Former DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul may soar over
Minnesota as governor one day, but that will require political lift.
by T.W Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Former DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza of St. Paul may soar over Minnesota as governor one day, but that will require political lift.
A licensed pilot, Entenza, 48, is locked in a competitive primary race with DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher and former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton to represent the party on the November ballot.
The red letter state primary is Tuesday, Aug. 10.
Entenza depicts himself as a midstream Democrat — his DFL opponents as party activists, pursuing potentially damaging policies — and attributes his lack of party endorsement to an unwillingness to over promise.
“One of the reasons I’m sure I’m not the endorsed candidate, is because those are commitments I wasn’t prepared to make,” Entenza recently said his opponents’ stances on education funding and health care.
“I think Democrats need to be careful not to over promise in times of budget deficit.”
Entenza was first elected to the House in 1994, saying he entered politics “almost accidently” as the decision by his predecessor, former State Rep. Kathleen Osborne Vellenga, not to seek re-election startled everyone.
As House Minority Leader, Entenza credits himself with sharpening the House DFL message and putting the caucus on the road to majorityship — the caucus picked up 13 seats in 2004.
One lesson Entenza took away from his time in the House — a lesson Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty ignored to his detriment, Entenza said — is the need to embrace the opposition as much as possible.
“One of the lessons I learned in leadership is your biggest opponent one day will be your biggest supporter the next if you let them,” said Entenza.
In 2006, Entenza ran for state attorney general, hoping to replace Attorney General Mike Hatch who was leaving the office to run for governor.
But the campaign faltered in part with the news that Entenza had hired a Chicago-based research firm to dig for political dirt on Hatch — Entenza initially indicated the research cost him much less than it actually did.
On the sunny Capitol steps in July of 2006, Entenza withdrew from the race.
He plays down the matter — in the broader context of his career, it’s minor, Entenza said. “I have always seen what happened in 2006 as basically an internal political dispute within the DFL,” he said.
“If I had stayed in that race I was worried there’d be too many disputes within the DFL that would have hurt the whole ticket. I thought it (withdrawing) was the best thing for the party and it was.”
Only a handful of people have asked about the 2006 election in recent months and they’ve all been reporters — voters are focused on things like four-day school weeks, Entenza said.
When asked whether his political opponents had researched him, he said, “Well, sure.”
Every time he goes to a press conference he get reporters who ask questions he knows others have fed them, Entenza said.
After leaving the Legislature, Entenza, an attorney and former prosecutor, founded the Minnesota 2020 think tank — it reports on taxes, transportation and other issues — and after about 18 months Entenza decided he wanted to translate the issues into policy.
“I wasn’t thinking about the governor’s race until January of 2009,” said Entenza.
Pawlenty was running “roughshod” over the Legislature and he felt the need to bring new ideas to the State Capitol, according to Entenza.
Although having family ties in Minnesota dating back more than a century, Entenza was born in 1961 in Santa Monica, Calif., to a mother who worked as a nurse and an alcoholic father.
His father’s drinking led to financial ruin for the family and homelessness and Entenza’s mother, with her three children, returned to Minnesota to live in Worthington in his grandmother’s house on Clary Street, Entenza said.
Entenza’s father abandoned the family — he hasn’t seen his father since a teenager.
Looking back, Entenza, who drew strength from his mother and grandmother, believes positives emerged from the family trauma, he said.
“When you go through a challenge like alcoholism in the family, it does break some people,” he said.
“I think it probably helped me as a leader at the Capitol, because when you have contentious issues, other people would think the sky is falling, when you’ve seen tough times, it gives you a sense of measure,” said Entenza.
“The tragedy of my father was that instead of finding the solutions that were there, he dealt with it by fleeing.”
“And I think as a state we’ve got a $6 billion (budget) deficit in part because we don’t confront problems head on.”
In 1984 Entenza married the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, Rhodes scholar and future health care executive Lois Quam of Marshall — the couple first met at a high school speech event in Pipestone.
The couple have three sons — a campaign biography tells that when the boys were babies a diaper delivery service credited the family with the largest diaper order in the Twin Cities.
Although Quam eventually became a high-paid executive at United Health Group, Entenza depicts he and his wife’s early years together as hardscrabble.
“We had so little money then, we did our wedding reception as a potluck down the basement of the (Macalester College) chapel,” said Entenza.
“And when we came back to Minnesota (from Oxford University in England) we had $400 in our pocket and we slept on a friend’s living room floor.”
The family is active in the Lutheran Church, said Entenza. “(We’re) spiritually wealthy and we’re very fortunate,” he said.
“Part of my running for governor is part of our giving back. We believe that everything we’ve been fortunate enough to achieve is because we’ve got a good education.”
Entenza has picked former Fox 9 news anchor Robyne Robinson as his running mate.
Robinson, a native of Chicago, and Entenza met about 15 years ago, he said.
He was not only impressed by Robinson’s communication skills, business savvy, but also her community involvement, Entenza said.
“I think people are looking for leaders who aren’t just from inside of the Capitol,” he said.
Entenza envisions Robinson as lieutenant governor providing community outreach, acting as ambassador to the arts and culture community, continuing to work on her effort to stop teen pregnancies, among other duties.
According to Entenza, he would not appoint Robinson to head a state agency.
One lawmaker and longtime friend of Entenza is Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr., DFL-Winona.
“I like Matt a lot,” said Pelowski, who served with Entenza in the House. There’s hard budget decisions to be made, Pelowski said, and Entenza has shown the ability to make tough decisions.
Hamline University professor and political commentator David Schultz indicated some surprise that a poll showed Entenza running close to Kelliher.
“Until the recent poll I thought the 2006 Hatch flap had killed him,” said Schultz in an e-mail.
Schultz views Entenza’s strengths as a candidate as his access to money, established public policy credentials and some clear ideas on what he wants to do as governor.
Entenza’s weaknesses, according to Schultz, include an “ick” factor from the Hatch flap, lack of name recognition and the sense he’s trying to buy an election.
“Overall, the primary is a logic of small numbers. He is definitely in the game now,” Schultz said.
According to the Entenza campaign, Quam no longer has any business ties to UnitedHealth Group, nor any financial interest.
The family’s investments are all now in mutual funds.
Quam stepped down last year from any office holding capacity in Tysvar, a business she founded, a campaign spokesman indicated.
Entenza foresees himself as a flying governor — he might drive to Elk River, but he could fly to visit Cambridge in 20 minutes, he said.
He’s a good pilot, said Entenza.
Entenza flies planes from Cirrus Aircraft, a Duluth-based company — he belongs to a flying club, he said.
He doesn’t own his own plane, Entenza said.