A tamer Tom Emmer closes out freshman year in Congress

Tom Emmer
In this Dec. 22, 2015, photo, Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., is interviewed in St. Paul, Minn. Emmer, who has a year under his belt as a Minnesota congressman, has held 14 town halls in all corners of the sprawling 6th District.
Jim Mone | AP

When Tom Emmer burst — vociferously — onto Minnesota's political scene a decade ago, the Republican's style rocketed him through the state Legislature and brought him within a whisker of the governor's office.

He retreated following that 2010 loss to conservative talk radio, but has been back at it as a congressman for the state's 6th District for a year, turning heads with a milder approach and some stances that the Emmer of the past wouldn't recognize.

Now, his first impulse is to say little when political allies or foes stir things up. Back then, he reveled in the fight, verbally jabbing way to get his point across. He's come around to finding merit in U.S. monetary aid to foreign countries — a position he railed against on his radio show — and fostering inclusiveness, particularly among Somali refugees, instead of joining some in his party who fan ethnic tensions.

As the replacement to the outspoken Republican U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Emmer had been typecast after his 2014 win as another firebrand even before setting foot in Washington. One publication lumped Emmer among the "10 freshmen who could trouble leadership."

He hasn't lived up to the hype.

"I'm sorry if I'm not going to behave the way someone thinks they want me to behave," Emmer said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He added, "It's really hard to build a bridge once you've burned a bridge."

Emmer brought a win-or-lose mentality to the Minnesota House in 2005, drawing off skills honed in a career as a lawyer. In his new job, he's been more deliberate and has resisted overheated rhetoric that he says can get in the way of a desired outcome.

At No. 393 in U.S. House seniority, Emmer knows he has to bide his time before he's a bigger player.

So, in Year One, Emmer held 14 town halls in all corners of the sprawling central Minnesota district. He put his name to more than 160 bills as a sponsor or co-sponsor, including a measure to expand trade with Cuba and another to declare war on the Islamic State group. He visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Cuba and Mexico, the latter a trade trip at the invitation of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, whom Emmer lost to by less than a half a percentage point in 2010.

Ron Carey, a former Minnesota Republican Party chairman and former chief of staff to Bachmann, said Emmer is positioning himself well by laying low and building ties.

"He may not be flashy out of the gate but if you don't build a foundation it's hard to have a long and impactful career," Carey said. "The best way he can do that is to be a team player as one of 435 and not strike a provocative tone."

To David Hoff, the 6th District Democratic Party chairman, it's hard to separate the substance from the muted style.

"Basically, he's voting the same way as Michele Bachmann," Hoff said. "He's just not as vocal about it."

Hoff said Emmer should be speaking up more, especially to condemn seemingly hostile remarks toward Muslims like those uttered by GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump and others.

Emmer said he's working to facilitate productive conversations and avoiding getting drawn into presidential-race politics. He has taken a hawkish view toward combatting IS with military force, but doesn't want the Islamic faith to be blamed for the group.

"These people are animals. It has nothing to do with religion," he said of IS. "They'll kill. They'll intimidate. They'll steal. ... Religion is an excuse."

Emmer's office has cleared obstacles on family reunification and resettlement issues, said Mohamoud Mohamed, executive director of St. Cloud Area Somali Salvation Organization. He said he's met with Emmer eight times.

"Even the first time I met him really I felt he was communicating with me like he knew me all his life," Mohamed said.

An avowed fiscal conservative, Emmer evolved on foreign aid after seeing firsthand how the money helped African farmers increase yields and improve living conditions in desperate places.

"I was the guy who sat on the radio and said, `Why are we spending a dollar over there when we could be spending it to build a road or a school or a hospital here,"' Emmer said amid a lengthy recounting of his shift, the takeaway being: "Maybe we don't have to spend as many dollars on bombs, bullets and, God forbid, boots on the ground."

How that stance and others fare with voters will be tested soon enough. Emmer is seeking a second term in 2016.