Former Republican state Rep. Ron Erhardt was working in his office in the Minnesota state Capitol in 2008 when fellow GOP Rep. Tom Emmer and several others walked in. Erhardt had a good idea why they were there: He was one of the Republicans who were likely to vote with the DFL majority to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a $6.6 billion transportation bill that included a nickel-a-gallon gas tax increase. Erhardt helped draft the legislation.
Emmer, at the time a rising star in the party and a deputy minority leader, sat across from the nine-term lawmaker and took the lead. He told Erhardt that if he voted with the DFL, life “wouldn’t be easy” and he would lose his privileges from the House Republican caucus, Erhardt recalled. At that point, Erhardt got upset.
“I asked him, ‘What are you going to do about my secretary? Are you going to take her away too?'” he said. “Then I told him to get the hell out of my office and put that in writing.” That same day, Emmer paid a visit to the other five Republican House members who ultimately helped Democrats override the veto, Erhardt said. Many received similar threats.
Emmer, now the GOP nominee for governor of Minnesota, has earned a reputation over his three terms at the Legislature as an abrasive lawmaker, even with members of his own caucus. Neil Peterson, a former GOP House representative who also voted with Democrats on the transportation bill, remembers a similar meeting with Emmer, calling him “the enforcer.”
“He is the hockey defenseman who likes to check people on the boards and crack them, Republican or not,” Peterson said.
Many find Emmer’s intensity admirable. He has strong support from other outspoken House caucus members, like Mark Buesgens of Jordan and retiring New Prague Rep. Laura Brod. Carl Kuhl, Emmer’s campaign spokesman, said his relationship with the caucus is “solid.”
“He works well with folks in the caucus,” Kuhl said. “There are no issues.” He said Emmer would not be available for comment.
But Emmer has a rocky history with the caucus that has led some members to see him as a “divider” unable to work with more moderate Republicans who don’t fall in step with his hard-line conservative beliefs. Some say his inability to collaborate has trickled into the election season and hurt his bid for governor. Capitol Report spoke at length with three current House Republicans who proffered criticisms of Emmer’s style, though each would only comment on condition of anonymity for fear of political reprisals from a party apparatus dedicated to projecting unity behind Emmer’s candidacy.
“Tom Emmer has a record over the years of dividing our caucus, of not being the kind of person that brings a group together,” one Republican House caucus member said. “Now he is demanding blind loyalty and he isn’t getting it. Many Republican members are frightened by what Tom Emmer would do with the power of the governorship.”
An aggressive tenure
Tom Emmer didn’t enter the House of Representatives quietly. He was just more than one month into his first legislative term in 2005 when he introduced a proposal to promote “asexualization therapy” for pedophiles, more commonly known as chemical castration. He didn’t stop there. The trial lawyer from Delano quickly followed that up with a proposal to cut off subsidized prenatal care for illegal immigrants, and another to issue special license plates to identify sex offenders.
At the end of 2006, after Emmer’s first term at the Capitol, then-House Minority Leader Marty Seifert named him deputy minority leader. Seifert was impressed with Emmer’s ambition, a Republican source said, so the neophyte legislator got the position over more seasoned lawmakers.
But troubles began almost right away. In particular, Emmer butted heads regularly with then-minority whip Denny McNamara of Hastings, the source said. The two would spar, and many meetings would end with one or the other storming out of the room. Emmer served one year as deputy minority leader, ending in July 2008 when he resigned from the position.
Asked about the period, McNamara would only say he thinks the leadership team “succeeded in what [they] were trying to accomplish,” and “there is nothing more to say that hasn’t already been said.”
After Emmer resigned, he and five or six other House GOPers started to break away from the caucus. They stopped attending most caucus meetings, often gathering on their own, Erhardt said. By fall, Emmer had his sights set higher in the caucus. He challenged Seifert for the minority leader position in November 2008, but lost a tight contest after several ballots.
The divide between Emmer’s group and the rest of the caucus only grew wider. On the House floor, Emmer and his allies were sometimes openly combative toward moves by the leadership, a Republican caucus member said, and would offer amendments to bills that went against the “mainstream” of the group. “He lost and so he kind of just took his toys and left,” the representative said. “He stormed out of the caucus and stopped helping out the team.”
Former GOP Rep. Neil Peterson said the group voted against proposals in part to underline their separation. “They were all very, very conservative, and conservative in a way that they kind of voted against everything. They were even mad at the governor, while the leadership was trying to work with the governor,” he said.
The tensions were not always expressed in open hostility. Another participant in caucus meetings leading up to the Emmer faction’s departure recalled their tenor this way: “If you’re having a discussion and you’re trying to work your way toward a resolution, there would be frolics and diversions put on by the [Emmer-aligned] group.”
Kathy Tingelstad, a former GOP representative who voted with Democrats on the transportation bill, said attendance at caucus meetings was pretty consistent until Emmer and the others split off. “I think generally caucus is considered kind of almost a family within the House of Representatives,” she said. “When he and the others stopped showing up, it didn’t seem much like a family.”
The Emmer faction included representatives like Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, Tom Hackbarth, R-Oak Grove, and Buesgens. “I used to jokingly refer to them as the third floor caucus, because they had their offices on the third floor,” Peterson said. “There was a great glue between them, because they felt they were leading a noble cause against the renegades that wanted to do them in.”
They would also flex their muscle in the caucus in small ways. Holberg, according to Peterson, was in charge of creating the legislative seating arrangement for Republicans on the House floor. She put Peterson and Erhardt in the spots in the back of the chamber commonly known as the “seats from hell,” Peterson said: “We ended up having a blast, but those were the little things they would do to try and make your situation worse.”
But some House Republicans, like Assistant House Minority Leader Carol McFarlane, say there was nothing remarkable about the divisions in the GOP caucus in those days. “Different people side with different opinions, and people who believe in certain things plot together,” she said. “That’s just the nature [of politics]. It happens in the DFL Party too.”
Emmer’s allies and supporters in the caucus suggest that the qualities he evinced in the House only prove he’s a strong leader. “I think Tom played an important role in our caucus,” said Laura Brod. “He was one of those guys who read every line in every bill and played an important role in the floor activities from a leadership standpoint while he was deputy minority leader. A lot of the behind-the-scenes work Tom did no one ever knew about, but it made our work on the floor strong. He was clearly a strong, principled leader, and he was consistent and passionate.”
Different leadership styles
In a letter posted on Emmer’s campaign website during his endorsement race against Seifert, former campaign head Mark Buesgens wrote that Emmer left the House Republican leadership team because he felt the members began to “lose their way.” He cited the override of Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto. “When members of the Republican caucus started voting for tax increases and the leadership couldn’t prevent it, some members had trouble identifying with that ‘team,'” he wrote. (Buesgens could not be reached for additional comment.)
Indeed, many say Seifert took a less aggressive approach to running the caucus than Emmer did in the deputy position. “Marty wasn’t conservative enough for Emmer,” Erhardt said, “and [Emmer believed that] when he dealt with the six who voted for that the override, Marty wasn’t strong enough in his response.” Peterson said Seifert carried out their punishment in the press, but Emmer was the one who made everyday life in caucus difficult by taking shots at the “Override Six,” as they became known, to other caucus members. “They tried to paint the six of us as nasty people, and a lot of that came from Emmer,” he said.
The differences in style and temperament between Seifert and Emmer crystallized publicly when both men announced they were going to seek the Republican Party’s endorsement for governor. Seifert emerged as the inside man, the party establishment’s choice, while Emmer’s brashness and outsider charisma made him a populist favorite in a year defined by rumblings of grassroots insurgency. By mid-March, Seifert had about a dozen GOP House caucus members openly behind him, while around 18 members had officially endorsed Emmer’s candidacy.
“Tom is a very likeable guy,” Peterson noted. “He’s like a locker-room jock, kind of fun to be around. But he would not be at the top of the list if you were looking for statesmen. He does not have a collaborative nature. But he is very engaging.”
Emmer’s fiery stump presence helped him prevail over Seifert at the convention, winning the party’s endorsement in April after only two ballots. Contacted by Capitol Report about his relationship with Emmer, Seifert said he preferred not to comment, saying the matter is “all in the past” and “it is what it is.”
Caucus woes and the campaign trail
Some Republicans say Emmer’s fractured relationship with a number of House GOPers has hurt his campaign for governor. They note that his campaign’s early problems with management and focus were in part a reflection of the fact he didn’t have caucus members on his side who had been involved in statewide campaigns.
Others say Emmer has yet to reach out to House Republicans who initially supported Seifert. “Frankly, that doesn’t help him one bit. That’s unfortunate for him and for his campaign,” one House GOP caucus member said.
Fundraising is one key area in which the Emmer campaign’s critics have found it wanting, and part of that equation involves the scant financial support (or fundraising help) he has received from fellow House Republicans. As his party’s endorsee, Emmer reported raising $785,000 by the July 19 campaign finance deadline, or about $200,000 less than DFL endorsee and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
Twenty DFL caucus members contributed to Kelliher’s campaign by July, with several donating the maximum of $2,000. (Kelliher, like Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty when he ran for governor, was in a leadership position in the caucus, which helped to boost her fundraising.)
In contrast, Emmer received little financial backing from his colleagues at the Capitol. Only three fellow House GOP caucus members – Reps. Matt Dean, Tony Cornish and Bruce Anderson – contributed to his campaign, along with state Sen. Gen Olson, according to campaign finance records. One Republican caucus member said Emmer has made “ridiculous” fundraising requests of the House members.
“I was there when Pawlenty was a House member and ran for governor, and he had about 90 percent of the House Republican members supporting him and doing things in their districts,” Tingelstad said. “I’m guessing that’s not the same for Emmer.”
Not everyone agrees there is a problem. GOP Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, who was a strong supporter of Seifert before the convention, said Emmer is supportive of Republican House candidates and that GOP reps are pushing his gubernatorial bid while they knock on doors and campaign in their districts. Rep. Steve Gottwalt of St. Cloud said he believes the caucus is “100 percent” behind Emmer’s run for governor.
But skeptics remain, and there are worries that Emmer could potentially damage the entire GOP slate in a year where the political winds favor conservatives.
“In what is a great Republican year, Tom Emmer is acting as a drag on the ticket,” a Republican caucus member said. “A lot of people said before he ran that if you win the endorsement, you’re going to lose the election, or worse, you’re going to hurt other Republican races, and that’s exactly what’s happening. There’s a lot of resentment out there for that reason.”