in the Legislature, Pawlenty also has gotten passed other laws long sought by conservatives, including one that requires women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours and another that allows most Minnesotans to carry a concealed handgun.

In a state that has produced such liberal icons as former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, as well as in Ventura the first independent governor, Pawlenty's rise has been largely viewed by outsiders as a bizarre turn to the right.

Liberal Heartland

From 1948, when then-Minneapolis Mayor Humphrey showcased Minnesota values with an impassioned speech on civil rights at the Democratic convention, Minnesota, with its Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, was the nation's heart of reliable Democratic liberalism. That lasted through Humphrey's loss in the 1968 presidential election and well into the 1980s.

Pawlenty's win, however, is less evidence of a shift toward Republicanism than of a more subtle and complicated trend playing out in many states but perhaps nowhere so markedly as in Minnesota. Voters, beginning here with the election of Ventura, are forgoing strict allegiance to either party.

Fully two-thirds of the state's voters consider themselves centrists, and polls, voter registration and anecdotal evidence suggest that Minnesotans are not growing more conservative but rather are ready to side with the most convincing party or candidate.

"Party loyalty is not what it used to be," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "Many voters consider themselves independent, even if they are registered as Democrats or Republicans, and they're entirely willing to vote for the person they see as the best candidate, regardless of party."

Over the last two decades, Minnesota has morphed from a bastion of liberalism into the ultimate centrist state.

No one has won a Senate race here with more than 50.4% of the vote since the mid-1980s. After Wellstone died in a plane crash in 2002, local Democratic hero Walter F. Mondale stepped in but lost to Republican Norm Coleman, who took 50% of the votes in a five-way contest.

Pawlenty took just 45% of the vote when he beat Democrat Roger Moe in last year's four-way race for governor. In 1998, Ventura won with just 37%, beating Humphrey's son, Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, also in a four-way race.

The ranks of the politically unattached appear to be growing beyond the twenty- and thirtysomethings energized by Ventura's rollicking campaign, to include erstwhile stalwarts of both parties who share their disillusionment.

"I'm appalled by both Republicans and Democrats," said Allen Sigafus, 78, a retired county welfare director who spent much of his life as an active Republican. "I and many others now support the candidate who is most ethical and honest, most like us, no matter their party."

One of the costs of Ventura's tenure, it seems, was the rise of Pawlenty.

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