Column: When to hold 'em, and to fold 'em
ST. PAUL -- They say in politics "timing is everything." If that is the case, Governor Tim Pawlenty has a Rolex watch with jeweled precision.
His recent announcement that he would not seek a third term caught the Minnesota political world by surprise. Not the decision itself, but the timing was indeed earlier than most Capitol insiders believed it would be. This of course allows the Governor to spend not only more time at the Minnesota State Fair, but perhaps some time at a few county fairs in Iowa, where voters like to shake the hand of their favorite presidential candidate at least a half a dozen times before even considering voting for them.
The announcement at this time also changes the "buzz" around the Capitol away from the potential budget unallotments and moves it to the subject of likely gubernatorial candidates. Let's face it; speculation about the 2010 governor's race is a far more exciting topic for Capitol journalists than writing about the budget shortfall and the need to cut state spending.
Pawlenty's political "timing skill" has been a gift for several years. When he was first elected to the Eagan City Council in 1990, he managed to catch Minnesota's conservative wave. Then just two years later, the redistricting process created a nice Eagan district that was tailor made for the articulate, intelligent city councilman, and Pawlenty was first elected to the Legislature in 1992.
He also benefited from the political rise and fall of former Governor Jesse Ventura. Ventura was elected Governor in 1998, sweeping in numerous "anti-big government" Republicans, putting the Republicans in the majority for the first time since the 1985-86 Session.
Rep. Pawlenty was the perfect match for Rep. Steve Sviggum, the minority leader who with the new majority became the Speaker. Sviggum needed a sharp, well spoken, suburban legislator to create balance within the new Republican Caucus.
Pawlenty starred as the majority leader, providing pithy floor comments and overall strategy for the Caucus.
Once again, Pawlenty benefited from timing. A call from then Vice President Dick Cheney, moved Pawlenty from a potential U.S. Senate race and into the Governor's race. Minnesotans had grown weary of Governor Ventura's aggressive personal style but not necessarily his politics. His decision not to seek re-election benefited gubernatorial candidate Pawlenty because he was the only fiscal conservative in the race against three other candidates.
While the spenders at the Capitol have criticized Governor Pawlenty's "No New Tax Pledge," his signature on that document in 2002 is what ultimately helped him win the endorsement over his Republican rival Brian Sullivan.
This "No New Tax Pledge" has defined Pawlenty's tenure during both of his terms as Governor. During the budget crises of 2003, Pawlenty stuck to his guns and balanced the budget without raising taxes. Likewise during the 2009 Session, Pawlenty was steadfast in his plan to balance the state budget without a tax increase. Both times the budget gaps were over $4 billion, not an insignificant percentage of the state budget.
While I certainly believe Pawlenty could have been victorious in the 2010 governor's race, there is little upside to being re-elected Governor for a third term and lots of down side for a potential national candidate. Timing is everything and Minnesota as well as the nation swung far to the left in the 2008 election.
America's anti-Bush sentiment catapulted a relatively obscure Senator from Illinois to the White House. By 2012, Americans are likely to be tired of the D.C. bailout philosophy and may indeed be looking for a fresh face who has governed from the right of center. Timing could once again prove to be working in Tim Pawlenty's favor.
Phil Krinkie is a former Republican state representative from Lino Lakes and the president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. The eight-term lawmaker chaired the House Tax Committee and two other House panels.