Minnesota governor hopefuls get personal with voters as primary nears

Gubernatorial candidates in the 2018 election.
From left: Gubernatorial candidates Jeff Johnson, Tim Pawlenty, Erin Murphy, Lori Swanson and Tim Walz.
MPR News

Candidates for office face a common quandary: What's the right balance between talking about themselves versus what they would do for voters?

The answer for many is to blend biography with policy aims.

"I'm Tim Walz, I'm a public school teacher from Mankato, married to an English school teacher at Mankato West, father to two public school students."

That's how Walz, a six-term southern Minnesota congressman, began a session at a St. Louis Park school last month. Educators, students and others formed a circle and heard Walz talk about quality education as the great equalizer.

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Tim Walz and running mate Peggy Flanagan at a school.
Tim Walz and running mate Peggy Flanagan at a school in St. Louis Park during a roundtable on education.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

As he competes for the DFL nomination, Walz hits the notes of the party's 2018 soundtrack: Resist President Trump, boost the minimum wage and expand health care programs.

But he also leans heavily on his teaching background, sometimes playing it up over his service in the National Guard or his recent time in elective office.

While all of the main candidates are airing TV ads, their appearances at cafes, local chambers of commerce meetings and in union halls matter just as much as they make personal appeals to the narrow universe of voters who will decide who wins the Aug. 14 primary.

State Rep. Erin Murphy, the DFL-endorsed candidate, isn't shy about talking about her long involvement in politics, sharing at events how she first volunteered for a campaign in eighth grade in the Wisconsin city where she grew up.

Minnesota DFL convention
Erin Murphy speaks to supporters after winning the DFL endorsement for Minnesota governor at the state DFL convention June 2, 2018, in Rochester, Minn.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

"We put bumper stickers on the bumpers of cars in a mall parking lot without asking. Can you imagine that now, if you came to your car and there's a bumper sticker on it? It's super funny right? But he got elected," Murphy said, telling the story with a hearty laugh during a recent meet-and-greet with women in Minneapolis. They also heard Murphy describe her journey from nursing to organizing to a campaign for the state's highest office.

Murphy wants new gun restrictions, a bigger government role in health insurance and other policies that resonate especially on the left. But she also tells audiences she wants to move away from today's winner-take-all politics.

"In my experience, it has become too much about beating the other side, too much about setting up the next election and not enough about our future," Murphy said. "The answer is us."

The third DFL candidate in the mix, Lori Swanson, stresses how she hasn't been part of the gridlock in Washington or St. Paul, so she is best equipped to fix it.

Minn. AG Lori Swanson announces a run for governor with Rep. Rick Nolan.
Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson announces she is running for governor with U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan as her running mate, at the Marquette Hotel in Minneapolis on June 4, 2018.
Lacey Young | MPR News

"For 12 years as attorney general, I've been a problem solver. I've taken on big problems. I've cut through the red tape and the clutter and have gotten things done for people," Swanson said during a forum of economic development officials in Nisswa.

Swanson was a surprise late entrant in the governor's race, but having run and won three times statewide, she's letting her record do much of the talking in TV ads.

"I've worked hard to give everyone a fair shot, from taking on Wall Street to holding drug companies accountable and getting a corporate polluter to clean up our drinking water," she says in one of her commercials.

Swanson said she'd champion affordable health care and take steps to ease prescription drug prices. She's also promoted proposals for job training beyond a traditional four-year degree.

On the Republican side, the endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson arrives at some stops in an RV emblazoned with his picture and the slogan "Overthrow the Status Quo."

Jeff Johnson at a news conference.
Jeff Johnson at a news conference outside a former state Workforce Center in Minneapolis.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

It's an outsider message from someone who has spent almost 16 years in state and local office and who was twice a statewide candidate. He was the 2014 GOP nominee against Gov. Mark Dayton when the DFLer secured a second term.

One day last week, Johnson and a few people he brought along stood outside a former workforce assistance office in Minneapolis. They were there to unveil his plans to revamp welfare and school accountability laws.

They had to talk loudly to be heard over a street crew working nearby. But Johnson said he won't be quiet about restructuring or scrapping entrenched programs.

"We've got to figure out what it is we're doing right and what it is we aren't doing right and actually change that," he said.

Johnson describes himself as the "real conservative" in the race, challenging rival Tim Pawlenty's record.

Pawlenty, of course, is the former two-term governor. He wants another turn in the office he left in 2011.

On a swing through Rochester last week, Pawlenty popped in on a preschool where the students learn in English and Spanish. He got down on one knee to peek in as the class did an experiment to make a model volcano erupt. Later, Pawlenty heard from parents and some early childhood advocates of the importance of state funding for programs like it.

"People sometimes fall into the trap of just measuring your commitment to something by how much money you're going to spend on it. We're going to spend more on education, I'm going to say that," Pawlenty tells the group.

Tim Pawlenty and running mate Michelle Fischbach.
Tim Pawlenty and running mate Michelle Fischbach at a preschool in Rochester.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

"But as we do that we want to spend it wisely," he adds, describing how the money would come with expectations for program efficiency and results.

He is vowing to rework education and health care programs and cut taxes. He's aiming his message at a middle class he says is getting squeezed.

As he did in earlier campaigns, Pawlenty ties his pitch to his own upbringing in a blue-collar household. Only this time, his opponents are quick to question whether he can still relate after earning millions as a financial industry advocate and a corporate board member since leaving office.

Pawlenty brushes off the criticism, saying how much money he's made is irrelevant.

"I think we're all a product of where we were raised, the lessons learned along the way, what we saw along the way," he said. "As I like to say, there's a big difference between having written lyrics to a song and having lived them."