Tom Emmer lurches left, Who’s influencing the Congressman?

Representative Tom Emmer via his Facebook page
Representative Tom Emmer via his Facebook page
Representative Tom Emmer via his Facebook page

Editorial boards from Minnesota newspapers have praised freshman Congressman Tom Emmer for going rogue.  By bucking his conservative base and providing a more moderate course for the state’s 6th district, Emmer’s becoming a Democrat’s Republican, but the conversion leaves questions in the minds of Republican voters who elected him just eight months ago.  In a non-scientific Facebook poll, Alpha News found that 49% were not satisfied with the performance of Congressman Emmer, 26% were satisfied and another 25% were undecided.  Of those who responded, 59% said they voted for Emmer and 38% did not.  When asked if they believed if Emmer was doing a better job than Michele Bachmann, 24% said Yes, 56% said No, and 20% were undecided.

After Emmer lost the 2010 Governor’s race by a mere 9,000 votes, he floundered. First, he sought to become Minnesota’s National Committeeman for the Republican National Committee, but Jeff Johnson was elected instead. Emmer, who ran a campaign with inexperienced, but fiercely-loyal staff, burned enough bridges with Republican activists, that he couldn’t muster the votes just months after his close defeat for Governor.

Instead of going back to private-practice law, Emmer did what many politicians do, he became a lobbyist, working against the free market principles he had defended during his three terms in the state House by supporting the state-imposed-moratorium on building new cancer radiation therapy centers.  He also worked to eliminate the United States electoral college as a lobbyist for National Popular Vote.  He then co-hosted a talk-radio show on the local conservative news station.  Emmer found his place outside public office, but he remained in the game.

Meanwhile, his former campaign manager and closest political advisor, David Fitzsimmons, easily won a state representative election in 2012.  He would represent one of the most conservative districts in the state–Wright County– only to vote in favor of same-sex marriage a year later. Fitzsimmons is a libertarian who helped run Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign efforts in Iowa, but never shared her views on the marriage issue.  His longtime girlfriend Sarah Walker is a lobbyist for various corporate interests, as well as for a national gun-control group and National Popular Vote.  The well-connected Walker also founded an organization to restore felons’ voting rights and was a board member and spokesperson for Minnesotans United for all Families– the same-sex marriage lobby.  Some Republican activists have questioned privately whether this relationship has influenced Emmer’s lurch leftward.  Fitzsimmons lost his Republican endorsement for the district 30B House seat in 2014, he’s now Emmer’s chief-of-staff in Washington D.C.

Emmer was planning to make another run for Governor against Mark Dayton in the spring of 2013, but shifted gears hours after Michele Bachmann announced her retirement from Congress.  Nobody questioned that he would win the 6th District seat in 2014, but his failure to bring out more Republican votes in the solidly-red district was unexpected. While Bachmann won with 159,476 votes in the last off-year election of 2010 with a strong DFL opponent in Tarryl Clark plus two independent candidates in the race. Emmer only won with 133,328 votes in 2014 with no major competition.

When Emmer went to Washington, he quickly embraced the Chamber of Commerce agenda and disappointed supporters who were expecting conservative leadership from the former state rep.  He voted for John Boehner’s third term as House Speaker, which surprised some, as he had always been willing to take principled minority votes as a member of the Minnesota House.  He sided with Nancy Pelosi and every House Democrat– as well as his Minnesota Republican House colleagues Rep Erik Paulsen and Rep John Kline– on the vote to fund President Obama’s executive amnesty program under the Department of Homeland Security budget.  According to The Hill, “the 75 Republicans who voted with all 182 Democrats in the 257-167 vote are mostly centrists, appropriators or lawmakers in tough reelection races next year.”  Emmer met none of these criteria but he strongly defended the vote and admonished Republicans who were against the DHS bill for jeopardizing national security.

Emmer was swiftly defended from conservative criticism with ads paid for by The American Action Network, a bellowing beltway voice that advocates for immigration reform, including amnesty provisions.    Former Minnesota Senator-turned-powerful-DC-lobbyist Norm Coleman, heads the organization which he co-founded with hotel mogul Fred Malek.  With the strong Minnesota connection via Coleman, it’s not surprising that Emmer has followed the lead of the more moderate Reps Paulsen and Kline in voting for measures in line with The American Action Network’s agenda.

Congressman Emmer, who had notoriously re-financed his house six times in eight years, was rewarded in May with a spot on the powerful Financial Services Committee which oversees the banking, insurance, and securities industries.  The influential position ensures that his campaign coffers will be filled with lobbyist money, even if some of his more conservative donors back home in Minnesota withdraw their financial support.

Emmer decided to make international trade his main focus and was one only eighty-six Republicans to vote for the trade adjustment assistance act (TAA) in June, which is a federal spending program to help displaced American workers traditionally supported by Democrats.  He took an international trip to Africa this spring and returned home a changed man as he flip-flopped on the issue of foreign aid garnering praise from liberal advocacy group Think Progress.  In June he joined with liberal Minnesota Rep Keith Ellison to form the “Somalia caucus” in the U.S. House.  Emmer, or his staff, have attended numerous events in the Somali community including a Coon Rapids mosque opening, since his swearing-in in January.

Last week, he belittled constituents at a St. Cloud town hall meeting who expressed concern about the federal government’s refugee resettlement programs and their toll on local government budgets.  Gary Gross was at the event and reported for The Examiner which was picked up by the Drudge Report.  “Emmer’s temper got the better of him several times during the event,” Gross wrote.  The Star Tribune reported last fall that the number of Somali refugees resettled in Minnesota more than tripled from 2010-2014.  There have been tensions in the St. Cloud area including Somali student walkouts at one of the local high schools as well as a threatened assault on school staff.  Emmer pooh-poohed a town hall attendee’s request that Congress seek a moratorium on refugee resettlement until an economic impact study could be done.

The Congressman has been taking some heat from national conservative organizations as well, who have given the freshman low marks during his first six months in DC, with Freedom Works scoring him a 57% and Heritage Action a 62%.

Emmer has brushed off all of the criticism by stating that his only concern is representing his constituents, telling MPR News in April “They just want to know that the people they’re electing into office are listening to them, are being responsive to them, and are being accountable to them.”

Many politicians have moved across the political spectrum over time, but the speed by which Tom Emmer has gone from staunch conservative state representative and gubernatorial candidate to reliable moderate House vote raises questions about his integrity.   Whether he’s under the influence of liberal-leaning staff liaisons or simply playing a very old game about power and money doesn’t matter.  The accountability he seeks to maintain won’t come from the Minnesota media establishment nor from inside the beltway, but from the people who elected him in Minnesota’s 6th district last fall.