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Campaign 2002 profile: Brian Sullivan
By Laura McCallum
Minnesota Public Radio
June 12, 2002


Minnesota Republicans will endorse a candidate for governor on Friday - and the race is a close one between entrepreneur Brian Sullivan and legislative leader Tim Pawlenty. Sullivan holds a slight lead in the party's non-binding straw polls of delegates. This is Sullivan's first bid for public office, but he says his business background has prepared him to run the state.

Brian Sullivan works the crowd at the 4th Congressional District Convention in early June. Listen to his speech at the convention.

Q: What kind of car do you drive?
A: 1993 Jeep

Q: What was the last compact disc you bought?
A: The latest REM

Q: Where was the last vacation you took out of state?
A: Disney World, for Thanksgiving

Q: Do you believe in ghosts?
A: No.

Q: What's the first thing you would buy yourself if you won the lottery?
A: "You know, I'm all set."
Source: Associated Press

(MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)

What Brian Sullivan lacked in political visibility heading into his maiden run for office, he has tried to make up for with determination. Sullivan was the first candidate to start campaigning for governor about a year and a half ago. He is the only gubernatorial candidate to run television ads., such as one set in his Orono kitchen.

"Hi, I'm Brian Sullivan. And if you want to know what my campaign for governor's all about, it's right here on my refrigerator. That's my can-do list for Minnesota." (Listen).

Next to a school picture of one of his two daughters, Sullivan's checklist is simple. Better schools, better roads, more jobs - without raising taxes. Sullivan says he learned to focus on the basics as a businessman.

"In my business, I had to drill into people, these are the five things we can get done this year. And let's make sure everything we're doing is helping make one of those five things happen. And the biggest challenge in any organization - and the reason why a lot of organizations aren't successful - is they get distracted. And that's why when people bring up these tangential issues, I go, 'that ultimately doesn't matter,'" Sullivan says.

Among those tangential issues, in Sullivan's mind, are money and background. Sullivan grew up in Baltimore, the son of a Fortune 500 CEO. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in economics. He moved to Minnesota at the age of 24 to track down the inventor of a water filtration system. He bought the patent to the technology, and co-founded Recovery Engineering, maker of PUR water filters.

He sold the company to Proctor and Gamble three years ago in a deal that netted him about $27 million. Now at the age of 40, Sullivan says his business success prodded him into politics.

"I've had a lot of opportunities in my life. And to a large extent, I've been able to enjoy the fruits of this country, because of the way our country has been built, the nature of our government. And it's always been the fact that those of us in the real world have a responsibility to participate in government and helping our communities," Sullivan says.

Sullivan jokes that his reputation may be taking a hit by his foray into politics. As he puts it, the public has a high regard for entrepreneurs - politicians, on the other hand, are down a couple of notches.

Sullivan began getting noticed in Republican circles, after he narrated a video produced by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota in 2000. Several prominent Republicans, including former party chair Bill Cooper, threw their support behind Sullivan's exploratory bid for governor. Sullivan says many Republicans have successfully run for office with little or no political experience. He tells Republican activists that what's needed at the Capitol is a new kind of leadership.

"If we want to streamline and restructure our bureaucracy, we need a governor who's been a CEO before. That is the job of government, CEO of our state's government, 55,000 employees, 30 different agencies that do need to be shaken up," he said.

Sullivan's rival for the Republican endorsement, House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, says in a time of budget crisis, Minnesotans want a leader with some political experience at the helm.

He told delegates to the 4th Congressional District Convention earlier this month that if Sullivan gets the endorsement, Gov. Ventura will attack him for contributing to DFL congressman Martin Sabo's campaign. Pawlenty quoted Ventura, who said Sullivan contributed to Sabo because Sabo got Sullivan's company defense contracts.

"So when he portrays himself as some outsider, I don't buy into that. He's a political insider all the way, because he knows how to use the system. You pay off the politician, and in return, the politician delivers to you. You want to know what Gov. Ventura's going to say about the race? There you have it," Pawlenty said.

Sullivan says he made a mistake by giving money to Sabo. He says that's another tangential issue the public doesn't care about, just like the question of how much money he'll spend on the race. He says voters want to know how a candidate will improve their schools, build more roads and create jobs.

Sullivan says in his company, he was graded every day - by customers, by employees, by shareholders. This weekend, Republicans will decide whether he's their best chance to defeat DFLer Roger Moe and unseat Gov. Jesse Ventura, if he decides to run again.

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