MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It seems longer than eight years ago that a little known legislator from Eagan, Minn. took the governor’s office.
As Gov. Tim Pawlenty is leaving office and reflecting on his accomplishments, he doesn’t point to a signature building, or a program, as his legacy.
Instead, Pawlenty said he’s most proud of his Republican philosophy of change in a Democratic leaning state.
“I am the first real fiscally conservative governor the state’s had in the modern history of this state,” said Pawlenty. “So nobody has really put the brakes on as hard as I have.”
Pawlenty’s two terms were often combative, especially with a Democratically-controlled legislature for six of the eight years.
Nevertheless, he forced a resistant legislature to slow down spending, even though he did not actually cut Minnesota’s budget.
He fought against what he called “health care welfare” and later “Obamacare.”
Pawlenty also took a “no new taxes” pledge, and rejects critics who say his policies resulted in higher local property taxes.
Leaving office, Pawlenty appears sensitive to his legacy.
“Almost everything we’ve talked about will be affirmed by the future,” he predicted.
Pawlenty’s “regret list” is not long.
It does not include the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, in which 13 people died, but which garnered for Pawlenty high marks for leadership.
He does not mention record jobless numbers during the long recession on his watch, or the record $6.5 billion deficit he’s leaving for incoming Governor-elect Mark Dayton.
In fact, what Pawlenty said bothers him most is what he says was his awkward and ineffective attempts to expand Indian gaming in Minnesota and recover state revenues.
And after a chance encounter in the State Capitol with the new DFL governor and Republican majority leaders, he’s not joking when he says he regrets not running for a third term.
“Had I known that, of course I probably would have wanted to stick around and do that,” he said. “But I’m very comfortable with my decision and, for me, I made the right decision.”
Pawlenty leaves office with approval ratings hovering in the 40 percent range in Minnesota.
He got most of what he wanted from the DFL-controlled legislature through a record number of vetoes, only an occasional compromise and even a government shutdown.
And Democrats say he’s leaving the state in worse condition than he found it.
“Tim Pawlenty won’t leave a big imprint on the state of Minnesota,” said State Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “He has sacrificed virtually everything else in order to get his no new taxes achievement. He talks about tightening his belt, but he never really did the hard work to take the weight off. He just squeezed it together and it pushed out in other places. ”
In his last 18 months in office, Pawlenty spent much of his time on political travel.
He’s formed a Political Action Committee, “Freedom First,” to raise money for Republican candidates and causes.
He’s co-authored an autobiography, “Courage to Stand,” which is considered a prelude to a possible 2012 run for president.
Pawlenty said he’ll make a decision on whether to get into the presidential race by March 2011. He said he’s talking it over with his family, and laughingly retold a recent conversation with his teenage daughter.
“She said, ‘Dad, are you going to run for president?’ I said ‘I don’t know honey — I might.’ And she said, after a pause, ‘Just don’t embarrass the family.'”
WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler Reports