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Profile: Roger Moe
By Michael Khoo
Minnesota Public Radio
September 16, 2002


For the last 22 years, DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe has run Minnesota's Senate - brokering deals, shepherding legislation, searching for consensus. He has held that position longer - by far - than any lawmaker in state history. But this year, he'll step down. Or step up, if he has his way, into the governor's office. His supporters say his experience and years at the Capitol show in his ideas and his style. His detractors say the same.

Roger Moe
Roger Moe
Born: June 2, 1944
Personal: Married to Paulette, 4 children.
Occupation: Senate Majority Leader.
Education: BS, Mayville State.
Political background: Elected to the Minn. Senate in 1970. Unsuccessful candidate for lt. governor on a ticket with Skip Humphrey, 1998.

(MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)

Sen. Roger Moe has a well-worn image as reserved, cautious, unflappable - not given to emotion or personal dynamism. But when he threw his hat into the gubernatorial ring earlier this year, he assured supporters they'd see a new side. He was not, as the car commercial says, your father's Roger Moe. Except - maybe he was.

Early in his campaign, Moe appeared in parades and county fairs strolling along a black "Moe for Governor" stock car - an attempt to burnish his image as a fun man-of-the-people. But the car - exuding machismo and speed - only set Moe's tempered, cautious style in sharper relief. It didn't work.

Late in August, the Moe camp went through a top-to-bottom shakedown. Gone were the car, the bobbleheads, and other frivolous accessories. The campaign returned to its roots - Moe's roots - and is now focused on the Democratic issues Moe has pursued his entire public life. But the candidate warns voters not to think he hasn't kept up with the times.

"It's not so much 'fresh face' as it is 'fresh ideas.' And I will challenge anyone that my ideas and my record in the Legislature - I stay very contemporary," Moe says.

In the 1998 gubernatorial contest, Moe finished an embarrassing third place as then-Attorney General Skip Humphrey's running mate. That year ushered in the Jesse Ventura into the corner office. Moe is now hoping voters will have tired of celebrity-politicians and will embrace someone who's been tested in the trenches.

Roger Moe
Earlier in the summer, Moe's campaign unveiled a stock car which accompanied him at various public events. Moe has since dropped the campaign manager who came up with the idea, and put the stock car in the garage.
(MPR file photo)

Even one-time adversaries credit Moe for his record of service. Former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, who says he's not endorsing anyone in this year's contest, says he has every confidence in Moe's abilities.

"When Gov. Ventura first ran, he sold a lot of Minnesotans on the notion that American governance is really amateur hour, and we would all benefit from it. My response is that when I go into surgery, I want a physician and a surgeon with great experience," says Carlson.

Moe was born into a farm family in northwestern Minnesota which, in his first years, lacked even electricity. It was, by his own description, a tough life, but one he says he would never trade.

"When you're in grade school and junior high school, and you basically don't have anything - the car doesn't run most of the time, you don't have the latest clothes, and you see other people doing other things, and families with television sets and you didn't have one - at that time you think, 'Gee, that wasn't much fun,'" says Moe.

Moe, who has three brothers and three sisters, says he was fortunate to have had the support of his family, and the benefit of a solid education through high school and beyond.

"When Governor Ventura first ran, he sold a lot of Minnesotans on the notion that American governance is really amateur hour, and we would all benefit from it. My response is that when I go into surgery, I want a physician and a surgeon with great experience."

- Former Gov. Arne Carlson on Roger Moe

After spending some time working on pipelines and other constrution projects, Moe crossed over to North Dakota where he studied education at Mayville State. But he wasn't long in the classroom before politics beckoned.

Recruited by Senate Majority Leader Nick Coleman, Moe and his brother Don ran for and won seats at the state Legislature - Don in the House, and Roger in the Senate. It was 1970. Moe was 26.

"I must confess I was quite intimidated by the process. I'd never been to the Capitol before I was elected. So I had a lot to learn," Moe says.

And he learned quickly. While Independence Party opponent Tim Penny was just packing off for college, and Republican Tim Pawlenty and Green candidate Ken Pentel were still in elementary school, Moe was learning the ropes on the influential Senate Finance Committee. Within 10 years he replaced his old mentor, Coleman, as majority leader.

During his tenure, Moe has developed a reputation as a master negotiator, earning respect from those who sat across the table from him. Former Republican Rep. Dave Jennings presided as speaker of the House during the mid-1980s. He's now supporting Moe for governor.

Roger Moe and Steve Sviggum
Moe and his counterpart in the House, Republican Speaker Steve Sviggum, have sat across from each other at the bargaining table many times over the past legislative session.
(MPR Photo/Tom Sheck)

"Because he understands the process, and because he has this seemingly endless patience and high tolerance for the shenanigans that go on around there, he almost always gets more than his 50 percent of the pie," says Jennings.

Among his accomplishments, Moe oversaw the merger of the state's colleges and university system with its technical schools. He had a hand in creating the state's conservation reserve program. And, along side Gov. Ventura, he pushed for the tobacco endowments that fund smoking cessation efforts and medical research.

For the past four years, Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum has observed Moe's patient, deliberative approach to deal-making.

"There were times when we felt that we had moved, had moved, and had moved - basically negotiated against ourself - and all the Senate did was repackage their offer, which was really not significant change or movement at all," says Sviggum. "You could call that good negotiating. You could also call that frustrating."

Sviggum says although he's an ardent Pawlenty supporter, he holds Moe in high regard as a responsible, determined public servant. But Moe's image as the embodiment of the status quo won't fade overnight.

During this year's endorsement contest, Moe faced state auditor Judi Dutcher and Senate colleague Becky Lourey at the state convention. Lourey says she supports Moe's candidacy, but she wonders whether he can attract new voters to the cause. And she still nurses reservations over Moe's handling of this year's budget crunch.

Lourey supported tax increases to bridge the fiscal shortfall, but she says Moe and opponent Pawlenty took the easy way out.

"I am still very disappointed that both Pawlenty and Senate leadership marginalized the governor in this last go-around. We would not be in as much trouble financially if we had partnered with the governor on doing a better job of balancing the budget," says Lourey.

The governor himself makes that point. And so does IP candidate Tim Penny. Penny, a former Democrat, fundamentally changed the political dynamic this year when he moved to fill Ventura's shoes after the governor announced he wouldn't run.

Moe first speculated that he and Penny would be fishing from the same pond for votes. And pinching him further is the Green Party's Ken Pentel, who is expected to dig into Moe's base among environmentalists.

But Moe may be shaking his stoic Norwegian skin after all. He's recently turned the tone up a bit during debates, seeking to define both Tim Penny and Tim Pawlenty as too right-wing for Minnesota tastes.

"I wouldn't vote against the Fair Prescription Drug Pricing Act like Tim Pawlenty did or lobby against it like Tim Penny know, Tim conveniently forgot to mention that his no-tax pledge doesn't include the property tax. I want you to know...our problem is we're just not sure which truth you speak depending on the group you're at or region or part of the state you're in," Moe said at a recent debate.

Whether he succeeds or not, one thing is certain. Moe will step down from his Senate position early next year and abandon his office just off the Senate chambers. Reflecting on his 32 years in office, he says he has no regrets with his decision.

"It's time for somebody else to be in charge of this place. I hope that history will record that I made a contribution while I was here," says Moe.

His supporters and his detractors would agree that he has.

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