Is Minnesota Ready For The Conservative Revolution?

An ex-hippie who turned night-wing Republican will face one of the three great Democratic names

Tucked away in Minnesota, 1,000 miles from scandal-wracked Washington, may be this year's most entertaining election. It features a hippie turned Republican who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., a pro-wrestler turned politician who was mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minn., and "My Three Sons"-- Mike Freeman, Skip Humphrey, and Ted Mondale--heirs to the most famous names in Minnesota politics.

Obscured by all the personalities in this gubernatorial race, however, one of the most symbolic elections in the country is emerging. It is a race that will help determine how far the conservative movement has come. At its heart is a question being asked around the nation: Should states, flush with huge surpluses after seven years of economic expansion, embark on costly new initiatives or should government keep shrinking?

Nowhere is the question starker than in Minnesota, which taxes its citizens more than any other state. For the first time in 20 years, Republicans here have united behind a single candidate--one supported by both religious conservatives and Big Business. He is Norm Coleman, the boyishly handsome former New Yorker who was elected mayor of St. Paul in 1993 as a conservative Democrat and switched to the GOP before being reelected last year.

"DISCONNECT." His plan: cut taxes, scrap regulation, and privatize government functions as he did in St. Paul. "There has been a sea change," Coleman says. "People have begun to see the disconnect between their own existences, where they're forced to make do with less, and government, which is immune."

Come November, he will face one of five Democrats running in a Sept. 15 primary. Although all five say they will cut taxes, they have proposed a range of traditional Democratic ideas, from hiking the minimum wage to offering free college education. "There's a fight for the ideological soul of the place," says Donald F. Kettl, director of the University of Wisconsin's Robert M. LaFollette Institute of Public Affairs.

The debate here over how much to scale back government in good times is similar to others playing out across the country and would be unremarkable if this weren't Minnesota. Over the years, its high taxes have helped pay for a relatively strong education system, and it has produced liberal standard-bearers such as Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale, each of whom has a son in the current race. (Mike Freeman's father, Orville Freeman, was Agriculture Secretary in the 1960s.) "Politics is different here," says Wy Spano, editor of a political newsletter. "We have not moved as far to the conservative end of the spectrum as other states have."

TAX TALK. But as the political winds have started to shift, candidates here have responded. "Most people don't have a trust in government to do things right," says Mondale, a former state senator and one of the more conservative Democrats in the primary. That's why every candidate is proposing tax cuts that will amount to a few hundred million dollars a year.

Nobody, though, talks cuts more than Coleman. He wants to permanently cut the income tax and pass a law requiring surpluses to be returned to taxpayers. He also wants to privatize some services and open others up to the competition. He followed a similar path in St. Paul, and employment rolls swelled as the city lured businesses.

Democrats, for their part, say Coleman ignores workers and farmers struggling to keep up in the New Economy. "Mr. Coleman in many ways would move us back to the 19th century," argues Humphrey. Critics also note that while Coleman talks about shrinking government, he supports subsidies for sports stadiums, such as the new hockey arena in St. Paul.

Certainly, Coleman's transformation has been a long, strange trip. He spent a decade as one of Humphrey's key deputies in the state attorney general's office and, while a Democrat, co-chaired ultraliberal Senator Paul D. Wellstone's reelection campaign. And that's nothing compared with his long-haired college days, when as a Vietnam War protester at Hofstra University he wrote a piece in the student paper saying conservatives "don't [have sex] or get high like we do."

But Coleman now calls the "excesses" of his generation "plain, simply wrong"--and even advocates chastity before marriage. He also speaks out against abortion and argues that citizens should be able to carry concealed weapons. Republicans seem convinced. In fact, they may be most encouraged by his candidacy's unification of the Christian Right and Big Business.

Still, defeating Humphrey, the likely Democrat nominee, wouldn't be easy. He is running on both the $6.1 billion settlement that he wrested from tobacco companies and, of course, his name. But in a year when turnout is likely to be low, Coleman has a chance to become a poster boy for the kind of candidate Republicans dream of. That he's running in Minnesota, birthplace of so many liberal icons, would make a win all the sweeter for conservatives.

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