James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Take our governor -- please

Tim Pawlenty is one of the many modern office holders who could not have a political career without television.

Minnesota's governor is a man who holds every day citizens in contempt, a loyal toady to right wing billionaires, but you never would guess that from his television ads or the movie-star charm that melts the hearts of light headed television interviewers and swooning editorial writers. No hint of who he really is ever comes through the camera.

He has a reputation for being generous and kind to those in his inner circle. That, as the public should recognize, is not uncommon among right wing idealogues. They treat those with whom they deal personally well; others don't really exist as human beings.

In appearance, he's infinitely superior to Dick Cheney, even to King George.

Pawlenty would not have been elected to a second term if newspapers still were doing the job they were meant to do, but without TV he'd never have been seriously considered as a candidate for statewide office in the first place.

However, the national Republican elite have had him on their short list for higher office almost since he was elected governor in 2002, with 44 percent of the vote in a three-way election. He's still up there, despite having barely scratched out re-election last year against a Democrat who was despised and undercut by ax-swinging political reporters for the state's biggest newspaper.

There are many in the rooms where the strategists for the far right meet who think he would make a great vice presidential candidate or, if that doesn't work out, a member of the presidential cabinet or holder of some other high-profile job. Many think he is on a path that could lead, eventually, to the oval office.

He's the face of John McCain's floundering presidential campaign in Minnesota, but that hasn't done him any damage with the people who call the shots in the National GOP.

Although he's going broke nationally, McCain still is a leading fund raiser in Minnesota, thanks in part to Pawlenty. And, anyway, the gov's assets far outweigh the McCain connection in the eyes of the right wingers who run his party.

Given that he's sure to be boosted onto the national stage some time in the next three years, Americans in other parts of the country should be prepared. If you live in Iowa or California or New York, or anyplace else not saturated in right wing greed and hate, you might want to file this for future reference.

First, so you won't be surprised, Pawlenty will bowl you over on television, and probably in person if you should go to hear him speak. He is boyishly handsome, and wears good clothes with the ease of a Cary Grant. His smile glows. He's apparently self-effacing and can be genuinely witty. And he'll tell you what you want to hear – or seem to tell you that.

The sneers and cynicism that often show through the facades of other Republican bigwigs never are seen in Pawlenty's public persona.

Before he became governor, Tim Pawlenty was majority leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives. The House was controlled at the time by far-right leaning Republicans, and he made a very obvious and calculated rightward shift in order to get and retain the job. It was so obvious, in fact, that it was widely reported even by writers who generally won't mention facts that the power elite find unpleasant or uncomfortable.

In 2002, he wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, but before campaigning really began, he received a telephone call from Dick Cheney telling him that the Republican bosses already had chosen Norm Coleman for the job. Pawlenty obediently dropped out of the senate race and instead ran for governor.

That kind of loyalty and obedience is one of his great strengths in the eyes of the far right. They trust him to do what he's told.

After he was elected, but before he was sworn in, Pawlenty signaled his position to corporate executives by going to the headquarters of Northwest Airlines – the poorly performing, labor-hating, passenger-abusing carrier that dominates in Minnesota – and promising that the airline would get whatever it wanted from him so long as he was in office. Didn't even try disguise his act of obeisance; quite the contrary, in fact.

Before the election, Pawlenty also signed the “No new taxes” pledge demanded of Republican candidates in the state by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. That is a very small organization of very rich people whose only concern is their own pocketbooks. They make almost no effort to pretend otherwise. They are contemptuous of public education and against spending for pretty much all public services, including even maintenance of roads and bridges.

The governor stuck to his no-tax pledge with the steadfastness of a barnacle on a tramp steamer's bottom.

He decided not to sign the pledge again before the 2006 campaign, because it drew much critical comment, but has never stopped following it.

Like King George and his lot, a major piece of Pawlenty's agenda in office has been to cut taxes for the rich.

The effects of the Pawlenty governorship on Minnesota are substantial.

Minnesota, which used to be among the top ten states in per capita taxes, has dropped to 23rd according to a very recent report.


The governor and his allies claim, of course, that the reduction in taxes on the wealthy has halted a bleeding of business and jobs from the state.

In fact, various studies show that there was no such bleeding to begin with. When Minnesota was regularly on the top-ten-for-taxes list, it also was number one in several catetories such as health care and the educational level of its citizens. It had an influx of business because of the quality of its labor force, quality infrastructure and public services. It was growing in population and income at a higher rate than any other Midwestern state.

In May of this year, Minnesota's unemployment rate was 4.6 percent, the first time in 30 years that it rose above the national average. And that doesn't factor in the substantial shift from high-paying manufacturing and tech jobs to low-paying service and retail jobs.

Minnesota's roads were among the best in the country before Pawlenty came along. We now are just below California in number and severity of traffic jams. One of the governor's absurd dodges was to call for bids from road contractors to do a critical highway overhaul – using their own money, which the state was to pay back some time after the work was done, through borrowing. Big surprise: there were no bids.

At every step, on every possible project, the governor has pushed for borrowing to fund needed projects, rather than calling for the taxes required to pay for the work.

The state's low and middle income citizens now pay a considerably larger share of their incomes in taxes than do high-income residents of the state. Pawlenty has vetoed legislative attempts to partially correct the imbalance.

State aid to school districts has been cut drastically, with serious, even tragic, consequences for the state's K-12 schools. In addition, many of the payments the districts still get have been made late, causing more difficulty for the districts.

A July 16 story in the Star Tribune, which has been much less zealous about covering the school crisis than in heralding the latest doings of Prince, reported that many Minnesota school districts will be going to the voters again this year with referenda on increased property taxes to maintain basic programs. There have been many such votes during the Pawlenty years, with mixed success. Many districts have greatly curtailed or done away with arts, music and other such programs, and class sizes have substantially increased throughout much of the state.

School districts in richer neighborhoods, where residents are willing to pay the higher property taxes for their kids, are faring far better than others, of course. Inner city schools are screwed, not to put too fine a point on it.

Now some districts are saying that if they don't get more money this year, they'll have to close substantial numbers of schools, which, of course, means much more crowding.

Higher education also has suffered greatly – at least for people of low or moderate income. Average tuition and fees at the state's public two- and four-year universities and colleges and have risen by more than a third under Pawlenty's anti-tax goverence.

The gov also has a long history of voting against renewable energy programs, though he now claims to be all for it, and diddles the numbers in making his claim.

Under Pawlenty, with the aid of right-wing Republicans who pretty much controlled the Legislature before the last election, state aid to cities also was harshly cut. Among many negative results, police and fire department staffing has been cut in cities throughout the state, and where that hasn't happened, other services, such as parks and libraries, have suffered draconian cuts.

As one of the Star Tribune's last remaining truly professional journalists reported (today, as I write this), Minnesota personal per-capita income fell more than 3 percent from 2004 to 2006.

That is attributed by some economists and business types to the problems Northwest Airlines caused it's employees (though they didn't put it quite that way), but others say the drop is attributable to policies and decisions of Pawlenty and the former Republican majority in the Legislature.

The Strib quoted University of Minnesota regional and urban affairs specialist John Adams as saying the income drop and other problems – problems for people who work for a living – result from “a failure to compete effectively with what's going on someplace else” through investment in assets such as education, highways and other infrastructure.

There is a long list of such negative results of the stances taken by Pawlenty and his rightist allies in the Legislature.

The usual right-wing Republican arrogance and contempt for citizens, as opposed to open policy, also have had obvious effects in Minnesota. It's along the lines of what we've received from Bush/Cheney et al, but on a state scale.

A few recent examples:

The governor recently appointed a new commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry. He is Steve Sviggum, a former legislator with a history of anti-labor activism that stretches back almost 30 years. Of course, Sviggum is pretty much against everything not wholly approved by the corporate elite.

An employee of the state Pollution Control Agency, a hydrologist, said in June that he was barred by his bosses from testifying before the Legislature on the dangers of atrazine, a herbicide used on corn crops. He then was fired, and has filed a whistle-blower suit.

The scientist, who had previously worked for the state Department of Agriculture, said he intended to testify that the Ag Department misrepresented its own data in claiming that the levels of the chemical in state rivers and streams was in compliance with water quality standards. He also had some unpleasant things to say about how ethanol production in the state was increasing pollution.

We've had a big flap of late because it was discovered that the Pawlenty Administration's health commissioner suppressed a report on cancer deaths among taconite miners in northern Minnesota for more than a year.

Commissioner Dianne Mandernach informed mining companies, but not the public, legislators or the miners. She also failed to seek funding for more study of the situation. She did tell the governor. After the story broke, administration officials came up with $100,000 for additional study.

The heart of the story is that an unusually large number of employees in the taconite industry have contracted an otherwise rare form of lung cancer. The commissioner, a former nun who just oozes innocence under questioning by legislators and reporters, claims she withheld the information “temporarily” so her department could “get its ducks in a row” before releasing it.

Similarly, there are claims that the state withheld information on pollution of groundwater from 3M company plants just east of St. Paul. The plants leaked a chemical that was used for many years in the making of Teflon coatings; no one seems to know just how bad the chemical is, but there is general agreement that's it's not good for the human body.

Here's relatively minor story that nevertheless seems to epitomize Tim Pawlenty's approach to government:

The governor's commissioner of administration made a new contract with a firm to run cafeterias in three buildings in the State Capitol complex.

Another firm had run the cafeterias for several years and many of the employees had been around for much longer – for two or three or even four decades. Several of those people are disabled.

The thing is, the employees were represented by a union. They had benefits, including health care coverage.

Pawlenty's commissioner of administration, Dana Badgerow, gave the new contract to an outfit he said beat out the previous operator on a set of standards. (The difference, when revealed, was miniscule – eight points out of 1,000.) The new operator promptly fired the 18 union-represented workers, brought in non-union people who will not have benefits.

A spokesman for the administration department said the state has to get the best value for its buck. A rally supporting the fired workers accomplished nothing, sadly. My own state legislator and others have promised a boycott of the cafeterias. We'll see how that goes.

Look out, America: Tim Pawlenty is on his way. Our gain is the country's loss.