The Cowardly Lion: Minnesota needs a hero. It has Erik Paulsen instead.

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Erik Paulsen has become the very politician he used to claim to hate. Jared Yamahata

Hilary and Lemar Gilbreath’s 3-year-old son started life at a deficit, born six weeks early and weighing less than three pounds.

Over the ensuing 30 months, Logan would be diagnosed with autism, spina bifida, and sensory processing disorder. The onslaught of illnesses posed problems with walking, the ability to communicate, and a brain that struggled to receive information.

Hilary is a patient rep for Allina Health. Lemar works in tech support for a trucking company. The Edina couple receives health insurance through work, which covers 80 percent of Logan’s medical costs. But the tab for caring for a special needs child doesn’t come cheap. One MRI can cost $31,000. Logan’s autism day school runs $800 per week. Twice-weekly therapy sessions ring in at $200 a pop.

The Gilbreaths quickly realized they were screwed. A year’s coverage for therapy visits alone maxed out after just two months.

“We were paying out-of-pocket,” Hilary says. “Our coverage for things like occupational and speech therapy and programs within his day treatment didn’t last very long. When it comes to a child like Logan who needs intensive therapy, there were these big gaps of what is covered by insurance and what is patient responsibility.... We knew there was no way we were going to be able to make this work.”

Then they found TEFRA, a medical assistance option administered by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. It’s designed for children with disabilities whose parents make too much for other state programs, but can’t afford care on their own. It was a program started years ago, but Logan's coverage was made possible by Obamacare, which extended it to more families with special needs kids.

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Erik Paulsen Jeff Wheeler / Star Tribune

The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid to cover children with autism. What would’ve once bankrupted the Gilbreaths can now be had for $200 a month.

“Before TEFRA... there was a while there when we had to stop his therapy sessions altogether because we knew we couldn’t sustain the debt,” says Hilary. “It’s been a lifesaver for our family.”

But if Erik Paulsen has his way, that lifesaver will be gone.

This spring, the Gilbreaths learned their congressman voted to repeal Obamacare and replace it with the GOP’s Better Care Reconciliation Act. The regally titled bill was misleading. Not only would it have kicked tens of millions of people off of their health coverage, it also threatened to eviscerate TEFRA.

“I’m afraid the whole program would be gone,” says Hilary, who voted for Paulsen in all five of his congressional races. “My biggest fears are his spinal surgery wouldn’t be covered. His autism treatment wouldn’t be covered. That we wouldn’t be able to afford therapy and his special ed programs. It’s the most terrifying thought to think your child won’t get the help they need.”

There was a time when Paulsen might have balked at throwing so many people to ruin. Those who knew him describe a conservative with empathy in his eyes. He was Erik Paulsen, Good Guy, a politician who—with some seasoning and courage—could be Erik the Great, the right’s version of Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

That person is dead.

 

Mr. Nice Guy

Paulsen grew up the oldest of four children to Jerry and Jan Paulsen, an Air Force pilot-turned-software engineer and an elementary school teacher. He’d graduate from Chaska High before earning a math degree at St. Olaf College.

He started his career as a business analyst for Target. The work proved unfulfilling. “I wanted to do something that felt more rewarding,” Paulsen said in an interview with the Chaska Herald.

He began his political career as an intern for Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minnesota), then as a staffer for Congressman Jim Ramstad, who represented Minnesota’s crescent-shaped 3rd district that arcs from Chaska to Wayzata to Coon Rapids. Ramstad was the embodiment of the centrist Republican.

“Paulsen would have seen, by working for Ramstad, a moderate Republican in the truest sense,” says former Gov. Arne Carlson. “He understood economics and was a leader on free trade. Ramstad understood financial management. He was good on human rights and all the things that we would today say constitute a social agenda.”

At 28, Paulsen was elected to the Minnesota House, representing the southwest Minneapolis suburbs.

Ramstad declined comment for this story, and Paulsen’s office did not respond to repeated interview requests. Yet it’s likely not a stretch to say Ramstad’s apprentice did him proud during Paulsen’s early years in office, melding an awe-shucks demeanor and the mettle to demonstrate he was nobody’s stooge. In 1999, he was the force behind a state constitutional amendment giving voters the ability to pass or repeal laws directly, without going through the Legislature.

“I don’t think we, any of us, need to be afraid of what the voters might propose,” he said.

Two years later, he authored a bill to prohibit candidates from receiving money from political action groups. “We must act to negate the very perception that special interest money controls the way our government is run,” he explained.

Still, Paulsen was never bashful about the pillars of right-wing orthodoxy. He was pro-life, anti-gay, and worshipped at the altar of trickle-down economics.

Whereas Ramstad supported gay rights and stem cell research, Paulsen cast votes against domestic partner benefits and attempted to ban hospitals from providing emergency contraception to sexual assault victims. Whereas Ramstad fought for mental health to be covered by insurance, Paulsen voted to de-fund the Minnesota AIDS project, ban same-sex marriage, and create a 24-hour waiting period for abortions.

In 2002, Minnesota House Republicans chose him to be their majority leader, replacing Tim Pawlenty, who’d been elected governor. The Pioneer Press would dub him one of the Legislature’s “young lions from the suburbs.”

His tenure as majority leader ran from 2003 to 2007. What stands out in the memory of Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) was Paulsen’s ability to “see the wisdom” of opposing arguments and to admit when he was wrong. These traits were notable within a party increasingly known for scorched earth.

Hausman recalls working with Paulsen and House Speaker Steve Sviggum (R-Kenyon) on a bill to fund big-ticket construction projects. Included was a flood wall for St. Paul’s downtown airport. Paulsen initially supported it.

“The neighbors didn’t want it. It was going to be put in for corporate planes landing there so it was probably a business-friendly thing,” she says. “I was supporting the neighbors, but the business community wanted it. I was able to convince Sviggum and Erik we shouldn’t be funding this sort of thing.... They supported me in not putting it in.”

Hausman chuckles at how she ultimately lost the battle to a truculent Pawlenty: “The governor looked at me and said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing: If that wall isn’t in this bill, every other St. Paul project gets vetoed.’”

“Erik wasn’t like that,” she continues. “He was the classy, sort of polished person, sophisticated. He was a nice guy.”

Dan Dorman (R-Albert Lea) served in the Legislature from 1999 to 2007.

“Take the politics out of it,” he says, “and Erik—it sounds even contrite to say—is genuinely a good guy. Personally, that’s how I remember him. Not the issues we worked on, but the conversations we had.”

Occasionally Paulsen revealed magnanimity. In 2004, he authored a bill giving Minnesotans up to a $10,000 tax deduction for donating an organ or bone marrow. Two years later, he helped lead the push to acquire new Wildlife Management areas.

But he could also appear backward, even cruel. He voted against a state push to reduce fossil fuel use and energy consumption. He marshaled a House bill that would have eliminated health insurance for 24,000 Minnesotans. The Minnesota Family Council gave him a perfect score for his zeal to deny equal rights based on sexual orientation.

In 2007, fortune’s favor smiled upon him. Ramstad was retiring after 18 years in Congress.

Paulsen kicked off his candidacy in a packed Minnetonka gym. He declared himself the rightful heir, shaped in the same moderate mold as Ramstad and his predecessor, Bill Frenzel.

“It’s not about catering to special interests, but serving the common good,” Paulsen said. “It’s not about ego or sound bites or becoming a master critic. It’s about solutions and action and measurable improvement in the lives of regular people.”

It wouldn’t take long for those words to ring hollow.

 

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Days before the election, the Star Tribune ran a voter guide. One of the statements presented to the candidates: The federal government should guarantee health insurance coverage for all Americans.

“Somewhat agree,” Paulsen responded.

The candidate caught the attention of Minnetonka resident Karl Bunday. Like many in the moderately conservative district, Bunday hails from a family of lifelong Republicans, and Paulsen’s free-trade, pro-business sensibilities held appeal.

“I perceived him as a candidate willing to vote on the principles of issues, above partisanship, and wasn’t beholden to special interests,” he says.

Hilary Gilbreath was living in her native Eden Prairie, where her father ran in the same circles as Paulsen. She remembers why she voted for him: “He acted as if he cared. I didn’t have any reason to think he’d do anything less than a terrific job.”

Paulsen beat Democrat Ashwin Madia, 49 to 41 percent. But if voters thought they’d elected Ramstad: The Next Generation, then Paulsen’s first year on Capitol Hill would serve as a lesson in buyer’s remorse. The moderate from the campaign trail went AWOL.

Paulsen soon showed he was as partisan as they come, voting with Republicans 94 percent of the time, according to the Washington Post.

Nor did he seem much interested in the fate of those “regular people” he lionized in the campaign. He opposed increasing grants for college students, and voted against giving an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to jobless workers when the economy crashed. He also fought expanding the federal hate-crime law to include a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

By the time Paulsen was running for re-election in 2010, some constituents felt duped.

On a thick August night, about 100 people funneled into an Edina middle-school auditorium for a town hall meeting. On the way in they passed a person wearing a dog costume with a sign reading, “Erik Paulsen, Michele Bachmann’s lap dog.”

Nearby, a DFL activist disseminated fliers noting that Paulsen had voted with the fringe congresswoman 93 percent of the time.

The angriest questions, reported MinnPost’s Doug Grow, “regarded the perceived difference between Paulsen the candidate and Paulsen the congressman.

“The feeling of many clearly was that Paulsen runs like a moderate—like his predecessor Jim Ramstad—when he’s in campaign mode, but votes like a conservative when he’s on the House floor.”

State Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) still marvels that people fell for Paulsen’s centrist act.

“I can’t say now he was a decent guy and I’m disappointed how he turned out, because I’m not surprised he turned out this way,” he says. “Erik Paulsen has always been trying to say, ‘I’m not a conservative. I’m a moderate.’ Erik Paulsen has always been a phony and has always stood for the wrong stuff.”

Not that any of this would matter. It’s almost impossible to defeat a sitting House member. Despite endless polls showing Congress as one of America’s most despised institutions, incumbents are re-elected over 90 percent of the time. Part of it’s due to the name recognition that comes from office—and soft media coverage that trades in sound bites, rarely probing a member’s specific actions.

But most of the advantage comes from the mother’s milk of the profession: money. Or more specifically: the special interest money Paulsen once denounced.

Incumbents generally outspend their challengers by a margin of eight-to-one. That buys a lot of TV commercials in which they need not present themselves to be trustworthy or likable. They only have to paint the other guy as even scarier.

“People disagreeing with Erik Paulsen on many issues, yet voting for him election after election, isn’t unusual,” says University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. “It’s a pattern we see, even within both parties. And in Erik Paulsen’s case, it’s because voters perceive him as a good guy.”

In 2010, Paulsen raised five times the cash of challenger Jim Meffert to deliver a 22-point beatdown. His top three contributors were a who’s who of special interests: Target, TCF, and Cargill.

 

Paulsen’s BFFs

As so many congressmen do, Paulsen seemed to discover that corporate largesse equaled job security. His record would soon fall in lockstep with the wishes of his biggest contributors. 

Take Xcel Energy, Paulsen’s fourth-biggest benefactor over his career. In 2011, Paulsen voted against regulating greenhouse gases and limiting carbon dioxide emissions.

He’d shape-shifted from eco-friendly to climate denial. When once asked if global warming was man-made, he adopted the party line of pleading ignorant. “I’m not smart enough to know if that’s true or not,” he said. 

Paulsen also came to the defense of Wells Fargo, which has given him $132,000. In 2008, bankers crashed the economy after handing out millions of loans to people with no means of paying them back. A subsequent bill required creditors to ensure they could. Paulsen voted against it. 

Gone was the man who once denounced special interests. Paulsen had become the very politician he used to claim to hate.

His most rewarding corporate romance began in 2011. Paulsen decried the Food and Drug Administration’s lumbering pace in approving new medical devices. Europe was quicker, more nimble, he argued. If the feds didn’t hasten their game, “more companies will look for greener pastures and take their innovations and their 400,000 high paying jobs with them,” he warned.

In the ensuing month, he would collect nearly $75,000 from donors with a stake in device regulation, the New York Times reported. The issue would become his crusade.

To help pay for Obamacare, Congress placed a 2.3 percent sales tax on a range of medical supplies, including pacemakers, artificial joints, and surgical gloves. Device makers, the logic went, shared sizable blame for rocketing health costs. There were ample signs they were bleeding the system.

Hospitals paid as much as $13,000 for hip implants that cost $350 to manufacture. Other companies didn’t hesitate to mark up prices at double, triple, quadruple their costs. Still others had been fined for paying kickbacks to surgeons. The industry had sketched a blueprint for price-gouging that would later be adopted by drugmakers.

Killing the tax would become Paulsen’s signature quest. He was hitching himself to a no-lose horse: big donors. Within 36 months, the inconsequential lawmaker was describing himself as a “congressional leader.”

He offered prefab rhetoric to make his case. “The tax is stifling innovation of life-saving and life-improving medical technology, killing American manufacturing jobs, and hurting small businesses,” Paulsen once testified before a House committee.

The exact opposite was true. In 2013, the tax’s first year, the industry added almost 24,000 jobs, while profits leaped by nearly $3 billion, according to the accounting firm Ernst & Young.

Yet Congress rarely says no to people flashing that kind of money. In 2015, it passed a two-year suspension of the tax. The bipartisan bailout of a hyper-profitable industry would prove its only act of health reform. Even Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken joined in.

Paulsen pivoted to a new quest: killing the tax for good. The money trail bears witness to his motivation.

During his first campaign, the congressman took $26,000 from the medical supplies industry. Over his next elections, the total take bloomed to $364,000, making him Capitol Hill’s leading beneficiary of the industry.

These days, his record fighting almost exclusively for the moneyed set is evident in his $1 million war chest. Only about 3 percent comes from people donating less than $200. Still, Paulsen manages to see himself as a victim of his courage.

“2018 is shaping up to be my toughest and most expensive campaign yet,” a recent fundraising letter reads. “Their relentless attacks won’t change my common sense conservative positions. I will vote on my principles.”

U professor Jacobs calls Paulsen’s record “out of step” with a district that’s skewing more moderate. Hillary Clinton carried it by almost 10 points. Yet this year, Paulsen’s voted in line with President Trump 97 percent of the time.

Until now, he’s been able to project a Mr. Rogers vibe, says Jacobs, who describes it “as a friendliness that he’s fair-minded and someone who wants to do right thing.”

But the sell is getting harder.

Earlier this year, Paulsen came out in support of the “border adjustment tax,” a Trump idea to aid U.S. manufacturers by hiking taxes on imported goods. The issue plays well with blue-collar Republicans, who need little convincing that foreigners form the core of our woes. Less receptive were Minnesota’s retail heavyweights—namely Target and Best Buy—who knew it would raise the prices of their wares.

After Target CEO Brian Cornell testified against the tax this summer, Paulsen was a changed man. He reversed course, no doubt lubricated by Target’s generosity. The company’s his largest patron, giving Paulsen nearly $150,000 since he entered Congress.

More embarrassing was the bragging of FP1 Strategies, a D.C. lobbying group, which took the credit for the congressman’s flip-flop, claiming “intense pressure” had caused Paulsen to yield.

Paulsen said FP1 was “lying.” But he failed to mention that the company is a hired gun of the National Retail Federation, which is bankrolled by firms like Target.

 

Erik the Yellow

During an interview on Almanac in March, Paulsen spoke of how he’s “accessible” and “a good listener.” That schtick appears to be wearing thin.

He hasn’t held an in-person public town hall meeting in six years, preferring to hold them by phone, where he can pick guests and screen questions.

But it was his vote to repeal Obamacare that lay bare the schism between his Minnesota persona and his D.C. record. The bill would have thrown 24 million people off the insured rolls, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis, while delivering unexplained tax breaks solely to the wealthy. It was a move that threatened many of his constituents’ basic survival.

Wayzata resident Lynne Gehling was a fan of Ramstad. She twice voted for Paulsen, assuming he was cut from the same cloth. These days, the 62-year-old retiree is a semi-regular protester outside the congressman’s Eden Prairie office.

After hearing word that Paulsen might not be all he seemed, she began paying closer attention. His move to defund Planned Parenthood raised her ire. So did Paulsen’s silence over Trump’s Muslim travel ban. But his Obamacare vote would prompt multiple trips to Eden Prairie.

The Republican bill didn’t just hammer poor Americans. It allowed insurers to charge people 64 and older five times what they billed younger people. Then there were the loopholes allowing insurers to skirt coverage for pre-existing conditions like breast cancer and diabetes.

Meanwhile, calls to Paulsen’s office carried the vibe of D.C. deception, rather than Middle America concern.

“When you talk to his office it’s so frustrating,” Gehling says. “When you ask them, ‘What’s his opinion?’ or what his stand on a policy would be, they say, ‘Well, we don’t know. We haven’t spoken to him.’”

When she called right before the Obamacare vote, “I was told by his office, ‘He hasn’t read the bill. We don’t know how he’s going to vote.’ I could’ve told you right then and there how he was going to vote, but they kept denying it.”

Not long ago Gehling counted herself a Paulsen ally, believing he stood for something and had the grit to own his positions, whether she agreed with him or not. Today, she sees a cowardly lion.

“I look at him as someone who’s not doing very much and just towing the party line,” she says. “His big thing is working across the aisle against sex trafficking. I mean, who’s not going to be for that? ...I’ve never seen him stand up for anything.”

Former statehouse colleague Hausman puts it more succinctly: “I would say he’s someone who’s lacking courage.”

Steve Schewe, 60, concurs. The Eden Prairie business consultant has been married for 37 years and has three grown kids. He considers himself politically agnostic, voting instead on the content of one’s character.

It’s one thing to have a party-line acolyte in normal times, he says, “but these are not normal times. These times call for a greater moral and political courage than he has shown.”

In March, Schewe arrived on Capitol Hill, among a handful of people from NoLabels.org, a group that advocates bipartisan problem solving.

Paulsen’s office was decked out with exhibits from Minnesota businesses and photos of himself at sporting events. The conference room featured a mounted Wenonah canoe and a freezer stocked with Schwan’s ice cream. The intent was obvious, according to Schewe. Theirs was a congressman Minnesota-proud—and Minnesota-business prouder.

Schewe was optimistic heading into the meeting. He believed they could talk Paulsen into participating in a public town hall.

“He does a lot of things that are pretty much happy talk,” Schewe says. “Erik Paulsen will go to schools and visit companies, controlled-access type meetings. He showed up unannounced at Cub Foods in late August and stayed for 10 minutes. We thought we could convince him that a civilly staged town hall would be beneficial.” The congressman listened in earnest. “He said he’d consider it,” says Schewe. “But it was like he was trying to figure out a way to brush us off.... Walking out of Erik Paulsen’s office, you don’t get the sense something’s going to happen.”

Six months later, there’s been no town hall.

Schewe, who’s twice voted for Paulsen, understands the fear. In the age of Trump, town halls have often turned into bloodlettings by bitter constituents. After Republicans finally played their cards of health care, the rage only magnified.

“I have some compassion for the risk that they take when they’re out in public, especially in less secured situations,” Schewe says. “I also think that’s part of the job.”

The smart money says Paulsen won’t get Schewe’s vote next year. It’s a matter of integrity.

“The thing that really got my goat a bit was the health care vote,” says Schewe. “He’s been a longtime champion of fiscal responsibility, yet the GOP health plan was really destroying the added coverage that had been in place under the Affordable Care Act, in return for a big tax cut for wealthy people. The system is underfunded, so why would you return the money to people who don’t need it? It didn’t make any sense.”

Yes it does, argues Minnetonka resident Karl Bunday—at least within the peculiar forces of self-interest. 

The math teacher used to back the congressman’s bullish views on trade. No longer. Bunday is married to a Taiwanese woman. The couple has four kids. Paulsen’s views on immigration have Bunday convinced his wife and children are no longer welcome here.

“He votes in lockstep with his party that has become more and more about anti-immigrant rhetoric. He hasn’t offered any general resistance to this, to this notion that anyone who doesn’t speak English as their first language like my wife isn’t welcome in this country.”

Yet Bunday understands the lawmaker’s predicament. Paulsen is trapped in GOP no-man’s land, where fear is the prime motivator. On one side is a conservative base, prone to seeing any brand of foreigner with contempt and suspicion. On the other is a moderate district, where many see Trump as a buffoon and an embarrassment.

Still, the base delivers Paulsen’s most loyal voting bloc, and the congressman’s corporate fealty greases his fundraising machine, leaving little doubt as to whose water he’ll carry.

“Erik Paulsen has won so handily he doesn’t have the motivation to change his behavior much at this moment,” says Bunday, a delegate to the Minnesota Republican Party convention last year. “He tows the party line in the way he votes, yet he’s historically won elections by doing little campaigning and spending a lot of time with big donors. He’s had a pattern that’s worked, and he’s sticking to it.”

Hilary Gilbreath prays he won’t. Her son needs a champion in Congress, someone who will cast eyes of empathy on the premie baby who entered this world without much of a shot. Hilary would love to introduce Logan to her congressman—if Paulsen was brave enough to meet the boy whose survival he threatens.

“If I could meet Congressman Paulsen in person,” she says, “I would have him look into Logan’s eyes and have him tell him, ‘You’re not worth it.’”


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