Entenza confident education message will see him prevail

Matt Entenza
Gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza speaks to delegates at the 2010 DFL convention at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center Saturday, April 24, 2010 in Duluth, Minn.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

If you've turned on a television in the past few months, you've probably seen Matt Entenza.

AD: "I'm Matt Entenza. And I'm running for governor, because with new leadership, we can make Minnesota great again."

And if you've seen Entenza at a campaign appearances in the past year, you've probably heard a variation of this story:

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"I lost my dad when I was 15. He had been sadly an alcoholic for a long time. And he left our family, and in pretty short order we lost our home, and we didn't have health care. And but for the fact that my grandmother took us in at age 68 and found three teenagers in her lap, there we were, in a little two-bedroom house in Worthington."

Entenza is a former state legislator from St. Paul with extensive personal wealth. Much of that wealth was earned by his wife, Lois Quam, who exercised millions of dollars in stock options as a senior executive with UnitedHealth Group.

In filings with the state's Campaign Finance Board, Entenza reported spending nearly $4 million of his own money on his campaign for governor.

But Entenza rarely misses a chance to remind people about his childhood poverty and his small-town roots in Worthington. Both of his primary rivals live in Minneapolis. Entenza says his connections to rural Minnesota are a key part of his campaign.

"If you don't know the state from border to border, if you haven't spent the time there, you're not going to be able to govern well and get the trust of people," he says. "Because with a $6 billion deficit, there's a lot of hard decisions to make.

"And you need to communicate to people that you get what's going on on the Iron Range or in the prairie, up in Red River Valley or down in the hills of southeastern Minnesota."

Entenza is running in a tough DFL primary against former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who is the DFL-endorsed candidate.

Polls have shown Entenza gaining ground, but he's still running third. Entenza insists that the momentum is on his side.

"We're very confident that we have a strategy that for primary voters, which is a little like finding needles in a hay stack, will identify those voters and turn them out to vote," he said.

Entenza's confidence reached a new high at a recent candidate forum, when he proudly announced that he was already putting together a transition team.

It wasn't the first time Entenza has made an unusual move.


In 2006, he was the DFL-endorsed candidate for attorney general but abruptly dropped out of the race following revelations he hired a research firm that looked into Mike Hatch, the DFL attorney general who was running for governor.

Entenza said at the time that he was horrified to learn the investigation included a Hatch parking ticket.

Entenza, Robinson
DFL-candidate Matt Entenza (left) Thursday named former Fox 9 anchor Robyne Robinson as his running mate for the 2010 governor's race.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"I take complete responsibility for the fact that the public documents that were requested for Attorney General Hatch exceeded the scope that I had initially requested," Entenza says.

Four years later, Entenza says only reporters bring up the 2006 episode, and Mike Hatch still isn't commenting. Hatch is supporting Mark Dayton for governor, and won't answer any questions related to Entenza.

"People run for office on their own record. It will be up to Matt to discuss whatever issues he wants to discuss in this campaign, and I'm not the one to be commenting on it," Hatch says.

Entenza stayed out of the political spotlight for a while, focusing on the creation of a public policy think tank called Minnesota 2020.


He officially launched his campaign for governor in early 2009 and later decided to bypass the DFL endorsing process. One of the high points of his campaign came earlier this summer when Entenza announced his selection of Robyn Robinson, the former television news anchor, as his running mate.

"Robyn has had a distinguished career, but she and I share many things in common. Robyn came to Minnesota on a Greyhound bus, looking for a dream, an opportunity," he says. "And she became a person beloved across the state of Minnesota."

Robinson says she decided to take her first run at elected office because she was impressed by Entenza and his life story. Robinson says the characteristics that attracted her will also attract voters.

"I think there's a lot of folks out there who really want to know that there's candidate that has had experiences like them that they can really feel and understand their pain and where they're coming from, and what they need right now in their lives," Robinson says. "It's so important for a candidate to be in touch, and that's Matt."

Entenza doesn't have the union backing enjoyed by Dayton and Kelliher. He instead highlights key individual supporters.

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who dropped out of the race for governor in late April, recently announced her support. Former National Teacher of the Year Mary Beth Blegen praised him in a campaign flier, and Rep. Keith Ellison, who served with Entenza in the Legislature, voiced a radio ad early in the campaign.

AD: "When the chips are down, Matt Entenza will fight for us, for education and for health care. Facing challenges, creating opportunity, it's the story of Matt's life, and it's what we need in a governor right now."

Ellison lined up behind Kelliher when she won the DFL endorsement, but the congressman says he still admires Entenza.

"When I got to the state Legislature he was the minority leader, and I was a new member, and he was a great minority leader," Ellison says. "He combined compassion and toughness, which I think is really important because politics is an environment where toughness is needed."

Matt Entenza
Former DFL lawmaker Matt Entenza, left, announced his candidacy for governor on April 23, 2009. His wife, Lois Quam, is on the right and Will, one of their three sons, is in the middle.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

But during 12 years in the Minnesota House, including two years as DFL minority leader, Entenza also stepped on a few toes, even within his own caucus.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, says he won't support Entenza even if he wins the primary. Juhnke claims Entenza tried to bully him and others to get his way.

"That's old school. That's divide and conquer. You split people up but hopefully you've got enough numbers in the end to win," Juhnke says. "That doesn't cut it today."

Juhnke's experience doesn't ring true with DFL Rep. Tim Mahoney of St. Paul, an Entenza backer. Mahoney says Entenza never threatened him, and he suggests Juhnke is holding an old grudge.

"As much as I've been a supporter of Matt's for a good number of years, Rep. Juhnke has been a non- supporter of Matt for almost as many years as I've known him," Mahoney says.

Entenza regularly boasts about standing up to Gov. Pawlenty. But in an election year that could be hard on incumbents, Entenza has also downplayed his legislative experience to show himself as an outsider with fresh ideas. He says that's a winning formula for the primary.

"I think people are looking for someone who's not stuck in the old way of doing things. Things aren't working very well in St. Paul, and to some extent in Washington, D.C.," he says. "And they're looking for a leader with ideas to get us out of the mess we're in."

Entenza's campaign message is focused on education and clean energy, two topics he says are critical to Minnesota's future.

In addition to his emphasis on rural communities, Entenza has also spent a lot of time cultivating support from racial minority groups.

There's also no let up in the TV ads that Entenza hopes will reach as many voters as possible in the final push to the primary.