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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Pawlenty and Southern Public Policy

April 08, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

I deny no one his ambition. If Tim Pawlenty wants to run for president, gosh darn it, he should run. But, since Minnesota represents hard work, determination and the creation of transformative publicly-funded community, healthcare and educational infrastructure, Pawlenty is, in effect, running against type, not to mention his record. In his recently-acquired southern campaign accent (just listen), we catch a glimpse of the future Pawlenty prefers. It looks very little like Minnesota but a whole lot like Mississippi.

Southerners don’t do schools, roads, healthcare or high-wage job creation; they do hospitality and life-style. And, if you’ve traveled through the south, you know that Southerners do hospitality well. I have been graciously and enthusiastically received. Consequently, I’m certain that Pawlenty has been received with equal kindness. I suspect that he understands that reception and embrace are two very different things. If he is to succeed in his ambition, he needs southerners in general and early Republican primary state South Carolinians, to embrace him.

What kind of southerner does Tim Pawlenty want to be? It’s a fair question that, at first, yields no immediately obvious answer. Pawlenty could emulate the populist reformers like Huey Long or Pitchfork Ben Tillman. Of course, Tillman, a South Carolina governor, was an over-the-top white supremacist and Long, from Louisiana, was astoundingly corrupt. Then, there’s the 1950s-era White Citizens Council, Eugene “Bull” Connor type that turned police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on civil rights demonstrators. The more successful among those types shed the overt violence. They focused on updating the south’s formidable economic divide, keeping poor folks –black or white- poor and rich folks rich. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour comes to mind.

Part of me wonders if Pawlenty secretly doesn’t aspire to this model. He certainly is comfortable defending well-established power’s interests while disavowing his youth’s working-class roots. Pawlenty is equally quick with a verbal quip designed to keep or put someone in their place. Despite discomfort with his past, he seems happy to preserve a static, well-defined social order as long as he now occupies a higher rung.

By speaking with a drawl and dropping his “g”s, Pawlenty seems to be communicating the oldest of political sentiments, “I’m one of you,” to southern regional voters. In this declaration, he implies that South Carolina or Mississippi’s values and cultural priorities ought to be extended across the nation. Politically, that’s a fine stratagem but it stalls on closer examination. Mississippi and South Carolina don’t give us much to emulate.

Those two states are among the least healthy states in the country, ranked 50th and 41st, respectively. Minnesota, by contrast, is ranked 6th. In Mississippi, children are much more likely to live in poverty than they are in Minnesota. Mississippi’s number increased from 23.2 percent in 2009 to 31.9 percent in 2010’s survey rankings. Granted, the recession and national economic crisis had something to do with that, but still, Mississippi ranks last. Collected survey data reveal an improvement during the Clinton presidency then followed, during the Bush administration, by a return to earlier poverty levels.

Persistent, high obesity; high poverty; low birth weights; poor schools; crumbling roads; and a high rate of low-wage jobs, as a function of public policy, only create expanding poverty and the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. All the kind hospitality in the world won’t alter the data. Mississippi may outclass Minnesota in the quality of its barbeque but Minnesota’s phenomenal economic track record speaks for itself.

Under Pawlenty’s gubernatorial leadership, Minnesota implemented a conservative “no new taxes” policy. In return for lower state income tax rates among Minnesota’s high earners, Minnesota’s property taxes have skyrocketed. School quality is dropping, roads and bridges aren’t being replaced, more people struggle with healthcare costs, and job-growth remains persistently low. Where Minnesota achieved a comparatively high state rank, Minnesota is now a middle-rank state with the prospect of dropping further. That’s no prescription for success. A drawl doesn’t change the data. Pawlenty’s national pitch should wake us up, reminding us that it’s time to return to Minnesota’s traditions. When we focus on what really matters—jobs, schools, healthcare, and roads—Minnesota moves forward; everything else is a distraction.

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