Back on the trail, Pawlenty campaigns by asking questions

Mike KnaakColumn, Opinion, Print Sartell - St. Stephen, Print St. Joseph0 Comments

Not all political campaigning happens at rallies for thousands of supporters or in summer festival parades.

Sometimes, politicians seek votes in very small informal groups.

Recently, I followed Tim Pawlenty and Michelle Fischbach on two St. Cloud visits focused on jobs and workforce development.

Pawlenty served two terms as governor, from 2003 to 2011. He bypassed the state Republican convention this year and he’ll face GOP-endorsed candidate Jeff Johnson (who Gov. Mark Dayton beat in 2014) in the Aug. 14 primary. Pawlenty chose current lieutenant governor (and former longtime state senator) Michelle Fischbach to run with him.

Pawlenty and Fischbach first stopped at the St. Cloud Area Chamber of Commerce office. President Teresa Bohnen gathered a small group of people to talk about jobs, skills and education issues.

Over box lunches, Pawlenty asked the group about many workforce issues.

After eight years as governor and 10 years before that in the state House, Pawlenty knows the nuts and bolts of state policies and programs, but he’s been out of Minnesota politics for eight years, working as a lobbyist for the financial services industry. Reconnecting with past contacts and supporters and hearing about current issues in an informal setting is a smart form of campaigning.

Pawlenty and Fischbach heard about successes with apprenticeships, ideas for certificate programs and alternatives to four-year college degrees.

Pawlenty zeroed in on a current problem, workforce participation. The former governor told the group Minnesota’s workforce participation rate has improved to 70 percent, but the answer to the state’s worker shortage is “How do we bring back the other 30 percent?”

Pawlenty and Fischbach focused their questions on what the state could do to lower barriers to that goal.

As an example, Pawlenty suggested legislation that would give employers “safe harbor” to hire people with a nonviolent criminal past or with chemical dependency issues who need a second chance.

The business leaders cited recent local ordinances, such as one approved in Minneapolis, that raised the minimum wage in the city to $15 by 2022. Currently, state law sets the minimum wage at $9.65. Paying the same people different wages for work done in different jurisdictions is a barrier to business that should be removed, the business people asserted.

Although a court ruling supported Minneapolis’ ordinance, Pawlenty said labor and wage and hour laws are by tradition and custom set at the state or federal level.

After the meeting, Pawlenty and Fischbach moved on to St. Cloud Technical & Community College where they were met by a small group of administrators.

Here was another chance for Pawlenty to reconnect with past successes. His hosts shared with him a photo that was taken when he cut the ribbon for an SCTCC expansion during his second term.

The SCTCC educators talked about their successes building relationships with local businesses.

Other topics included how to deal with the expected layoffs when the Electrolux plant closes and the need for health-care professionals.

When Pawlenty asked what they needed, a medical simulation center that could be shared by the education community as well as health-care providers topped the list.

Pawlenty asked the group about being “nimble and agile” as workplace needs change for emerging programs as well as fading programs.

When I covered Pawlenty when he was governor, I always found him to be informal, inviting and low-key in small groups. When I was president of Minnesota’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, he agreed to speak at our annual meeting and awards dinner. A few years before that, Gov. Jesse Ventura spoke at the same event. Although Ventura enjoyed a love-hate relationship with reporters, I’ll just say Pawlenty’s approach was a little different.

Whether meeting with reporters or voters, he fielded questions, even hostile ones, with patience and a smile. In today’s climate of anger and fear, Pawlenty’s style is almost shocking.

But behind his easy manner, he has a long record to defend after eight years as governor. He’s taken strongly conservative stands on social issues, and critics can justifiably attack his record on financing public education, especially higher education.

Pawlenty won 44 percent of the votes in the three-way 2002 race and was re-elected with 46 percent in 2006. He left office with approval ratings around 50 percent.

During his visit to St. Cloud, he asked significant policy questions. I hope if voters return him to the governor’s office, he comes up with answers that move away from the right and more toward the middle so he can unite a solid majority of Minnesotans.

Author: Mike Knaak

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