From insurgent to insider, eyes next move

Published 5:03 pm Tuesday, October 10, 2023

By Dana Ferguson

As a new state lawmaker almost two decades ago, Tom Emmer developed a reputation in Minnesota’s Capitol as a firebrand and party insurgent who could make life tough for top Republicans.

Now, Emmer is the one trying to play peacemaker in a ruptured Republican Party in Washington, including among some House members who have questioned Emmer’s stances on government spending and his vote to certify the 2020 election results. And his ability to calm concerns could decide whether he’ll climb the ranks to the No. 2 position in GOP leadership.

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Emmer currently serves as majority whip, the No. 3 position in Republican leadership. If Majority Leader Steve Scalise succeeds in his bid for House Speaker, that would put Emmer in line to move up.

GOP lawmakers are expected to pick a candidate to succeed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy before putting that person up for a vote on the House floor. It’s not clear how long deliberations could last. But tensions in Israel, as well as a November deadline to pass budget bills, will be top of mind as lawmakers return to Washington to deliberate.

Emmer, 62, took a circuitous path to the upper ranks of Washington.

He started his career in elected office serving on a pair of city councils in the Twin Cities exurbs — Independence and Delano. And in 2004, he set his sights on the Minnesota House.

Political strategist Amy Koch, who was also involved with Wright County Republicans back then, said Emmer wasn’t favored to win party backing. But he won over delegates and later voters in the district.

“He just showed up, started talking. And he won the endorsement like that, which is kind of unusual because he just didn’t have the usual base,” Koch said. “It was just him being him.”

Emmer charged into Minnesota’s Capitol in 2005 and quickly found himself making headlines far more than notching policy wins.

His effort to pass a law to castrate those who sexually assault minors was one of those stances that earned him widespread attention.

“We need to address sex offenders. We need to address predators. We need to protect our children,” Emmer said then. “We can’t assume that over our lifetime we can just keep building bigger and bigger buildings. We have to start looking at other options and this is one of them.”

Emmer also focused much of his time on criticizing the government and opposing efforts to expand its scope.

That message resonated with Tea Party members who helped Emmer in his 2010 bid for governor. While his bid was seen as a longshot by some party insiders, Emmer topped a more-seasoned lawmaker to secure the nomination.

Emmer’s campaign wasn’t without missteps. He shuffled through campaign staff and spent weeks retooling his messaging after suggesting tipped employees should get lower hourly pay.

“I believe that if you excel, if you’re the best server in the house you should be allowed to make more than the minimum wage and if maybe you’re not the best maybe you’re the weakest maybe you should make a little bit less and be able to work your way up,” Emmer said.

It took a toll, along with blistering TV ads over old DWI arrests. Emmer fell half a percentage point short of Democrat Mark Dayton — an election result that held up in a recount.

Rather than fight the result further in court and delay certification, Emmer stood down.

“Minnesotans made their choice by however thin a margin, and we respect that choice,” Emmer said on his snowy Delano lawn as he conceded in December. “Now is the time for all of us to come together and do what is best for Minnesota.”

Emmer didn’t disappear though. He kept pushing the envelope as a talk radio host.

And a few years later, Emmer returned to politics and replaced conservative Rep. Michelle Bachmann representing central Minnesota. Bachmann, who didn’t run again that year, had a national profile as a thorn to the GOP establishment. But Emmer promised he’d keep his focus local.

“I have an interest in serving the people of the 6th District. So you should be able to reach me, you should be able to hear back from me personally promptly and have whatever it can be done by the representative done for you. I think that’s job number one,” Emmer said.

During his five terms in the House, Emmer climbed the ladder quickly. Before ascending to majority whip — the main vote wrangler for the Republicans – he led the GOP’s campaign efforts for two election cycles.

That made him a familiar face to many who decide who gets leadership jobs. Emmer helped recruit some of the new members and is known for his personal touch in dealing with lawmakers throughout the fractious caucus. He wasn’t available for an interview for this story.

Annette Meeks was on Emmer’s ticket in 2010 and was once a top aide to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. She said Emmer has a unique edge in a potential bid for majority leader.

“These leadership elections are all based on relationships. And that’s one thing that Tom really is good at,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat representing Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District, has worked with Emmer for nearly a decade and agreed that Emmer is well-positioned to move up.

“Tom knows everyone, and Tom’s a straight talker. He’s not one given into threats or antics,” she said. “He’s very well respected on his side of the aisle, and I know that Minnesota delegation, we have a very congenial working relationship with Tom, where we put Minnesota first.”

Meeks said Emmer knows something about team management, too — having plowed his way through competitive hockey and helping to keep a packed household running.

“Tom is used to operating in a field of chaos, you can’t have seven kids and have a calm, quiet house, you just can’t,” Meeks said. “You can’t run the House of Representatives in this day and age and move up the ranks as quickly as Tom has if you’re not willing to thrive in chaos. And frankly listen and try and build something from that chaos. And that’s what Tom’s really good at.”