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Profile: Tim Pawlenty

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty
Gov. Tim Pawlenty addressed the media following the special session in St. Paul, Minn. Monday, May 17, 2010.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

On May 23, 2011, Tim Pawlenty declared his run for the White House. 

Though his Iowa announcement marked the official launch of his campaign, the former Minnesota governor had been hinting at his candidacy for years --at least since 2008 when Sen. John McCain considered him as a running mate. 

After 22 years of working in politics, with positions ranging from city council to GOP Majority Leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Pawlenty said he had what it took to lead the country. 

"In Minnesota, I cut taxes, cut spending, instituted health care choice and performance pay for teachers, reformed our union benefits, and appointed constitutional conservatives to the Supreme Court," he said in his announcement. "That is how you lead a liberal state in a conservative direction." 

His candidacy turned out to be short-lived. On August 14, after a poor showing in the bellwether Iowa Straw Poll, Pawlenty bowed out of the race. 

GROWING UP IN MINNESOTA

On the campaign trail, Pawlenty frequently recalls his blue-collar upbringing in the stockyard town of South St. Paul, where he lived with his father, a truck driver, his mother, a homemaker, and four siblings. 

In his memoir, Courage to Stand, Pawlenty said his town was a place "filled with simple pleasures," including a homemade ice rink in his backyard where he and the neighborhood kids would play hockey, a sport that would continue to play an important role in the candidate's life and in his persona on the campaign trail. 

The Pawlenty siblings described their youngest brother as smart, but not interested in politics as a child. For many years, he aspired to be a dentist. Pawlenty's mother had high hopes that her son would be the first in the family to graduate from college.

And he was, though Pawlenty's mother would not live long enough to see him receive his diploma. She died of cancer when he was 16. Around that time, Pawlenty's dad lost his job.

"He grew up through some real tough times," said Steve, Pawlenty's older brother. "And I think that's part of his personality, and one of the reasons he stays focused and stays on track."

Pawlenty put himself through the University of Minnesota, earning an undergraduate degree in political science and a law degree. That's also where his political aspirations blossomed. 

As a freshman in 1979, Pawlenty was impressed with Ronald Reagan, and joined the College Republicans to make sure his candidate was elected president. Later, he also worked to re-elect former Sen. Dave Durenberger. 

While in law school, Pawlenty was hired by the Rider, Bennett, Egan and Arundel law firm. Dennis O'Brien, a mentor of Pawlenty's at the firm, said Pawlenty excelled at trial work. His ability to think on his feet was an asset in the courtroom, and Pawlenty was persuasive, a quality that served him well as a legislative leader, said O'Brien. 

PAWLENTY IN THE LEGISLATURE 

As a member of the House of Representatives and in his role as House Majority Leader, Pawlenty was considered a lawmaker who understood the need to compromise to finish the session, said former Gov. Jesse Ventura's finance commissioner Pam Wheelock. 

Case in point: During the 2001 budget debate, Ventura had some grave concerns about part of the state government bill wending its way through the Legislature. Pawlenty convinced key members of his caucus to eliminate those provisions, said Wheelock. Had he not, Venture would have likely vetoed the bill and others, potentially resulting in a government shutdown.

But critics say Pawlenty's pragmatism has tarnished his ideological purity. For instance, during his 2002 bid for governor, Pawlenty's Republican opponent Brian Sullivan criticized Pawlenty for voting on issues unpopular with the GOP, including a light rail system, statewide graduation standards, and a 1993 gay rights amendment.

In 2002, Pawlenty burnished his conservative credentials saying that he would redo the gay rights vote because the legislation protected behaviors that "have nothing to do with biological makeup. They have to do with, just simple preference, for example, of wearing women's clothing."

RECORD AS GOVERNOR

While running for governor in 2002, Pawlenty signed a "no new taxes" pledge. With the exception of a 75-cent cigarette fee he pushed in 2005 to end a government shutdown, he kept his promise. 

Critics are quick to point out that property taxes increased significantly under Pawlenty's tenure in part due to cuts he made to state aid. Pawlenty has maintained local governments, not the governor, decide whether to raise those taxes. 

But Pawlenty's hard-line stance on taxes prevented him from resolving the state's ongoing structural deficit during his eight years in office.  Pawlenty's critics say he shifted money around and relied on one-time spending cuts to create the illusion of a balanced budget. In 2010, Pawlenty left Minnesota with a $5 billion deficit - the largest in the state's history.

Cutting government spending became a cornerstone of Pawlenty's presidential campaign, and it's true that he slowed biannual spending throughout governorship. 

Pawlenty highlighted his efforts to make Minnesota more prosperous. But the numbers seem to contradict his claims. During Pawlenty's tenure, Minnesota lagged in job growth, with only 6,200 more workers at the end of his tenure than when he took office in January, 2003. During that same period, Minnesota fell from eighth in the nation in per capita income to 14th - even when accounting for the national downturn. 

According to Education Trust, a national group that focuses on the achievement gap, Minnesota did not make much progress raising the test scores of minority and disadvantaged students compared to white students during Pawlenty's two terms. 

However, the state's high school graduation rate has improved since 2002. And Minnesota has the highest ACT scores in the nation. 

Meanwhile, 9.1 percent of Minnesotans did not have health insurance in 2009, up from 6.1 percent in 2001, according to state officials. In part, that trend is the result of cuts Pawlenty made to state-subsidized health insurance. 

RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT 

On the campaign trail, Pawlenty promised to curb spending without raising taxes. But aside from the economic plan he released a few weeks after announcing his campaign, Pawlenty offered few details about how he would manage his administration. 

Just as they did during the 2002 gubernatorial election, Pawlenty's detractors tried to paint him as a flip-flopper. Critics pointed to his previous support for a cap-and-trade plan as evidence that Pawlenty is ideologically malleable. And his flirtation with a plan to create health care exchanges also received attention. 

Other analysts contend that Pawlenty was too nice; he lacked the fiery persona that has made his competitors, particularly the other Minnesota Republican running for office, Rep. Michele Bachmann, so appealing to the growing number of tea party conservatives in the Republican party.  Indeed, it appears that Pawlenty had a hard time developing a stand-out persona during the campaign, instead trying to be all things to all Republicans - a reason why his bid for the White House fizzled, said political scientist Dennis Goldford of Drake University. 

"At first he seemed to try to come across as a mainstream establishment candidate that was more conservative than Mitt Romney," Goldford told MPR in August 2011. "Since January or February of this year he started emphasizing themes that were much more in line with the tea party and religious conservatives, he sounded more of those populist themes." 

And when the populist rhetoric didn't work when competing with Bachmann, Goldford said, Pawlenty went full circle back to his position as an establishment candidate. 

On Aug. 14, 2011, Pawlenty announced his decision to end his campaign on a conference call with high-level supporters. Clifford Hurst, a member of Pawlenty's New Hampshire steering committee, was on the call. 

"He just saw that the campaign wasn't being effective and he didn't see resources coming," Hurst said Pawlenty told the callers. "It's better to end it now, on a positive note." 

(MPR's Mike Mulcahy, Laura McCallum, Tom Scheck and Mark Zdechlik contributed to this report)