Pawlenty stiff-arms Johnson in Republican race for governor

Tim Pawlenty speaks to members of multiple south metro chambers of commerce
Former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty speaks to members of multiple south metro chambers of commerce inside Edina Country Club on March 16, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Jeff Johnson has tried repeatedly to get Tim Pawlenty to pay attention to him.

After Johnson secured the Republican endorsement at this month's state convention, the Hennepin County commissioner urged Pawlenty to exit the race. Johnson also invited Pawlenty to meet him in regular debates, which he doesn't expect will happen.

"Nor did I expect for him to drop out when I called for him to drop out," Johnson, 51, said with a knowing chuckle.

Pawlenty, 57, also laughed off the suggestion.

"We don't live in Russia. This is a democracy. This is the United States of America," Pawlenty said in a ridiculing tone. "We allow people to vote without the Politburo telling people who can run and who can't run," he added, referencing the old Soviet Union political structure.

GOP gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson
GOP gubernatorial nominee Jeff Johnson speaks at a press conference following the state convention where he secured the party's endorsement earlier this month in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Johnson even employed Pawlenty's former lieutenant governor, Carol Molnau, who offered a less than charitable view in a video aired at the Republican convention.

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"If there's one thing I can say about former Governor Pawlenty, it's that I had a lot of fun with him at the fishing openers," she said. "I wish him well, but I am not looking forward to seeing him in St. Paul."

Pawlenty's campaign, in turn, has wished Molnau well.

Two months from the Aug. 14 primary, Johnson concedes he's got ground to make up on Pawlenty. And Pawlenty is providing little indication he will make it easier by engaging his rival.

The two rivals are due to appear together Monday in Minneapolis at a governor's race forum hosted by the conservative Freedom Club. But only club members will get to size up the candidates in the first head-to-head of the primary season because it is a closed event. According to a Freedom Club spokesperson, there are no plans to make any recordings.

There hasn't been a history of bad blood between Pawlenty and Johnson, who have a political relationship stretching back almost two decades.

In the early 2000s, the crisply dressed suburban lawyers had two overlapping years in the Legislature. There were four more years when Pawlenty was governor and Johnson was assistant House majority leader. Johnson left the Capitol after a failed run for attorney general in a 2006 election that delivered Pawlenty a second term.

While both were in the House, Johnson split with then-Majority Leader Pawlenty on 43 votes out of several hundred cast on amendments and bills.

Former state Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a legislative colleague of both, is backing Pawlenty in this race. She had fond recollections of Johnson — "he's a super nice guy" — but didn't see him as one of the squeaky wheels of the caucus who "were willing to challenge some of the decisions of leadership on occasion. I don't remember Jeff ever being part of any of those meetings."

Some divides were as minor as whether to include cigarette butts in an anti-littering law for state parks. Pawlenty favored that; Johnson voted against it.

Johnson broke with Pawlenty on bigger issues, too. Johnson opposed a widely supported terrorism preparedness bill in the session after the Sept. 11 attacks. Pawlenty backed the bill, which also established a DNA collection mandate and increased an emergency telephone fee.

And the two parted ways on fuel measures.

Pawlenty supported the requirement for a biofuel mixture known as biodiesel while Johnson opposed that. As governor, Pawlenty went further to impose renewable energy demands, the type of thing Johnson criticizes him for now.

When Pawlenty became governor, he signed five of Johnson's bills into law, including one to restrict the ability of minors to purchase or rent video games with mature content. It was later struck down in court.

Johnson voted against some of the significant deals Pawlenty struck with the Legislature, such as the 75-cent-per-pack health impact fee on cigarettes that was vital to ending a 2005 budget impasse.

As far as Pawlenty is concerned, a back-and-forth with his party rival does little good.

"We want to have a united party," Pawlenty said. "There aren't enough Republicans in Minnesota to throw people overboard."

He rarely mentions Johnson by name in public remarks.

"We're trying our best to focus on the Democrats and highlight my positive vision for Minnesota rather than getting into a big negative fight with the endorsed candidate from the convention," he said.

Johnson predicts Pawlenty's strategy will backfire. He says Donald Trump proved in the presidential race two years ago that political stature and a big campaign bankroll won't cut it.

"Frankly it's the Jeb Bush strategy: Let's have as much money as possible and have name recognition and then don't engage at all," Johnson said, referring to the former Florida governor pegged as the early GOP favorite for the nomination but who quickly got knocked out. "Don't talk about difficult issues. Have your 10, 12 talking points and always stick to them."

Johnson said he won't be shocked if Pawlenty all but ignores him right up until the Aug. 14 vote.

"I will be surprised if he does engage. In fact, if he does engage it means that their weekly internal polls are saying that we're close," Johnson said. "Because I suspect we're behind right now because he has more name recognition than I have."