St. Paul, Minn. — Every Friday morning at 9 Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his communications director step in front of microphones and start the show.
Pawlenty has been broadcasting the radio show every Friday since he took office in 2003. He took the microphone from Gov. Jesse Ventura who started the program when he took office in 1999. Pawlenty broadcasts from the WCCO radio studios in Minneapolis but also takes the show on the road. His guests range from his commissioners to congressmen to comedians and authors. The show focuses on entertainment, politics and current events. But Pawlenty rarely invites political opponents on the program and takes no questions other than from a few callers each week.
Several of those who hope to take Pawlenty's job say it's time for the show to end. DFL real estate developer Kelly Doran is leading the effort. Ironically, Doran's campaign manager, John Wodele, was a sidekick on the show when Gov. Ventura was host.
Doran's attorney, Lucinda Jesson, says Pawlenty or WCCO should pull the plug or give Doran and other candidates equal time.
Pawlenty raised more than $800,000 for his campaign last year and publicly said last October that he planned to run run for re-election. Jesson believes the Federal Communications Commission would define him as a candidate.
"Those rules don't say when you hold a formal announcement. They talk about a candidate who has publicly made clear his intention to run for office. I think Gov. Pawlenty clearly did that. I think he did that on an MPR show back in October... I think his actions since then have confirmed that clear intention to run for re-election," according to Jesson.
Jesson says the Doran campaign plans to file a lawsuit if the show continues and equal time is not provided. But winning a lawsuit may not be easy.
The Federal Communications Commission, which grants licenses to TV and radio stations, says stations must provide equal time to other candidates, but only after a candidate officially declares his intent.
Officials with WCCO declined an interview request but issued a statement saying they believe Pawlenty is not a legally qualified candidate, and they will continue to air the show. Pawlenty also legally there's no reason to stop doing the show.
"There's established legal standards for when you're a candidate. They're there for a reason. It's settled law and I think we should follow the law. We also said we would differ to WCCO's judgment on it and they agree," Pawlenty said.
"The governor is playing cat and mouse. He wants to have it both ways," counters Peter Hutchinson, the Independence Party candidate for governor. He also wants Pawlenty's radio show off the air. Hutchinson says Pawlenty is delaying his official announcement so he can take advantage of an hour-long broadcast that airs statewide.
"He wants to be a governor and get all of the perquisites of being governor without having to declare himself a candidate when he would have to lose some of those perquisites. I think the question is: is the guy running for office of not? If he is, let's get on with it. If he's not, then have him say so," he says.
Hutchinson says he's also concerned that Pawlenty continues to travel around the state at taxpayer expense to promote himself under the pretense that he's not a declared candidate.
As Hutchinson and others continue to cry foul over Pawlenty's use of the airwaves, one media observer believes Pawlenty and WCCO have the legal standing to keep the show going.
Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, says Pawlenty hasn't officially declared his intentions so the show can continue and the equal time rule doesn't apply. Kirtley says the bigger question is if WCCO should continue to give Pawlenty or any other politician an unfiltered hour of radio?
"I would ask any radio station that's going to give the chief executive of a state or a nation that kind of airtime to look at their program logs and ask 'are we providing balanced coverage to provide those with opposing viewpoints, political opponents and others, an opportunity to respond and have additional viewpoints?'" she said.
Kirtley says she expects Pawlenty's political opponents to continue to call for the show to go dark. She says WCCO will probably continue to air the show until Pawlenty makes a formal campaign announcement or receives the Republican endorsement in June.