A different Tom Emmer emerges in Congress

Republican congressman Tom Emmer
Republican congressman Tom Emmer in his Washington, DC office on March 26, 2015.
Brett Neely | MPR News

U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer made a name for himself in Minnesota politics as a brash and unapologetic conservative and as a champion of the tea party movement.

But as Minnesota's newest member of Congress, the Republican who represents the 6th District has struck a more low-key note. Some of his allies worry he may no longer be on their side.

Some say Emmer has changed quite a bit from the days when he built a reputation as a verbal grenade launcher.

As a state legislator, he called for the nullification of federal laws.

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As a candidate for governor in 2010, Emmer questioned whether restaurant servers should be paid the minimum wage and won the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

As a conservative talk radio host in the Twin Cities, Emmer didn't pull any punches when talking about Democrats.

"They're destroying wealth in the United States of America because they hate wealthy people unless they're paying for their campaigns," he said in September of 2011.

These days, Emmer is a lot different.

He can sometimes be found holding the gavel inside a nearly empty U.S. House chamber, practicing his poker face for the C-SPAN cameras and announcing that "the House will be in order."

The ritual offers new members of Congress a chance to master parliamentary procedure. Emmer said the shifts overseeing an empty House of Representatives are part of his quest to understand how Congress works.

"You've got to learn all the machinery, you've got to meet all the people," Emmer said. "You've got to start to understand what the history is and how it works. That doesn't happen in 90 days."

Rep. Tom Emmer
Then Rep.-elect Tom Emmer, R-Minn., attended a new member orientation on Capitol Hill, Nov. 13, 2014.
Susan Walsh | AP 2014

Emmer, who aims to meet with every member of the foreign relations and agriculture committees he serves on, said some of his supporters don't understand why he's trying to build bridges.

"They think that means, you know, building relationships, you're going to sell out, you're going to give away," he said. "No, you know who you are when you come here. You know who sent you here, you know who you have to answer to."

So far, Emmer's charm campaign is working, said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Democrat who also serves on the agriculture committee.

"He's been good; he's approaching this exactly the right way," said Peterson, who represents the 7th District. "He's keeping his head down, doing his work, not making any bombastic speeches or anything."

Not all Democrats are impressed.

Emmer only looks good next to his predecessor, said David Hoff, chair of the DFL party in the 6th District.

"Well, compared to Michele Bachmann, I think just about anybody would look good because she was such a divisive person," he said.

Pointing to Emmer's nearly party-line voting record, Hoff said the contrast with Bachmann is only superficial.

"But as far as his actions, I think we can expect more of the same as far as how he's going to vote," Hoff said.

Still, Emmer's votes haven't pleased some of his closest allies.

He backed House Speaker John Boehner's bid for a third term, voted for a Department of Homeland Security funding bill that did not defund President Obama's executive actions on immigration and supported a change to Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors that could potentially add billions to the national debt.

Tea party and conservative outside groups opposed all of the votes.

"Tom is doing things that are hurting me inside," said Jack Rogers, a leader of the Minnesota Tea Party Alliance. "That doesn't mean I stop loving him or caring for him or praying for him."

Rogers describes Emmer as a good friend but said his recent votes are worrying and could give rise to a primary challenge in 2016.

"Those principles really do matter and people are watching, people are measuring and people are paying attention," he said.

Emmer said he voted the way he did because conservatives never offered a realistic alternative to the measures that passed. He said that to the extent he's being held more accountable for his actions by his constituents than other members of Congress, he takes that as a compliment.

After the Homeland Security vote, Emmer said he spent hours at a tea party meeting assuring people that he hasn't betrayed his conservative beliefs.

"They just want to know that the people they're electing into office are listening to them, are being responsive to them, and are being accountable to them," Emmer said.