Huchinson undaunted by long odds

Hutchinson at the Wagon Wheel restaurant.
Peter Hutchinson works the lunch crowd at the Wagon Wheel restaurant in downtown Mankato.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Peter Hutchinson has never run for office before, and he's not used to being in the limelight. His wife of 25 years, Karla Ekdahl, said her husband is an introvert, so approaching strangers to ask for their vote doesn't come naturally to him.

But Hutchinson loves talking to people about the issues. As he makes a campaign stop at a coffee shop in Mankato, Hutchinson soon gets caught up in a discussion of health care with Charles Crow, an undecided voter.

"You are going to love our plan," Hutchinson tells Crow. "Our plan says, we ought to actually pay docs to do prevention so we don't have to do all this acute care that happens later on, and we'd all be better off."

Hutchinson talks to Charles Crow.
Hutchinson talks to Charles Crow, an undecided voter, at the Fillin' Station coffee shop.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Health care is a big concern for Crow, who does heating and air conditioning repair. He's married, with two children, and his family once purchased health coverage through MinnesotaCare, the state's subsidized health insurance program. But his family lost their MinnesotaCare coverage after the program was cut in 2003. Crow said he'll consider voting for Hutchinson.

"I like the things that he's saying," Crow said. "I also like Hatch. You will not find me to be a fan of Pawlenty."

Crow had read about Hutchinson before meeting him, but many voters haven't. Hutchinson introduced himself to college student Liesel Kruse, who was working on her laptop in the coffee shop. Kruse said she'd never heard of Hutchinson before he introduced himself. Like Crow, Kruse is open to voting for an Independence Party candidate.

"There's so many people that aren't involved in politics enough to be really - 'I'm Republican,' or really - 'I'm Democrat,' one or the other, so it would be good to have an independent, or at least a different party," Kruse said.

Hutchinson said as he's traveled the state, he's met many voters who are tired of the two-party domination at the Capitol.

Hutchinson at Dotson Iron Castings.
Hutchinson talks to employees at Dotson Iron Castings. Seated at the table in the far left is Guy Wass, who said he voted absentee for Hutchinson because the state needs a change.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

"There is this deep-seeded hunger in people all across this state for change," Hutchinson said. "And when they get a chance to think about and hear about what the possibilities are, they get genuinely excited."

But the polls don't reflect the enthusiasm Hutchinson sees. Every poll has shown him in the single digits. Hutchinson said he remains optimistic about the race, despite his underdog status.

"I've got a passion about this," said Hutchinson. "Passion that comes from years and years and years of wanting our government to be good enough for people to be proud of. I really believe that's possible, but it takes commitment from people who run for office, but it takes an equal amount of commitment from voters."

Hutchinson said he decided to run for governor after last year's partial government shutdown, which he said was an embarrassing blemish on Minnesota's reputation for good government. Although Hutchinson has never been a candidate before, his resume includes a broad range of government experience, both state and local. He served as deputy mayor of Minneapolis in the 1970s, state finance commissioner in the late '80s, and Minneapolis school superintendent in the '90s. He founded Public Strategies Group, which has consulted with governments around the country to improve their operations.

Hutchinson discusses higher education.
Hutchinson talks about higher education during a meeting with the president of South Central College in North Mankato.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Hutchinson's public service has not been without controversy. As Minneapolis superintendent, Hutchinson faced both criticism and praise. And when he was finance commissioner under DFL governor Rudy Perpich, Hutchinson said the state's budget outlook was healthy. But it was only after Republican Arne Carlson beat Perpich in 1990 that Hutchinson's office predicted a sizable deficit. Carlson said Hutchinson should have been truthful about the shortfall.

"It was about twice as large as we thought it was," Carlson said. "And so it really made for a painful transition."

State economist Tom Stinson says the economy went downhill fast in the fall of 1990, and none of the state's economic advisors saw the shortfall coming until October of that year.

Hutchinson's campaign staff.
Hutchinson's campaign staff, including Indie the bison, catch up with Hutchinson in downtown Mankato.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

As Hutchinson prepares for this election, he said he feels good about his campaign.

"I think it has had that combination that we wanted of straight talk and honesty and very thoughtful," Hutchinson said. "And we wanted to be very complete on the issues, with a sense of humor."

Hutchinson has raised more than a million dollars, more than any other Independence Party candidate in Minnesota history. But he notes that Hatch and Pawlenty combined have raised five times that much.