Minnesota's governors form a small club with little small talk

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Minnesota's current governor and his living predecessors aren't exactly what you'd call friends in real life.

"Club is probably too strong of a word," former Gov. Tim Pawlenty said. "But it's a semi-unique experience shared by a pretty limited number of people. So there's some actual or perceived affinity because of that."

Last November and again in March, Gov. Tim Walz called on several predecessors for public affirmation and political cover during turbulent times. Days before the last presidential election, he tapped Pawlenty and former Govs. Mark Dayton and Jesse Ventura for a TV spot to promote voting. Walz and Pawlenty reunited in March to get their COVID vaccine shots together.

"They've been there to answer my questions, to offer counsel, to speak confidentially," said Walz, a Democrat elected in 2018. He said he appreciated their willingness to help promote civic participation and public health.

"It kind of put these folks on the spot because they're drug back into the current politics," Walz said.

Forty white men held the job of Minnesota governor before Walz. Five are still alive. Dayton is Walz's immediate predecessor and the only other Democrat. Pawlenty served from 2003-11 as a Republican, preceded by the one term of Ventura, the third-party success story and retired pro wrestler.

Two Republicans round it out: Arne Carlson, in office from 1991-99, and Al Quie, from 1979-83.

"I don't think you've got much of a story here, bud," Ventura said, asked about bonds he's made with the others who held the job. Later he elaborated: "It's not all us governors singing 'Kumbaya.' I'm cordial if I see them but I'm lucky if I see any of them more than every other year."

Ventura, 69, said Walz reached out soon after winning. He said he gave Walz, who's 57, financial advice: to sell his house in Mankato and move his family into the governor's residence in St. Paul — which he did — and save the proceeds to help buy a place to live upon leaving office.

Ventura and Pawlenty, 60, were statehouse rivals when the former was governor and Pawlenty the House majority leader. The relationship was "super tense," Pawlenty said.

It later warmed. Not long after handing over power, Ventura took Pawlenty on a memorable, and very fast, drive on Interstate 94 in his new Porsche.

"We played golf a few times while I was governor and I have seen him for golf every couple of years or so since," Pawlenty said. Last summer they bumped into each other at a Blaine course. They chat about national and international politics, Pawlenty said. "Once you get him going on something, he can really get rolling."

Pawlenty ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2012 and worked as CEO of a banker's trade group for several years after that. He said he's mostly retired now. He attempted a gubernatorial comeback in 2018 but lost the Republican primary. Ventura has hosted "The World According to Jesse" for four years on RT America, which is owned by the Russian government. He said he has the freedom to say whatever he wants on the air.

The Pawlentys and the Venturas were generous with time and advice, Walz said, as his own family prepared its move into the Summit Avenue mansion that may be the biggest perk of the job.

The Walzes were the first since the Pawlentys to live there with kids. In between was Dayton, who by the time he became governor was single with two adults sons.

Dayton found ways to welcome past occupants back into the residence. Former Gov. Quie's son, Joel Quie, recalled how Dayton hosted a luncheon for about two dozen members of the Quie family a few years back in conjunction with their family reunion.

Now 74, Dayton recently had back surgery for the fourth time in the past decade as he seeks respite from physical problems he suffered during much of his time in office. "I haven't socialized much with anyone since the pandemic," wrote Dayton, who married for a third time last year. "And my golf game went the way of my four spinal surgeries!"

His interactions with predecessors have been "constructive, although infrequent," Dayton wrote. He teamed up with Carlson for a 2012 political ad in opposition to a voter ID constitutional amendment, and visited Arne and Susan Carlson at their home around that same time to talk about her work on fetal alcohol syndrome treatment and prevention.

There's a kind of understanding among governors and ex-governors: that the person in office won't publicly criticize predecessors, who return the favor by keeping opinions about the current governor private. It's an informal truce that sometimes bends or breaks.

Pawlenty recalled being occasionally subject to Dayton's "sharp elbows," but he was quick to add that his successor was always "incredibly gracious" in personal interactions.

The least reluctant to lash his successors has been Carlson, 86, who in a recent phone interview offered a series of critical takes on the gubernatorial records of Ventura, Pawlenty, Dayton and Walz. He didn't want to reminisce.

"I don't like to get into the personalities," said Carlson, who governed as a moderate Republican but has since sworn off party affiliation. He remains animated by deep concerns about the U.S. democratic system and the influence of political donations on the Minnesota Legislature, and he said he's been working with a group of Carleton College students and Common Cause Minnesota on a report about legislative caucus fundraising that he hopes to release this summer.

"Our Legislature is increasingly for sale. There are expectations for that money," Carlson said. He's been a critic of mining and pipeline projects proposed in northern Minnesota, which led him to publicly criticize Walz not long after the Democrat took office.

"I think Governor Carlson expressed very clearly that he disagrees" with decisions from state agencies "and felt like that I should have done something different," Walz recalled. "That's kind of unusual and I will just candidly say that one was kind of hard because I did and do respect the governor, I consider him, and I hope he still does, a friend, and he's someone who gave me great advice."

Even as he dinged governors who came later, Carlson had warm words for predecessors from both parties. He fondly recalled personal interactions with leaders of an earlier era, particularly Wendell Anderson, Harold LeVander and Harold Stassen. Dayton paid tribute to the late Rudy Perpich, his former boss and mentor, who served more than 10 years as governor over two separate stints.

At age 97, Al Quie lives at a Wayzata senior facility, a widower since 2015. In a brief recent visit with son Joel Quie at his side, the former governor summoned memories of his years in politics and the four years in St. Paul.

Al and Gretchen Quie were "the horseman and the artist," recalled Joel, a recently retired Lutheran pastor. That prompted his father, who grew up on a family farm near Northfield, to recall the decision to move into the Summit Avenue home.

"We lived in the governor's residence," Al Quie said. "We weren't going to, and then Gretchen said, 'I think we're going to.' So we moved in."

Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413

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