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Gaertner seeks DFL backing in run for governor

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner was one of five gubernatorial candidates to speak recently to a Beltrami County DFL fundraiser. Gaertner plans to take her Democrat campaign against Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2010. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

In a post-partisan era, Minnesota needs a new CEO with a willingness to move forward without regard to a political future, says Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner.

Gaertner, who is running for governor, alludes to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's limelight as a potential vice presidential candidate last year, and potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012.

"We need someone with proven leadership ability, which I have, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to move this state forward without regard to whether or not it will serve my political career," Gaertner said in a recent interview.

"Clearly, Tim Pawlenty has had his eye on what's best for his national political career, and not his eye on what's best for working Minnesotans," the Democrat said.

"Tim Pawlenty is very popular, but if we put forward the right DFL candidate for governor, someone who people can trust to do the right thing, I definitely think he can be defeated," Gaertner said.

She was interviewed a day after she wooed Beltrami County DFLers at a fundraiser -- one of five potential gubernatorial candidates already crowding the DFL endorsement field for 2010.

Gaertner said she's in the race for sure, and will abide by the Democratic endorsement which won't come until June 2010.

She notes that Pawlenty has yet to win the majority of voters in both his elections, with a margin taken off by Independence Party candidates. Yet, the Republican remains popular and stands by his "no new taxes" pledge.

"The one pledge that I will make is that I will do what is right for Minnesota, even if it's not politically expedient," Gaertner said. "Part of that is not making other pledges. The 'no new taxes' pledge was, first of all, a fraud and second off all, irresponsible."

She calls it a fraud after watching her county board struggle with raising property taxes because of the direct impact Pawlenty's refusal to continue to fund local government at an appropriate level.

"It's not true that he's abided by a 'no new taxes' pledge, he's simply pushed the taxes down to local areas of government," Gaertner said.

The career path for most Minnesota governors has been through the Legislature, but Gaertner comes through local government, having been a county attorney for 16 years.

"I think it's time for a governor to come from those groups, because we have such serious challenges relative with the way government is organized," she said. And, "relative to mandates, relative to cuts in local aid. We need someone in the governor's office who can understand the role of local governments -- county governments, city governments --and with an open mind think about how to possibly redesign those needs, but with a respect for the strong critical role that local governments play in keeping our communities safe, secure and vibrant."

Gaertner says she would come to the job with 16 years' experience both as a prosecutor and as an administrator. As Ramsey County attorney, Gaertner oversees a staff of more than 320 people and a $21 million budget.

Half of her staff is engaged in collecting child support payments, the only county attorney in Minnesota with full responsibility for child support collections in their community, she said, collecting nearly $60 million a year in child support payments.

"Very much a part of my job as county attorney is to be an administrator of a major enterprise," she said. "When you combine that with my experience in the criminal arena, making really tough decisions, is very good preparation for being governor."

Gaertner graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she earned a bachelor's degree in political science, and earned her law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Another aspect, she says, is that her job has been non-partisan as opposed to the split Legislature. "Our jobs are very much non-partisan," she said of the county level. "I work with a county board that comes from both sides of the aisle and some who consider themselves very independent, and it doesn't matter what their party affiliation is when I go before the county board to collaborate and get something done."

Candidates with legislative backgrounds may talk about working with others across the aisle, "but that's what we do on a daily basis," Gaertner said of those with her background.

Still, Gaertner is a Democrat and would bring a Democratic agenda to the governor's office.

"Obviously the No. 1 job of government is to keep its people safe," she said. "But the Pawlenty administration's view of how you accomplish that has been shortsighted and overly political."

The Republican governor has focused on high-profile crimes, lengthening sentences in an extreme way, holding the state corrections budget harmless but not investing in things with a more long-term effect on public safety, she said.

"We need to invest in youth at risk in our communities, and that's what will ultimately keep us the safest," Gaertner said.

As an example, Gaertner said her 1994 county attorney campaign focused on getting tough on crime but once taking office, she initiated a truancy campaign focused on keeping kids in school.

"I have already seen a positive impact on public safety in my community," she said. "Graduation rates are up, school attendance days are up, juvenile crime is down."

School failure is one of the No. 1 predictors of criminal activity down the line, she said.

Gaertner's child support enforcement push is also early intervention, she said, as the payments ensure that kids are fed, clothed and have health care to give a sound base for a successful life.

"Yes, we have to keep people safe but we have to have a more sophisticated view of what investments do produce public safety," Gaertner said.

The Democrat lists as her priorities education, health care and economic development.

Minnesota needs universal health care, she says. There have been incremental improvements in health care, but a comprehensive reform is needed.

"Health care costs are bringing down small businesses, are fueling large increases in government's cost of doing business -- we need to have a very comprehensive approach to health care," she said.

And, she says, Minnesota needs to focus tax changes on what will produce jobs. Health care costs are extremely burdensome to small businesses, she adds. Universal health care will help reduce that burden.

In education, focus must be made on programs that work such as early childhood education, Gaertner said, adding that people support it but funding for it is often the first to go in economic poor times.

"As a public safety professional I see what happens if you don't invest in 3-, 4- and 5-year olds," she said.

Investments need to be made up the line, too, she said, including higher education. "the bottom line remains the same, we need to make investments in education."

Collaborations are needed also, she said, noting one rural school district that cut its art teacher to half time because of a failed levy referendum, and another district that spends $100,000 a winter in fuel costs to idle school buses so they are warm.

"We need to get back to giving local units of government more flexibility so they can respond to their community's needs," she said. "We can't just keep sending them mandates without the funding."

As a sidelight, Gaertner is married to John Wodele, who masterminded wrestler Jesse Ventura's successful run for governor.

"People like to bash Jesse Ventura," Gartner says, "but I go back to the 2001 budget crisis when Jesse Ventura came up with a budget that would restore structural balance to our state budget, and the two parties would have none of it because of gubernatorial ambitions."

Although he lacked legislative support as in independent, "the right thought was there, to budget for the future, to govern for the future, and not saddle successive bienniums with a structural imbalance," Gaertner said.

"That is the Ramsey County way," she said. "So much of what we do is responsible budgeting, responsible spending, and spending on outcome-based programming."