It’s late afternoon and State Auditor Pat Awada is negotiating southbound traffic on 35E in her white Jeep Cherokee, one hand on the wheel, the other occupied with a Marlboro Light that she ashes out her open window. She brushes a length of long blonde hair from her deep blue eyes and considers the impact that a fast rise through Republican politics has had on her family. “I haven’t tried to protect my kids from politics. I never tried.” She speaks with an even, calm tone. But her pitch drops noticeably when she describes the reception her children occasionally received during her tenure as mayor of Eagan. “They’ve suffered negative things because some parents don’t like me.”
Pat Awada is 36 years old. She is the mother of four children. During the last four years she has become the most controversial woman in Minnesota political history (with the possible exception of Coya “Come Home” Knutson). Her epic battles with the Metropolitan Council over the development of low-income high-density housing in the suburbs earned her the everlasting enmity of suburb-hating urban liberals. Her activist approach to the state auditor’s office has positively unnerved Minnesota’s local government establishment. The Star Tribune’s editorial board has yet to find an Awada position with which it agrees, and when they are not busy attacking the policies themselves, they provide an astonishing amount of space to anti-Awada letters to the editor, many of which verge on the personal.
Shrill. Aggressive. Inflexible. Tough. Awada smiles when presented with the list of adjectives opponents apply to her. “The bitch factor,” she summarizes, matter-of-factly. “I can’t worry about that. A lot of executive women get that. Maybe not from liberal Democrats, but they get it.” A moment later she smiles and softens, but her voice tightens defensively: “I’m certainly not shrill. Am I tough? Yes. Opinionated? Absolutely.” She pauses, thinks it over. “Maybe some women are less likely to be that way than men? I don’t know.”
Despite its name and status as a state constitutional office, the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor has very little to do with the $26 billion that the state of Minnesota will spend during the 2002-2003 biennium. The job is actually much larger than that: Minnesota’s state auditor monitors the spending of 4,300 units of local government, including school districts, municipalities, counties, port authorities, redevelopment authorities, even police and fire relief associations. That’s $17 billion of oversight this year alone—a significantly larger amount of money than the state spends itself.
The auditor supervises a staff of 150, including 90 auditors who perform approximately 250 audits each year. Most are housed in a diamond-shaped brick building a block from the Capitol. On the fourth floor, surveying the Capitol itself, is the chief auditor’s spacious corner office. When Pat Awada took her new job in January, she ceded that desk to one of her deputies and chose instead a small, first-floor room near a door and reception area used by rank-and-file staff. “That way I get a better sense of what’s going on,” she explains as she wheels back and forth in her office chair, sitting on one leg and rowing herself around with the other, a file folder tamping down her skirt. It’s a spartan space: There’s a desk, a small table, some bookcases. The few items that might hint at her personal or past professional life are either in unpacked boxes or scattered on the cluttered bookshelves. “If you really want to know about me, learn about my family,” she says with enthusiasm, as if recommending a good read. “They’re crazy.”
Awada’s mother, Betty Anderson, is a self-described “adventurer” and former parks administrator. On family camping trips, “She was always the first one to jump off the bridge into the river,” Awada remembers. “That was our role model.” Awada’s father, Henry, is a trained forester who retired as a machinist at Northwest Airlines. Both parents enjoyed the outdoors, and it’s a passion they instilled in their children; with a shudder, Awada remembers childhood camping trips in the Boundary Waters—in the middle of the winter. Still, the outdoor adventures seem to have made an impression on the whole family. One of Awada’s three brothers runs the Iditarod, the world’s most famous dog-sled race, in Alaska. Another jumps out of airplanes for fun. Awada reflects that her mother’s adventurous streak instilled in her not only a confidence that she could handle challenges, but that she should seek them out.