Two weeks after being elected to the US Senate, Norm Coleman is standing before the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council doing what he does best, talking “folks” out of one side of his mouth and stroking the corporate wish list out of the other. The Agri-Growth Council includes the biggest players in Minnesota agribusiness, familiar names like Land O’Lakes, Hormel Foods and Cargill, the largest privately held corporation in the world, the nation’s second-largest beef packer and one of Coleman’s biggest campaign contributors.
“The folks who live off the land are the original conservationists,” he says, in what is billed as his first postelection policy speech. The nod to the yeoman farmer is a segue into a theme a lot closer to the heart and pocketbook of most of the assembled than living off the land. “I will be a passionate advocate,” he says, “to make sure that regulation is based on sound science.”
Norm Coleman, the voters’ choice to replace the late Paul Wellstone, is the man of many faces who launched his political career as a bullhorn-wielding protester and student government leader at Hofstra University and has been moving to the right ever since. Handpicked by the Bush Administration to run against Wellstone, he is likely to be a dependable Bush ally where it counts most: on regressive tax cuts; war and money for national defense; “privatization,” whether the context is Social Security or getting rid of unionized government employees; and on issues related to energy, the environment and regulation. He is also likely, with great fanfare, to part ways with the Administration on occasional specifics, like drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. His position on ANWR was elusive during the Senate campaign, but seemed to settle on “Not now, maybe later.”
Democrats in Minnesota have learned the hard way: It’s a mistake to underestimate this man’s ambition or his proficiency at political calculation. On social issues, Coleman has aligned himself with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. Democrats had hoped that would create some difficulties for him during the campaign: How could he get votes from prochoice suburban Republican women without alienating the religious right that he’d been nurturing for most of the past decade? But Coleman is not a man easily squeezed by such dilemmas, as he ably demonstrated during a late-summer candidate debate with Wellstone at the Minnesota State Fair. Nor is he averse to wielding his own private third rail on the abortion issue, despite the unfathomable grief that must lie behind it. Wellstone at one point noted that Coleman prided himself on his ability to get things done and asked him what he intended to do about the abortion issue if he got elected. Coleman replied, as he did later to great effect when the topic came up during his debate with Walter Mondale, that he had lost two young children as the result of a genetic disease, and his opposition to abortion was a deeply held personal belief. But, he added, belief should be separated from what he would do as senator.
Wellstone forged ahead. “My question was, Norm, not about your deep personal beliefs. You signed a voter guide last week in which you said you support the complete and immediate reversal of Roe v. Wade. I wanted to ask you how as a senator you intend to do that. You didn’t answer that question.” He never did answer it. But it’s hard to imagine a Bush Supreme Court Justice nominee whom Coleman would not support.
Coleman originally came to Minnesota after law school at the University of Iowa. He worked in the Attorney General’s office for seventeen years, becoming chief prosecutor and solicitor general under Attorney General Skip Humphrey, liberal Democrat and son of the former US senator and Vice President. In 1993 Coleman was elected mayor of St. Paul, as a Democrat, but he became increasingly conservative while in office. He alienated unions with a failed attempt to privatize city services, and he bucked tradition by refusing to issue a mayoral proclamation endorsing a gay pride month. (He would argue that he’s against discrimination as well as proclamations regarding sexuality, and he indeed could point to his own transgendered deputy mayor.) He was definitely antichoice. But he co-chaired Clinton’s re-election campaign and in 1996 gave a rousing endorsement of both Paul Wellstone and Bill Clinton at the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) convention.
A few months later, claiming the Democratic Party had left him and not the other way around, he switched parties and was re-elected mayor as a Republican. His smile, recently perfected with braces, seemed to be everywhere. He took time off to run an unsuccessful campaign for governor against his former boss, Skip Humphrey, and Jesse Ventura, and then returned to the mayor’s desk. In 2001 he was enlisted by the Bush Administration to take on Wellstone, and in May of that year stood at George Bush’s side in St. Paul when the President announced his energy policy.
With the campaign heating up, he went on the payroll of the Twin Cities law firm Winthrop & Weinstine, the major lobbying firm in Minnesota for the chemical and energy industries. His law license had expired, but he said in a statement that he would be working on “new business development.” When the question of compensation was raised by reporters, he replied with perfect Coleman pitch: that was between himself, his law firm and his wife. Later, after being badgered by the Wellstone campaign and the media, he said it “amounted to” $140,000 a year. Winthrop & Weinstine lobbying clients include the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association), the Chlorine Chemistry Council, the meat industry giant Farmland Industries and several energy corporations, including Flint Hills Resources LP (formerly Koch Petroleum Group) and Manitoba Hydro. Enron was a client until the company’s demise.
Coleman based his Senate campaign on his record as mayor, highlighted by the claim that he created 18,000 jobs. The DFL never effectively countered the claim, although Wellstone pointed out that in the Clinton boom years jobs were being created everywhere. Late in the campaign a Twin Cities weekly, City Pages, reported that job creation on a per capita basis in neighboring Minneapolis had actually exceeded St. Paul’s during the period in question, and that job creation outside the major metropolitan areas had exceeded it by a large margin. But local mainstream media gave Coleman a pass on the issue, and the national media followed suit. His “revitalization” of St. Paul became part of his thumbnail identifier for everyone from the Fox network to National Public Radio.
What Coleman did do during his tenure was make a number of deals that gave public subsidies to private interests, thereby building a mini-version of the kind of spoils system the Bush Administration is putting together at the federal level. Private contractors who benefited from Coleman’s “public-private partnerships” repaid the favor with generous contributions to his Senate campaign. St. Paul is now reeling economically, like many US cities, but by many accounts its position is notably worse than it would have been without the debt legacy left by Coleman’s economic development strategy.
During his Agri-Growth speech, the immediate context of Coleman’s embrace of “sound science” was the livestock industry. The subtext was the contentious issue of industrial livestock operations and their economic and environmental consequences, among them manure pits, sometimes larger than football fields and containing millions of gallons of raw manure. In Minnesota, neighbors of these “lagoons” have had to struggle with state pollution control authorities and industry over whether the pervasive stink in which they live and breathe constitutes a violation of any measurable standard.
It’s telling that among the issues championed by Wellstone was a de facto restriction on these operations. A provision that Wellstone helped introduce into the Senate version of the recent farm bill would have barred big meatpackers from owning livestock. To the surprise of many, it passed. Then it ran into Republican Representative Larry Combest, chair of the House Agriculture Committee and probably the most dependable supporter of Big Meat in all of Congress. In conference, he managed to strip the meatpacker amendment, as well as reforms that would have put less farm aid in the pockets of big commodity farmers and corporations. As this article went to press, Combest’s assistant counsel on the ag committee was reportedly under consideration for a staff position with Coleman, who will be seated on the Senate Agriculture Committee.
Coleman’s office declined to provide comment on his view regarding meatpackers being able to own and raise livestock–a virtually certain recipe for the perpetuation of monoculture animal husbandry at its worst. But people who live in rural areas surrounding the manure pits know what residents of towns like Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Gary, Indiana, have known for years. When a Republican corporate shill starts talking about “sound science,” be prepared to hold your nose.