The McGill Report

A Favorite Son's High Hopes and Crash Landing

By Doug McGill

Rochester, MN -- Throughout Tim Penny's political career (he was a Minnesota state senator from 1976 to 1982, and a U.S. congressman from 1982 to 1994) and in his books and articles, partisan politics has always played the part of the devil.

In his book, "Common Cents," a fierce anti-Washington diatribe he wrote with CNN reporter Major Garrett, Penny portrays the U.S. political system as a layer cake of corruption built on the culture of partisanship, the culture of hypocrisy, the culture of fear, the culture of isolation and the culture of power.

The 2002 gubernatorial race, in Penny's view, was similarly stained. His Republican opponent, Tim Pawlenty, who won the race, used the same old no-new-taxes conservative rhetoric to get elected, Penny said, while Roger Moe, the DFL candidate, equivocated and pandered in the same old liberal way.

"Moe basically promised every interest group more money despite the looming deficit," said Penny, who ran as an Independent. "He promised what he couldn't deliver, and that's old politics."

According to Penny, Moe was speaking to Minnesota as a conglomeration of special interests, not as a community united by shared hopes and sacrifices. The latter was Penny's vision, and it was drowned out.

"Lookit," he says, putting his coffee cup down for emphasis. "On the one hand, you've got a politician who says he is fighting for teachers, farmers, seniors, veterans. That message is all about me, me, me. Then there's this other candidate who is saying we have a budget mess, that we're all in it together, and we're going to have to share some sacrifice. Now you tell me, what's the more motivational message? How do you galvanize people around that message? It's not easy to do. I'm living proof of that."

,But the tone is not bitter, tired or disillusioned. Rather, it's the frustrated tone of a man weighing irreconcilables.

"Congressman, are you being drawn in your life to things beyond politics? To things that you'll never get on the political road?"

"I've given that a lot of thought lately."

"What have you come up with?"

"I haven't come to any conclusion yet. But I've been giving it a lot of thought."

Fiscal perspective

Fiscal prudence -- spending the people's money wisely -- has always been the ramrod-straight spine of Penny's political leadership. His most memorable actions and most vivid rhetoric have issued from his passion for keeping a firm hand on the public purse.

"If government is spending money prudently and effectively, people tend to have confidence in government," he says. "To me, this is so central to the whole democratic process, to the whole purpose of government, it trumps everything else."

He pauses for a moment. "Also, in a personal sense, I'm a tightwad. I don't like to spend money. So I've always been a fiscal watchdog. It's the way I'm made up."

If government spending is the single issue that Penny has commanded with impressive confidence and consistency, abortion -- the other major issue that's dominated his political career -- has been just the opposite. Simultaneously attracted and repelled by the debate, it's emblematic of the struggle between Penny and the process of politics itself that is now so evident in his post-election reflections.

During the gubernatorial race, Penny defined his political platform on abortion in starkly moral terms, as the "conflicted center." He began his public career as an outspoken opponent of government funding of abortion.

In recent years, he has evolved away from that position by mixing sharp criticism of the polarizing extremes of the anti-abortion and abortion-rights camps, while simultaneously promoting programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

As sensible as that position might be, though, Penny acknowledges it was a non-starter in his recent campaign. In newspaper stories, both sides slammed his conflicted-center platform. Anti-abortion rights advocates said he had become pro-abortion, and the opposing camp reversed the charge. Radio interviewers began their call-in shows by asking Penny to define his position on abortion. Then, his long and morally nuanced answers would stimulate irate partisans on both sides to call in with inflammatory comments, and the tone for the hour was set.

Declaring all abortion questions out of bounds would probably have been a more effective way to deal with the issue, Penny said.

"Abortion has next to nothing to do with the governorship, and that might have done more to capture the attention of voters who are sick and tired of the issue being dominant in campaigns," he said. "But instead, I explained why I thought prevention was the only answer and that everything else was a waste of time."

Election loss

The conventional wisdom says that Penny, who was running about even with Moe and Pawlenty in late summer, lost because the tragedy of Paul Wellstone's death and much-criticized memorial service polarized the electorate into Republican and Democratic camps. Penny agrees with that analysis but says his failure to translate his shared-sacrifice message into a motivating message was also partly responsible.

And if the electorate felt that somehow Penny just didn't have the unquenchable inner zeal to get himself elected, they were, in some sense, correct. The fiery, indignant, naming names, take-no-prisoners style of his books, which define a political temperament that one might call Minnesota Mad (not Minnesota Nice), was absent in the campaign.

"I've been away from politics for eight years, and I've really treasured the normal family life I've had in those years," Penny said. "And I have to say that, as we got closer and closer to Election Day, I found myself getting more and more sucked into a political life, and I didn't like it."

The Wellstone tragedy intensified his reservations.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks. It reminded me how, in the scheme of life, politics is a pretty minor matter. I clung to my wife and my youngest child, and on the Saturday after his death, we went to our family farm and had what we call Fall Cleanup Day, where we help my mother get the yard and the woods and the house all prepared for winter. And that's how I reacted."

"Hi, Mr. Penny."

"Hi, how are you? Everything well with the Co-op?"

"Just fine. I would have liked you to run as a Democrat."

"Yeah, well, I didn't."

"I think you would have won."

"Maybe, maybe. I've had a few of my friends suggest the same thing."

For now, Penny is working at the jobs he put on hold to run for governor. He is a senior fellow at the Hubert Humphrey Institute Policy Forum, works part time for the Himle Horner public-relations firm in Minneapolis, does freelance writing and teaching and serves as president of the Church Council at St. John's Lutheran Church in Waseca.

"Being governor wasn't meant to be, so now I move on and find other ways to contribute," Penny says. "You don't have to be in elected office to get things done and make a difference. Life goes on, and life is good."

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report