Saturday, November 22, 2014
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Public policy expert joins governor's race

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Peter Hutchinson wants to appeal to Minnesotans in the middle of the political spectrum. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum )
Peter Hutchinson will officially enter the governor's race this week. The former Minneapolis schools superintendent and former state finance commissioner will run as an Independence Party candidate. Hutchinson said he'll bring fresh ideas to the governor's office. But his biggest challenge may be that most Minnesotans don't know who he is.

St. Paul, Minn. — Peter Hutchinson has never run for office before, although he's been involved in public policy for decades. His resume includes a stint as deputy mayor of Minneapolis and as chair of the Dayton Hudson Foundation.

Hutchinson served as Minnesota finance commissioner under DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich in the late '80s. After that he founded Public Strategies Group, a company that consults for for state and local governments. Hutchinson said his work with governors in other states, particularly Washington and Iowa, got him thinking about the governor's race.

"Most of the things I was seeing around the country I wasn't seeing in Minnesota," Hutchinson said. "And thought to myself, 'gosh, we could do a lot better.'"

Hutchinson's company has helped other states reform their budgeting process. It uses a philosophy called "budgeting for outcomes," which asks governments to set priorities and fund the most important ones. Hutchinson said Minnesota should adopt a similar approach, and stop using accounting gimmicks that shift spending into future budgets.

Hutchinson's company was hired to run the Minneapolis school district in the '90s, and Hutchinson served as school superintendent for four years. Hutchinson pushed for a focus on school achievement, and campaigned successfully for a major funding referendum.

But Hutchinson's tenure was not without controversy. Some minority groups didn't want Hutchinson as superintendent, and charged him with failing to meet minority students' needs. Near the end of his tenure, Hutchinson took a two-month leave of absence to take care of his sick daughter, while his own health was in rough shape from the stress of the job. He said the experience of running the district and making tough decisions taught him that public leadership is by its very nature controversial.

"At some level, it doesn't matter what you decide because you're going to get yelled at," said Hutchinson. "And if you think this is about avoiding getting yelled at, forget it! And once you come to the realization that you're going to get yelled at anyway, what you get to do is to do what you think is right."

Minnesotans don't know him. And so he will have a problem in terms of increasing his name recognition and visibility.
- Political scientist Steve Frank

Shortly after Hutchinson's leave of absence, the board decided to end its partnership with Public Strategies Group and hire St. Louis Park Superintendent Carol Johnson to replace Hutchinson. Longtime school board member Judy Farmer said Hutchinson was able to diagnose and fix some of the problems in the Minneapolis school district, but then the district needed an educator to take over. Farmer said Hutchinson pushed for change without alienating people.

"He has a very optimistic, inspiring sort of leadership style. And he is very good at winning people over," Farmer said. "And he firmly believes that you don't get change through by ramrodding it through, you get it through by winning people to your arguments."

Farmer said she believes Hutchinson would carry those strengths to the governor's office, but she hasn't decided whether to support him. Hutchinson hopes to appeal to the block of Minnesotans in the middle of the political spectrum. He believes most Minnesotans don't identify with either the Republican or DFL parties, and his campaign will try to persuade them an Independence Party candidate is the best option.

"And it is for people who've really kind of had it with politics as usual, with the partisan bickering, with closing the state down, with blaming and complaining and explaining but never gaining, with all the name-calling and the negative stuff and the fear-mongering, they just don't want it any more, and they are, I believe, a majority of Minnesotans," Hutchinson said.

But Hutchinson faces a big obstacle, according to political scientist Steve Frank. "Minnesotans don't know him," Frank said. "And so he will have a problem in terms of increasing his name recognition and visibility."

Frank co-directs the St. Cloud State University survey, which found in November that 83 percent of respondents didn't know enough about Hutchinson to judge him. Frank said candidates like the late Senator Paul Wellstone were able to overcome initially low name recognition. But Wellstone is the exception rather than the rule, and Frank predicts Hutchinson will get only about 5 percent of the vote. That could still have an impact in a close election.

Four years ago, Independence Party candidate Tim Penny got 16 percent of the vote, which some political observers believe helped Republican Tim Pawlenty win the election.

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