In the Spotlight

News & Features
Norm Coleman:
"Counter Culture" Candidate
By Martin Kaste
June 16, 1998
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Party insiders predict a hard-fought battle for the gubernatorial endorsement at the Republican state convention June 19. Most estimates give each of the three main candidates about a third of the delegates on the first ballot - with a slight edge for Norm Coleman. Coleman's lead is remarkable, given that he was a DFLer less than two years ago. His supporters say his message simply appeals to a wide spectrum of Republican voters, but many of his opponents say he owes his success to support from big business and preferential treatment from the party's power brokers.

IN THIS YEAR'S ELEVEN-PERSON RACE for the governor's office, Norm Coleman portrays himself as the candidate of the "counter-culture."

Coleman: We're fighting the status quo! We're fighting a Democratic party that has controlled this state - and my city - for ages!
Coleman says the anti-status-quo fervor he felt as a leftist student activist in the Age of Aquarius now translates into a rebellion against what he perceives as the high-taxes, big-government, labor-union-dominated world of Minnesota politics in the 1990s. It's a message that resonates with at least some of today's young rebels. Law student Jeff O'Brien, the state chairman of the Young Republicans, says he thinks Coleman is the best person to carry the banner of the new conservatism into the November election.
O'Brien: We not only need someone that's going to be a good, you know, spokesman for the conservative movement, ... but someone that can carry the ideas out and actually get elected. And I think that's where Coleman does the best.
There is a case to be made that Norm Coleman represents a rebellion of sorts inside the state Republican party. The ones doing the rebelling are the business interests inside the party who have felt increasingly pushed aside by the social-conservative wing of the party led by Allen Quist. When the chairman of Twin Cities Federal, Bill Cooper, took over as party chairman last year, he made it his priority to get business interests back into the Republican party politics.
Cooper: The business community didn't feel they were being adequately represented in terms of their views, and that there were perhaps single issues and so forth. And I wanted to bring the business community back into that process, and we've largely done that.
Cooper wants wealthy Republicans to start giving more to the party and its candidates - he set the example by recently donating $100,000 of his own money. If business leaders follow Cooper's lead, it'll be in large part because of Norm Coleman - and how much Norm Coleman sounds like Arne Carlson. Minnesota has rarely seen a more "business-friendly" governor than Carlson, and Norm Coleman seems to promise more of the same.
Coleman: One of the first things I did when I got elected was I rejected the AFSCME contract. And I love... [applause] We faced $200 million - I remember my budget director coming to me and saying "Mayor, I've got some good news and bad news. The good news is we've got some money in the budget - today we'll make it. The bad news is we've got $200 million of unfunded liability with a contract that was negotiated by your predecessor two days before you took office."
Norm Coleman preaches the Carlson gospel of government thrift, but he also makes the same exceptions Carlson does. Just as Carlson judged it appropriate for the state to spend money on business interests like Northwest Airlines and the Minnesota Twins, Norm Coleman has spent city money luring new business enterprises to downtown St. Paul. Party chairman Bill Cooper agrees Coleman is very friendly to business - but he stops short of publicly endorsing Coleman.
Cooper: Having a business-friendly environment in Minnesota is very important. But business isn't opposed to the other candidates or whatever. I think it's fair to say Coleman has made many inroads with the business community, but he's not, quote, the business candidate.
Volunteers for the other Republican candidates say Cooper is being less neutral than he sounds. Workers on the Joanne Benson campaign say privately that Cooper seems to favor Coleman at every turn, and they're especially upset about a letter Cooper sent to Benson late last week, chastising her for negative campaign tactics. Benson does not openly accuse Cooper and the party's leaders of favoritism, but she does hint at it.
Benson: The actions have to follow the words. And my plea would be, if you have objection to people being slammed in one form or another, make it across the board.
Benson says she's been the target of negative attacks just as much as the other candidates - one Coleman supporter distributed a letter accusing her of voting like a "Marxist" - but she says Cooper never came to her defense.

Whether or not the fix is in for Norm Coleman, it's becoming clear that the Arne Carlson wing of the state Republican Party is on the ascendant. Young Republican Jeff O'Brien says the social conservatives among the delegates seem to be less solidly committed to Allen Quist than they were four years ago, and they're more willing to consider a candidate closely associated with Governor Carlson.
O'Brien: A lot of people are saying "Allen is a really nice guy, but Norm can win." I think a lot of delegates are looking at that. They might vote their heart on the first ballot, or the first couple of ballots, but as time goes on they'll realize that Norm Coleman is the one to carry us to victory.
Along with Norm Coleman's popularity, Arne Carlson himself seems to be enjoying a thaw in the climate among his fellow Republicans. Four years ago the party convention refused to endorse him - a popular incumbent governor - picking Allen Quist instead. But now, with Bill Cooper in charge of the party and business reasserting its clout, Carlson says he'll drop in on the delegates this Saturday to deliver a farewell speech.