Emmer uses sister's death as inspiration to seek office

ST. PAUL - Agonizing pain overwhelmed Tom Emmer's 38-year-old sister as she lie in bed, but she was too weak to get up. So Emmer moved her legs over the side of the bed, lifted her up and moved her around the room to keep her as comfortable as th...

His driving force
Tom Emmer, right, talks with Kent Meschke, president of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, at a Little Falls-area turkey facility in this undated photo. Emmer, the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor, says his sister's death has transformed his life and attitude, and is a driving force in his election bid. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL - Agonizing pain overwhelmed Tom Emmer's 38-year-old sister as she lie in bed, but she was too weak to get up. So Emmer moved her legs over the side of the bed, lifted her up and moved her around the room to keep her as comfortable as the woman dying of cancer could be. "I literally slow danced with my sister as she died," the Republican recalled about those days nearly 11 years ago.

But as sad as that time was for Emmer (he said it took six to 12 months for him to recover), the tragedy gave him a new perspective, and laid the groundwork for his campaign this year.

His sister's positive attitude convinced Emmer, the Republican Party's governor candidate, to become more committed and not wait to carry out his dreams, for the future is unknown.

"If the good lord took me today, I have lived a great life," she told her brother. Bridget's death and her advice led Emmer on a journey that transformed his attitude to one of "there is no time like the present" and he became more involved in public service.

The touching story of his sister's death is in stark contrast to the persona he often displays on the floor of the Minnesota House, where he has served six years as someone seen as opposing most things Democrats want to pass, and some things his fellow Republicans push.


In speaking on the House floor, he sounds gruff and unwilling to compromise.

Emmer's first news conference illustrated the perception of many people around the Capitol. He called in reporters to promote his idea to chemically castrate some sex offenders. But during that news conference, he repeatedly refused to answer reporters with: "I dispute the premise of the question."

During a day of campaigning in central Minnesota, Emmer said that his crusty perception is the result of his passion. He said that after the debate is over, he buddies up to Democrats and Republicans alike, and claims lawmakers on both sides as friends.

"I don't think you can hate me," he said.

He considers several Democrats good friends, including equally passionate Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia, Minn.

At an early fall news conference, Rukavina lobbed missiles at Emmer's policy proposals, especially the Republican's dreams of cutting business taxes and reducing the size of government.

"If Tom Emmer had his way ... we would be building aircraft carriers in China with slave labor to save a few bucks," Rukavina said.

Echoing others' views, the Iron Range lawmaker added: "All Tom votes is no, no, no."


In an interview just minutes later, Rukavina said that the man behind the tough speeches is OK.

"We have always gotten along good," Rukavina said. "I appreciate his sense of humor. It is a deprecating sense of humor."

Rukavina said Emmer would be a good neighbor, a good guy with which to share a drink.

But to make sure the world knew he is not endorsing Emmer, Rukavina quickly added: "I sure as heck don't want him to be governor."

Emmer said he tries to be even-handed.

"You treat everybody with the same respect, but at the same time you don't change who you are," he added. "I just expected everyone to handle things like I do."

For anyone who spends much time with Emmer, it is obvious that he enjoys life, and a challenge.

Emmer, running for a four-year term that pays $120,303 annually, has met the challenge of his image with a kinder, gentler exterior. Instead of challenging political reporters' questions, he now is more likely to say: "That's a good question," then not answer it.


When he launched his run for the governor's office, political outsiders with little or no statewide campaign experience were in charge. That changed during the summer, after Gov. Tim Pawlenty and others visited for what Emmer termed "an assessment."

That meeting led to the campaign command staff changing to those with experience, after which he appeared more moderate than his six years as legislator could indicate.

Emmer was born in 1961 in South Bend, Ind., as his father (Tom Sr.) finished at Notre Dame University. The family moved to Edina, Minn., and he grew up around the lumber business.

After he married Jacquie Samuel, they launched a mini-career in modeling. The couple appeared in Rollerblade advertisements, paid with in-line skates.

"We were so into skating," Jacquie Emmer said.

They modeled off and on for a year,

"It is a lot like campaigning," Jacquie Emmer said.

But it is a safe bet that when they were modeling she was not organizing a $40,000 fund raiser while bouncing down Minnesota highways in a motor home, Emmer's campaign vehicle.


The fact that the Emmers are going down that highway -- both the literal central Minnesota highway and the campaign road -- is a direct result of Bridget's death more than a decade ago.

Because of his "dance" with his sister, candidate Emmer lives with an attitude like hers: "We're good with whatever turns out."

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

What To Read Next
Get Local