Modern political discourse is not, in the main, given to complexity. Our gubernatorial race is characterized in bite-size ways by candidates and the media for easy consumption. Mark Dayton wants to tax the rich. Tom Emmer wants to cut spending. Tom Horner? He's a centrist, someone between the other two. Yes, local media sometimes goes into depth about who these candidates are, as human and political beings. But the overwhelming narrative is the simplistic, though not necessarily inaccurate, one described above.
The problem with listening only to narratives is that they lack specifics - what do they mean in practice? Sometimes the most important meaning for any stated policies are the implied effects. In the case of Mark Dayton his campaign's premise - taxing the rich - is more significant, politically, than any implied effect. Tom Emmer's plan to cut spending is an appeal based in lower taxes, but the implied effect is much larger - a further deterioration of our investment in the common good.
For Tom Horner, who has positioned himself as "between" the other two candidates, the specific impacts of his proposals are less clear. He wants to broaden the application of sales taxes, but he will not say just what will be taxed. As one state analyst said when looking at Horner's vague proposal to lower the state's sales tax rate while expanding its applicability, "it gets real ugly real fast" trying to raise the amounts that the candidate has said he will collect.
That's the kind of obfuscation that comes naturally to Tom Horner, a professional spinner and a former Republican spokesman. He has been expert at blurring both his past as a Republican partisan and the impacts of his economic proposals. The way he campaigns against Democrat Mark Dayton's plan to tax the rich, and has his own plan to eliminate the state corporate income tax, suggests the wealthy have no need to worry.
Thus trying to predict what Horner would actually do in the governor's mansion one feels a bit like a tarot card reader. The problem is figuring out which Tom Horner you're talking about: There's Tom Horner the former Republican political operator; Tom Horner the avuncular media figure; Tom Horner the proprietor of one of the state's most influential public relations firms; Tom Horner the civic figure who sits on the boards of various non-profits; and now, there's Tom Horner, the candidate for governor.
Horner, like Cyndy Brucato, is a new type of social/political operator, called a flexian, who floats effortlessly between roles at public institutions, and who works in a team fashion with other flexians, called a flex-net, that together comprises what author Janine Wedel calls a "Shadow Elite." Horner is part of a group of old-line Republicans, partisans who have not been radicalized by the religious right or the conservative doomsday machine.
He is supported by GOPers of yesteryear like Wheelock Whitney, Dave Durneburger, George Pillsbury, Arne Carlson, Doug Kelly, and Al Quie - a veritable "Republicans for Horner choir," in the words of one commentator. Even the head of Hubbard Broadcasting, Stanley Hubbard, gave Horner $2,000 earlier this year. Horner also has the ear of, and inside information from, some of Minnesota's most prominent corporations, including Target, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, the Minnesota Vikings and the Minnesota Twins. He sits on boards of non-profits, and helps to hire their leaders. He teaches journalism at St Thomas and sits on the board of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the U. Horner's influence is enhanced by his more than two decades of appearances on Minnesota radio and TV as a representative of the Republican Party. There might exist Minnesotans connected to as many elites as Tom Horner, but none of them are running for governor.
What are all those connections really like? What does Tom Horner know that most of us don't? When it comes down to it, who or what is Tom Horner really loyal to? These are the kinds of questions that flexians don't want asked. For example, the ultimate goals of public relations and journalism are mutually exclusive. A PR firm tries to get a message out for a paid client, spinning reality in a favorable way. Conversely journalists try to get the story right and not get taken in by spin. What does it say when the head of one of the state's most influential PR firms is intimately involved in the instruction of budding journalists? Local media blithely accept Horner's own descriptions of his roles, but which hat is he really wearing when he appears on TV, on the radio, or in the newspaper? It would take much longer than the length of those media appearances just to acknowledge his conflicts of interest.
After college Horner began his career as a reporter and editor at Sun Newspapers, a suburban Twin Cities chain of weeklies. He left his first media job to be a press secretary for Republican Senate candidate Dave Durenburger in 1978. After Durenburger's victory he joined the new senator's staff as press secretary and later as chief of staff.
Horner returned to Minnesota in the late 1980s and started a public relations business with former Republican state legislator John Himle. Since then his firm has represented top Minnesota corporations and at times even the state itself. Horner has refused to release a list of his firm's clients, but from public documents they include Target, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, pharmaceutical companies, dog and horse tracks, and the Twins and Vikings. His firm represented an association of hospitals in their labor dispute against nurses.
One clear case of Horner's divided loyalties hurting the state happened not long after the I-35 bridge fell into the Mississippi River. Horner's firm represented FlatIron, a Colorado company, that was bidding to build the replacement bridge. Despite submitting a bid with the highest price - $57 million more than the low bidder - and a longer construction period - FlatIron got the contract. In the release announcing the award the Minnesota Department of Transportation actually cited FlatIron's contract with Himle+Horner as a factor in their winning the contract. Afterwards Horner's firm got a half million dollar contract doing PR for the new bridge. Since when does a bridge need public relations? The Star Tribune cited Himle+Horner's close ties to the Pawlenty administration as a key to FlatIron winning the construction contract. One of the reasons Himle+Horner's PR prowess was wanted by the state DOT is because it promised to help rehabilitate the image of the department itself.
One way Horner could alleviate concerns about his many roles would be for him to release the list of clients he worked for at Himle + Horner, but he has steadfastly refused. Undoubtedly many people know who those clients were - but no one seems to be talking, and local media and political opponents haven't cracked that egg, either. Internet searches for "Tom Horner client list" returns many results, all detailing how the candidate has refused to release such a list. Local media seem to have accepted Horner's refusals and moved on.
Given Horner's announced positions on issues, and how those stands align with former Himle+Horner clients, there is cause to worry about undue influence. His budget proposal includes increasing taxes on tobacco and alcohol, even though current tax levels more than offset expenses to the state for their use. This position mirrors that of Himle+Horner client Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has run anti-smoking campaigns for many years. Lower rates of smoking would probably lead to lower expenses for the insurance giant.
Horner often invokes a moral justification for making smokers and drinkers pay for the things which comprise the common good. On the other hand, no morals seem to be in play with Horner's advocating for expanding gambling in the state to pay for a new Vikings stadium.
But why should the state encourage the vice of gambling to subsidize a plutocrat owner who doesn't even live in the state? One reason for such a proposal is that it represents a two-fer for Himle+Horner clients - the agency has represented various sorts of gambling interests, including dog and horse racing, and also represents the Vikings in their quest for a new publicly subsidized stadium. Horner's refusal to release a client list takes on more resonance in light of the few stated positions the candidate has taken aligning with the interests of his former clients.
One doesn't have to look very far to see how close personal relationships and allegiances can hurt the institutions that flexians work for. Just last month Karen Himle, the wife of Horner's former business partner, became embroiled in the attempted censorship of a documentary film produced in part by the University of Minnesota. Himle is the vice president for University Relations, the U's top PR person. Her husband John represents the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a group heavily invested in the kind of industrial agriculture that the film Troubled Waters indicted in the degradation of watersheds from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
The tale of Himle's backdoor political shenanigans involved in her initial killing of the film, and her dissembling are still playing out. One thing that is abundantly clear is that opaque personal relationships have played a part in tarnishing the reputations of the University of Minnesota and its president, Robert Bruininks. Another is that flexians like Himle who harm the institutions they work for in pursuit of the interests of their own narrow, private groups, are rarely held accountable for their actions. Despite her politically motivated, internal attack on academic freedom at the University of Minnesota, Karen Himle still works there, free to do more damage.
Tom Horner's political narrative, repeated in the media, is that he is a centrist positioned between the Democratic and Republican candidates. If centrist is taken to mean old-line Republicans who have strong personal connections to elites in government, business, education, the non-profit sector and media, then yes, Tom Horner is a centrist. Otherwise, he is just a Republican businessman who has the biggest and baddest rolodex in the state.