Emmer faces testy group as he tries to fix tip jam

Tom Emmer
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Tom Emmer, left, reacts as Robert Erickson rushed up and dumped a bag of pennies as Emmer met with restaurant servers during a town hall meeting at Ol' Mexico Restaurante and Cantina Wednesday, July 14, 2010 in Roseville, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

Updated 7/15/2010 @ 12:39 p.m.

Roseville, Minn. - Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer Wednesday tried to tamp down the backlash over comments he made about pay for restaurant workers.

Emmer campaign officials say they recognize his comments about the minimum wage struck a nerve but they say they are ready to move on to other issues.

Emmer held a townhall meeting with servers to discuss his recent comments on the minimum wage and pay for servers.

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The event was a rowdy affair where Emmer's supporters and opponents sounded off. Facing a vocal crowd of roughly 100 people, Emmer started off the forum complimenting wait staff.

"The servers are the most valuable asset that the hospitality industry has, and they are the hardest working ones in the restaurant," he said.

I believe that if you excel, if you're the best server in the house, you should be allowed to make more than the minimum wage.

But many of the servers didn't feel the warmth. After Emmer's introductory comments, the forum turned into a free-wheeling affair where anyone with an opinion got to voice it.

Many said they were dismayed that Emmer would suggest that servers earned $100,000 a year -- a comment Emmer later said was misreported. Others said they weren't happy that Emmer would target their wages.

Ann Potter, who works at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant, said Emmer is attacking those who earn the minimum wage.

"We work so hard. Most of us don't have health insurance. Most of us don't have 401(k)s. Most of us don't have any type of financial protection," Potter told Emmer. "I am just absolutely enraged with what you had to say. I find it to be abhorrent."

Central to the issue is whether Emmer would back what's called a tip credit, which allows restaurants to pay tipped workers less than the minimum wage.

Emmer, who said last week that a tip credit has to be considered, has said since then that he doesn't have a proposal on the issue, and that he doesn't want to cut anyone's pay. He told the audience that pay for tipped employees should vary.

"I believe that if you excel, if you're the best server in the house, you should be allowed to make more than the minimum wage," he said. "And if maybe you're not the best, maybe you should make a little bit less and then work your way up."

Several servers indicated support for Emmer's position. Alex Zacholski told the audience that he earned more money in states that have the tip penalty.

"I've worked in Michigan where they pay $2.65 an hour. I worked in Omaha, Neb. where they pay $2.16 an hour," he said. "I worked in St. Louis, Mo. I worked in Kansas City, Mo. and I made more money in those cities than I did here and it's not because of my hourly wage, but it's because people are aware [of servers' wages]."

Tom Emmer
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer talked to an audience of restaurant servers in Roseville, several who were angry over Emmer's recent comments about pay for wait staff.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Several members of the audience shouted down Zacholski for his comments. Colleen Klink, of Stillwater, who said she has been a server for 40 years, told Emmer she didn't think he understood how servers earn their income.

"I just don't think you understand that not every establishment out there tips the way that some people think they do," she said. "Tips are down for one thing because of the comment that was made about us making $100,000 a year. There are still a lot of people out there who don't believe in tipping."

For most of the forum, Emmer listened to the comments. At some points he would answer a question or would push his plan that would exempt the first $20,000 in tips that a server earns from state income taxes.

He refused to tell reporters what he meant when he initially said a tip credit had to be considered.

But in a phone interview earlier this week he said he would cut the minimum wage if the Legislature approves.

"If somebody is going to pass that through the Legislature, we would absolutely sign it," he said.

While the forum focused mostly on the hospitality industry, it also shifted to immigration. As one individual criticized Emmer for his support of Arizona's immigration law, a man who identified himself to media as Robert Erickson ran up to the table Emmer was sitting at and poured pennies on the table and shouted, "I have a tip for you, Emmer."

Erickson later confirmed to MPR that his name is Nick Espinosa.

The forum ended when the Emmer campaign couldn't get the audio system working again. Espinosa, who volunteers for the group Boycott Arizona Minnesota campaign, told reporters after the event that he opposes Emmer's stand on immigration.

"I want to make sure that Minnesotans realize what Tom Emmer is all about when it comes to immigration and his views are extremist, they're hateful and they're anti-immigrant and they don't represent Minnesota," he said.

Emmer said he was surprised by the stunt, but said he wished Espinosa would have communicated his views within the town hall format.

After the event, Emmer emphasized that he was willing to take on controversial issues like worker wages. His DFL opponents say they intend to keep the issue front and center.