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Pawlenty disputes, strongly, that he ignored Minnesota

After eight years as governor, Tim Pawlenty said he is leaving Minnesota in better shape than when he took office. He said the state is near the top in most major measurements. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Pawlenty is not going quietly.

With less than two weeks left as governor, Pawlenty came out swinging Tuesday when asked about allegations he already has mentally moved on to the national political scene, leaving Minnesota behind.

The Republican governor told Forum Communications and ECM Publishers in one of his final Minnesota interviews that he has remained connected to his job despite his national political efforts.

"It's a bunch of crap," he said about what he sees as DFL attempts to paint him as a disinterested governor.

But it is not just DFLers who question whether Pawlenty has mentally checked out of his job. Many Republicans also quietly have wondered about that.

Pawlenty said that Democrats' logic goes something like this: "He must be running for president or he would be raising taxes."

The governor blamed Democrats and "Rockefeller Republicans" who went along with DFL spending plans for raising the state budget an average of 21 percent every four years before he arrived in the governor's office in 2003.

"I am the first true fiscally conservative governor in the history of the state of Minnesota," Pawlenty declared in the 45-minute interview.

However, what he called the "chattering class" thinks he should raise taxes so the state can spend more money.

"The inference from that group is that he must have an ill motive or a mental defect because he just won't raise taxes like a Democrat," Pawlenty said. "And to be conservative, fiscally conservative, and to refuse to raise taxes and take other positions that I have there must be something wrong with him. There just got to be a motive for higher office or something else wrong with him."

Pawlenty, 50, hosted small batches of Capitol press corps reporters this week for exit interviews before he leaves office Jan. 3, when Democrat Mark Dayton is sworn in.

He spent about half of the interview going through more than a dozen pages of what he considers his key accomplishments. They center on reducing government spending, a strong national Republican campaign theme.

Pawlenty was no more open than normal about his future plans. He said he has not decided what he will do after he leaves office, saying he first must consider his wife and two daughters.

On the other hand, most Pawlenty watchers say if he has not decided to run for president, he is very close.

As evidence, one need only look at the tour for his new book, "Courage to Stand," he begins next month. He plans stops in Iowa and New Hampshire, homes to the first presidential primary and caucus, as well as vote-heavy Texas and Ohio. He also plans Minnesota stops in Woodbury, Burnsville and St. Cloud.

Pawlenty has said he will announce by the end of March if he will run for president.

Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, now a Pawlenty commissioner, predicted a bright national future for Pawlenty: "I believe that the governor has that right mix to be a very, very strong player on the national level in the next few years. He brings that right balance that some others don't bring."

Sviggum, who has volunteered to help a Pawlenty presidential campaign, added, "I hope and pray he is" running for president.

One of Pawlenty's harshest critics said the governor's dreams of higher office hurt Minnesota.

"He was not a good governor," Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said. "One of his problems was that he was thinking about the big time. That is why he just refused to do what was needed with the budget."

Langseth said Pawlenty changed from the time he was in the Minnesota House.

"After he got elected governor, he started thinking about the big time," Langseth said, adding it was especially bad in his second four-year term. "When he first was elected to the House, he was a pretty moderate guy. As the (Republican) party shifted right, he shifted with them."

Comments such as those by Langseth are just what upset Pawlenty, who said that he has not changed in a decade as legislator and eight years as governor.

Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said it is natural for a governor to be criticized. "But I do not think you can dismiss the honor, the trust, the straight forwardness, the honesty of Gov. Pawlenty. They have always been there."

Pawlenty blamed the media for his poor perception. Reporters, he said, are not interested in positive stories that would make him look good, only negative ones that get lots of online attention.

He admitted that when he decided last year not to seek a third term he did not think fellow Republicans would take both chambers of the state Legislature away from Democrats. Coming after what he called an "Obama wave," GOP hopes looked dim, he said. Had he known Republicans would win, he may have run for a third term, he added.

Democrats are grateful that Pawlenty did not run again, allowing Dayton to become the first DFL governor in two decades.

Dayton blamed Pawlenty for many of the state's fiscal problems, and called him irresponsible for not agreeing to access a newly expanded federal Medicaid program. Pawlenty says the program would cost the state money.

Sviggum, however, said Pawlenty's refusal to raise taxes and his desire to cut spending leaves the state in better shape than under a DFL governor.

In the interview, Pawlenty highlighted his efforts to keep state government spending under control, and avoid tax increases.

He repeated his often-mentioned statistic that the current budget is the first time since before he was born 50 years ago that state spending actually went down from one budget to the next. The $30.7 billion two-year budget would have been $56 billion if increases continued like before he took office, Pawlenty said.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.