“The Only Other Job I’d Like”

The candidate was running late, of course. So, on a sweltering June morning, I was left to wander the third-floor headquarters of Peter Hutchinson’s gubernatorial campaign and consider its architect. Two floors above a coffee shop and the funky Architectural Antiques, someone erected temporary walls to form a couple of small offices, and in one large, sunny room, staffers at desks went about the business of furthering the prospects of this unlikely endeavor. An unruly collection of signs—“Not Left. Not Right. Forward.”—leaned against the far wall, which is decorated with the painted handprints of campaign volunteers. The large air conditioner stuck in the window above the empty receptionist’s desk was not doing its job.

This is what a long-shot third-party campaign looks like: plenty of energy and innovation; not a lot of money. But politics is the art of the possible, and ever since Jesse Ventura “shocked the world” by winning the governor’s race in 1998, third-party dreamers, like those in Hutchinson’s Independence Party, have been drawing inspiration from that bizarre campaign and throwing themselves into the electoral fray. That’s part of the reason why Hutchinson had driven down to Owatonna early that morning to talk with a bunch of people who don’t know him from Adam. The rest of the situation, however, still seems puzzling.

Even the most obvious questions are worth asking: Why would somebody who’s built a successful public-policy career (head of the Dayton-Hudson Foundation, finance commissioner under former Governor Rudy Perpich, Minneapolis schools superintendent) into a very lucrative consulting business want to run for public office for the first time at age fifty-six? Especially in a year when the DFL Party is all spit and vinegar, sensing as it does its first opportunity since 1986 to climb back into the governor’s office, and when the Republicans are firing away at all comers with both barrels (at least when Cheney visits)?

Furthermore, why disrupt a family, one that has not been without challenges already, at a time when most middle-aged fathers are looking for more time on the golf course or awaiting the arrival of the first grandchildren? In other words, what’s wrong with stability and maybe a little anonymity, rather than the pressure cooker of media attention that comes with a high-profile statewide race? Especially when your toolbox of personality traits has been so ill-equipped to help you on the stump?

Two years ago, when I interviewed Hutchinson for a piece in the Minneapolis Observer, he said he was seriously considering a run. At the time, it was hard to take him seriously without grilling him in a way that seemed inappropriate. Of course, now he had become a serious candidate, so I was eager to have a serious conversation. If he would ever show up …

Just then, the door opened and Hutchinson strode in with a couple of campaign staffers. Clean-shaven for the first time in some thirty years (a nod to political reality if ever there was one), and sporting a crisp cotton shirt and slacks, he looked none the worse for his early-morning campaign jaunt. In fact, he was downright ebullient, crowing about how folks outstate “really get it” when he talks about changing the way the state needs to be governed. He was smiling broadly and fairly bouncing out of his shoes.

“Is there any coffee?”

As much as his close friends are supporting his campaign, they have to be a bit astounded that he would even consider such a thing. But Hutchinson claimed he’s long thought about pursuing the governor’s job. He recalled talking with his wife, Karla Ekdahl, about it almost twenty years ago. “We were walking on the beach on Cape Cod, talking about the future, and she asked me, ‘What would you really, really like to do?’ ”

“I told her, ‘The only other job I’d like is to be governor.’ ”

“ ‘The problem is, you’d have to run,’ she said.”

She was no doubt referring to the unconventional aspects of her husband’s nature. At the time he was running the Dayton-Hudson Foundation, after a stint as Mayor Al Hofstede’s deputy mayor, and though he was by all accounts a well-connected politico and an effective, innovative administrator, he was also an introvert.

“He had this Zoot suit and Earth shoes, and showed up every morning with a thermos bottle full of tea,” Ekdahl recalled. “He never turned on the lights in his office.”

During the 1970s, Hutchinson was a committed vegetarian who didn’t touch alcohol, and when they were courting, Ekdahl noted, he didn’t even own a car. Even today, she calls him something of an ascetic—“the least conspicuous consumer on the planet.”

None of those idiosyncrasies seemed to matter to Governor Rudy Perpich, who came calling in 1989 when he needed a new commissioner of finance. There was just one hitch, Hutchinson told the governor: He wasn’t a Democrat.

“ ‘Well, what are you?’ ” he recalled Perpich asking.

“ ‘I’m an independent.’ ”

“The governor thought for a minute. ‘Well, that’s OK. You take care of the finances. I’ll take care of the politics.’ ”

Hutchinson took the job, despite the seventy-five-percent cut in pay from his foundation gig (and a discount at Dayton’s): It was, he said, “the closest thing to being appointed to governor that you can have.”

His tenure in the Perpich administration was not without its rocky moments. He was roundly criticized for claiming the state had a budget shortfall in 1990 when it turned out there was a surplus. When Perpich lost his re-election bid, Hutchinson was once again looking for something to do.

The following year, Hutchinson and Babak Armajani, a longtime friend, created Public Strategies Group, a public policy consulting firm. In 1993, the firm took on the task of running the Minneapolis Public Schools.

The arrangement—a private, for-profit consulting firm operating a large urban school district—made national headlines and thrust the reticent Hutchinson into the maw of one of the state’s most vicious political machines. The results were predictably mixed. Hutchinson claims the district saw improved academic achievement and better financial management. Critics contend it was a failed experiment made more bizarre by Hutchinson’s abrupt and mysterious departure four years into the contract.

But it’s not the relative assets or liabilities of his résumé that most concerned Hutchinson as he contemplated his run. As an Independence candidate, he figures he has the right mix of public-sector service and private-sector experience to connect with increasing numbers of voters who are disgusted with the polarization of the major political parties. And he has no qualms about defending his record—or his market-based approach to government, which engages citizens as “consumers of government” (he’s even co-authored a book about it, The Price of Government). He was just a little shaky about transforming himself into a politician—and taking his family along for the ride.

“It’s a big deal. It changes the family. It rearranges everyone’s plan,” he said. “It wasn’t Karla’s plan.”

Neither he nor his wife recalled the schools superintendent’s years with great fondness, and even though their two daughters—Julia, twenty-one, and Emily, twenty-three—were both away at school, they knew the campaign had the potential to create some chaos, at best.

“Karla knew we had to choose to do this,” he said. “It was too big a deal.”

Hutchinson threw himself into the campaign full time last October, and eventually the whole family came on board, even though Ekdahl had concerns about her daughters coming home to work on the campaign through November. “I never in my life heard him sound so energized and enthusiastic,” said Julia.

For Emily, it’s a “chance to effect some change.”

There was just this little problem of going out on the stump and actually talking with strangers.

“I’m not afraid of hard work,” Hutchinson said. “The scariest part was standing up in front of people you don’t know and telling them what you think.”

To his great surprise, he quickly discovered that the people of Minnesota were “nowhere as mean as the politicians” and soon found he was a natural stump speaker. “Nobody would imagine that I’m an introvert now.”

Emily agrees. “He was always standing in the corner at parties and he was always the one who was asking Mom when they could leave. Now it’s been a complete one-eighty. Now it’s Mom who says, ‘Peter, we have to go.’ ”

An hour after he arrived from his Owatonna jaunt, Hutchinson was reporting on another small-town victory. Campaign workers gathered around him in a broad half-circle as he described an earlier junket to Fergus Falls, where he spoke to a group of county commissioners.

The response, he said, was nothing short of exhilarating. “They all signed up for our campaign”—there was a roar of approval—“We just flew home from there.” (It’s an ironic metaphor, since Hutchinson—unlike his counterparts in the major parties—does not actually fly from city to city.)

“The dots are being connected,” he continued. “We keep exceeding expectations. It’s a hoot and it’s going to get better. And now we even have air conditioning.”

A staffer reported that a recent radio show brought up Hutchinson’s controversial tenure as schools superintendent; he wondered how campaign workers should respond to that criticism.

Things got better in the district during his term, Hutchinson said, and the campaign will stress those results. “Leadership is about changing things and making them better. When we got there, school achievement was going down. When we left, student achievement was going up,” he said.

And his abrupt departure from the job?

That was about family, he explained, going on to describe how his daughter Emily had been admitted to the hospital with severe anorexia. He was in a bad way himself, stressed to the point of debilitation—he could barely lift his arms. A leave of absence was the right thing to do, he said. After two months away from the job, he knew it was time to move on.

“The lesson is that taking care of family is the number-one thing you have to do.”

The same staffer pointed out that two out of three Hutchinson campaign volunteers are teachers or principals, a note that generates a warm round of applause.

Later, Hutchinson went into more detail about his comments. He had gone many years without talking publicly about the crisis that precipitated his departure from the school district. He knew it would come up in the campaign, though, and talked specifically with Emily about how to address it; she gave him permission to go public.

Still, Hutchinson’s own difficulties at that time were more difficult to unearth. His father, an aeronautical engineer, died of a heart attack at forty-seven after a life spent urgently devoted to getting things done. It’s a trait he passed on to his ambitious second son. “It’s like schlepping the canoe on the longest portage in the Boundary Waters,” he said. “You never put the canoe down.”

And those final months running the school district represented a nearly tragic convergence of his workaholism, his daughter’s illness, and his long-running fear that he wouldn’t outlive his father.

“It was a billion hours a day,” he said of his superintendent job. And with Emily hospitalized for a second time and close to death, he finally dropped the canoe. “I couldn’t do it anymore.”

He took two months off and returned to work for barely a week before a stormy school board meeting sent him and Public Strategies Group on their way. Six months later, he celebrated his forty-eighth birthday. “I still remember from that day to this I have felt completely free,” he said.

Now he takes vacations, spends ten minutes most mornings meditating with his wife, works out regularly, and sees his future as separate from his past. “These are my years, years to do stuff that is not predetermined,” he said. “I don’t have that apprehension anymore.”

Later that day, before an overflow audience at the Theater Garage in Minneapolis, Hutchinson seemed to be fumbling his entrance. As one of his young campaign workers introduced him, he could be seen in the window of the cheesy set onstage. He was supposed to come through the door of the set, but couldn’t seem to open it. It was an awkward moment until the emcee noticed the problem and opened the door.

Hutchinson walked on stage, appearing a bit shaken. But then he launched into what was obviously a planned piece of political shtick. “I couldn’t get through the damn door,” he said, to scattered laughter. “That’s what politics is about: You can’t crack the party.”

This was Hutchinson, the stand-up guy. He went on about getting calls from his Democrat friends who are worried he’s going to throw the election to Pawlenty and calls from his Republican friends who are peeved that his campaign is going to elect Mike Hatch. There’s a third possibility, he told the mostly youthful crowd: “We’re going to take so many votes away from the Democrats and so many votes away from the Republicans and unite the Independents that we’re going to get elected.”

It was a good turnout for a muggy night that threatened rain. And while the crowd was not what you’d call raucous (“All this alcohol and no questions?” Hutchinson quipped at one point during the Q&A), it was clearly curious about this campaign.

As he has done at every campaign stop, Hutchinson trotted out his four key issues—health care, education, transportation, and the environment—all the while explaining why the two major parties never seem to get around to dealing with the “main things.”

The problem, he said, is that the “five G’s: gays, guns, god, gambling, and gynecology” tend to take precedence over the real issues at the Legislature. “And now we’ve got two more,” he added. “Green cards and stadiums for gladiators.”

Health care will be his top priority, Hutchinson told the crowd, because it’s draining all the resources from the other three priorities. But he’s not a fan of single-payer health care. He’d devise a way to get HMOs to cut the thirty percent of each health-care dollar that gets sucked into administration. He believes they should all use standardized databases, forms, and other administrative systems—and then focus on prevention. “The state can do that,” he argued.

On education, he would focus on four issues: improving early childhood education, demanding student and teacher accountability, establishing higher standards for high school graduation, and increasing access to a college education.

With Minnesota ranking as the nation’s leading importer of electricity, Hutchinson wants more attention paid to developing alternative sources of energy. He favors voluntary industry compliance whenever possible, but would enforce pollution-control regulations when necessary.

And why have other political leaders failed to make progress on these issues in recent years? Because the political system in this state is on life support, he said. “And a Native American friend of mine gave me the best advice: When you’re riding a dead horse, the best thing to do is to dismount.”

The line got a good laugh, but Hutchinson was already moving on, explaining why he’s challenging the status quo. “People look at this campaign and say, ‘Is he drunk on power and ambition, or does he not have anything to do with his life?’ ”

He paused for effect. “Well, that last thing may be true …”

The crowd was warming up to him now, and Hutchinson drove home his main point: He can win if young people vote. “The two parties are counting on you to stay home,” he said. “This is your chance to have your voice heard, to change the outcome.”

It’s the Jesse Ventura formula, and someone in the crowd got the connection. He asked Hutchinson how he’s going to get anything done as a third-party governor.

The governor sets the agenda, Hutchinson replied, and once that agenda is set all it takes is a certain kind of leadership. “Politics is about hoarding credit and spreading blame,” he explained. “I’m fifty-six years old. I’m not going anywhere. I don’t need the credit. Let’s get the work done.”

Later, as the Band of Northern Aggression took the stage, Hutchinson was buttonholed by gaggles of young people. He appeared totally at ease, patiently detailing his approach to running government. Nearby, Ekdahl was hugging everyone in sight. According to campaign staff, 120 people showed up and contributed about seven hundred dollars.

Those results certainly pleased the party’s Fifth District chair, Peter Tharaldson, who was standing outside the theater, surveying the scene. I asked him how Hutchinson’s campaign differs from Tim Penny’s run in 2002, and what he thinks about some pundits’ speculation that this may be the last stand for the Independence Party. “He makes a much more concerted effort at talking to people and meeting people” than Penny did, Tharaldson said. He also claimed that because Hutchinson was “removing some of the barriers” to his party’s prospects, he will attract a larger crossover vote (Penny polled sixteen percent, finishing third behind Tim Pawlenty and DFLer Roger Moe).

The other difference between today and four years ago has much to do with the gridlock that occurs every year at the Capitol, Tharaldson concluded. “The other two parties can’t do a better job of selling him.”

Three days later, Hutchinson attended a candidate’s forum on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. He was on the dais with DFL gubernatorial hopefuls Steve Kelley and Becky Lourey. Hatch and Pawlenty have chosen to ignore the forum, which was sponsored by the Minnesota Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

It was evident early on that this was a Lourey crowd, as her every utterance was greeted with a surge of applause. But Hutchinson loosened them up with his “five G’s” line, drove home his commitment to changing the health care system, and slapped the current regime’s education agenda by pointing out that the state’s high education ratings (twenty-three percent of Minnesota high-schoolers get college diplomas, tops in the nation) may not be worth bragging about: “That might be the best in the country, but that’s like having a first-class ticket on the Titanic,” he said. “The view is great, but it’s going to be pretty cold when you hit the water.”

But when asked about two of his five G’s, he headed for higher ground: “Minnesotans agree that fewer abortions are better than more,” he allowed. And on gay marriage, he was similarly noncommittal: “Let’s strengthen the things that make marriage stronger.”

In other words, it’s the pragmatic middle where he would reside as governor, rather than the ideological extremes that his opponents occupy. “This is the one thing that independents get to do that other people don’t,” he said.

That got a rise out of the otherwise cherubic Kelley. “I disagree with Peter that other people don’t get to do something about this,” he said. “The seeds for bipartisan solutions are already there.”

That resulted in a nice round of applause, but then Hutchinson came back with the “dead horse” line in his closing remarks, which hit home with Lourey’s crowd—and with the ever-diplomatic Lourey herself. “Can you see that any one of us would make a better governor than Tim Pawlenty?” she asked.

Afterward, in a crowded hallway outside the auditorium, a young woman approached Hutchinson. “I’m a Kelley supporter, but I’m going to check you out. I really like what you have to say,” she told him.

Hutchinson thanked her, and after she departed said, “That’s the way it’s been everywhere.”

He was headed up to Princeton later that day to tour a farm that’s run on methane fuel cells. “It’s completely off the grid,” he marveled.

It wasn’t the first time this candidate had admitted how much he was learning during this campaign—not just about politics (though that certainly is true), but also about immigration, transportation, agriculture, and other rural issues. When he was reminded that he wouldn’t be doing that if he were stuck in some office earning a living, he smiled. “Yeah, my family’s been wondering about that.”

Candidates like Hutchinson are blessed in some ways by their lack of political credentials. In the same way that Ventura’s brief tenure as a council member and mayor in Brooklyn Park offered little indication of how he would govern, Hutchinson’s résumé gives his opponents a fairly small target. But voters are similarly ill equipped to render a judgment.

And while Hutchinson’s work in the Perpich administration offers some clues as to how he would operate as an administrator, his tumultuous years at the helm of the Minneapolis schools may offer the best portrait of him as a leader.

At the time, the response from some school board members and other education advocates was not favorable. Longtime public school advocate Dennis Schapiro wrote several stories in his Jola Education Monthly criticizing the board’s decision to hire PSG, as well as Hutchinson’s decision to hire consultants who had connections to his firm. Schapiro also raised questions about how funds were allocated to pay those consultants. “By circumventing normal channels, obscuring the sources of funding, serving cronies well, and leaving staff development people to take criticism, the cure may be as bad as the sickness,” he wrote in September 1994. Nearly two years later, Bill Green, now the district’s interim superintendent, gave Hutchinson and PSG a failing grade as part of the board’s 1996 year-end evaluation.

Yet Schapiro says today that Hutchinson “probably did the best job of managing the financial end of Minneapolis schools of anyone in the past twenty years.” And longtime school board member (and DFL loyalist) Judy Farmer contends that the Hutchinson/PSG experiment was largely a success. She credits him with getting the district to focus on student achievement while helping to reshape the culture of the organization from one burdened by fear to one inspired by hope.

“He’s a very frank and open person, and he’s an optimist—an incurable optimist,” she said. “His general buoyancy does a lot to make people feel it’s OK to talk.”

Still, even though Hutchinson surrounded himself with competent people who strengthened the organization in areas where he had less expertise, his inclination to believe all things are possible sometimes hurt the operation. He didn’t want the district to be run by a single person, for instance, so he created a “superintendent’s team” with his colleagues at PSG.

“He really thought that a team could do the superintendent’s job,” Farmer recalled. “Some of that worked, but then he took a few days’ vacation and when he returned, he said, ‘I can’t believe it. I come back and there’s a huge stack of stuff on my desk, and I can’t believe someone else couldn’t take care of it.’ ”

When I asked Hutchinson about this a few days later, he happily embraced the optimist label. “If you don’t aspire to big things, big things don’t happen,” he said.

A few days later, on June 15, Hutchinson was set to announce his running mate at a St. Paul press conference. A half-hour before the event, I met with former congressman Tim Penny, a high-level Hutchinson adviser, in a coffee shop around the corner from Metropolitan State University’s St. Paul campus. In his blue suit and tie, he looked the part of the veteran political sage—though he confessed that he’s more excited these days about playing guitar in his rock band than talking politics.

He’s optimistic about Hutchinson’s campaign, though. “He wants this job for all the right reasons,” he said.

And you didn’t? I ventured.

“I had a weak image,” Penny replied. “He’s all you’d ever want in a guy who understands policy, and he does have some of the Ventura pizzazz.”

We headed over to the press conference, where Hutchinson sprang his latest surprise: He introduced not only his lieutenant governor, Maureen Reed, but an entire slate of constitutional officers, including attorney general (John James), secretary of state (Joel Spoonheim), and state auditor (Lucy Gerold). He called it “Team Minnesota.”

Nine days later, Penny was nowhere to be seen at the Independence Party state convention at Midway Stadium in St. Paul. Nearly three hundred IP delegates were in the bleachers behind home plate, while on the field below, St. Paul Saints players loosened up for a game against the Sioux City Explorers. It was a package deal: The IP faithful got to endorse their slate of candidates, chow down on beans and brats in the nearby picnic grounds, and cap it all off with a ballgame under the lights.

Outside the stadium, a lethargic bison, the IP’s mascot, drooled on the sidewalk, signaling that this was something other than politics as usual. So it’s not surprising to learn that party leaders had given the chore of organizing the convention to the Hutchinson campaign—more specifically Ekdahl, Hutchinson’s wife (she had also ensured that every delegate received an orange scarf to wave when they voted). And while that may seem a bit odd, it also seems a bit unfair, given that Hutchinson actually had an opponent for the IP endorsement: Pam Ellison, a St. Paul education activist.

When asked about the challenge, Hutchinson noted that the only significant difference between Ellison’s platform and his is her ardent support for single-payer health care. It’s not part of the IP platform, he noted. “I don’t think Minnesotans are quite ready for that.”

Interestingly, Ellison didn’t mention the issue in her speech, which was received with polite applause as the sky began to darken. A party loyalist was monitoring the approaching thunderstorm on his cell phone and giving IP officials regular updates. “It’s holding steady out in Chaska for now,” he reported. Julia Hutchinson and other campaign volunteers gathered near a large box filled with orange and yellow ponchos.

Ekdahl scurried by. “We had to go to ten Target stores to get five hundred of them,” she said.

Karen Anderson, the former Republican mayor of Minnetonka, introduced Hutchinson, who thanked everyone, including Wally the Beerman, for coming. He had said earlier that he doesn’t like to read from prepared speeches, but he had one in front of him at the podium. The lines were by now familiar, the issues the same as he’d been addressing for the better part of the past year. But at the end, he threw in a twist: He got the crowd—his crowd—to chant the mantra that will accompany Hutchinson and his dream throughout the state over the next three months: “Not left. Not right. Forward!”

When the results came in (Hutchinson 250, Ellison 27) nobody seemed particularly moved—just relieved that they might still have time to get under a roof somewhere. The endorsee remounted the podium, the small brass band played, and the sky, as if under orders from Pawlenty and Hatch themselves, began to spit.

 

Craig Cox is editor of the Minneapolis Observer

(www.mplsobserver.com) and the Twin Cities Daily

Planet (www.tcdailyplanet.net).