Campaign Spouses: The M-Paw Factor

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Steve Pope / Getty Images

The spouses of presidential candidates usually play a small, but non-trivial role, in the success or failure of campaigns. (Jeri Thompson is a personal favorite.) The horror expressed by Haley Barbour’s wife about the presidential campaign freak show reportedly contributed to his decision not to run. And two spouses in the news this week, Callista Gingrich and Cheri Daniels, raise some complicated personal questions in the coverage of their husbands.

But not every GOP candidate has such problems: Ann Romney, for instance, is well known as a wholesome and supportive figure. (She claims that she and Mitt have never even had a real argument.) Less familiar, is another GOP spouse with impressive credentials of her own, no apparent reservations about the campaign, and a key role in her husband’s personal evolution: Mary Pawlenty.

Tim Pawlenty met Mary Anderson, 50, when the two were students at the University of Minnesota Law School in the 1980s. Mary graduated cum laude and became a lawyer, eventually becoming partner in a law firm, before spending 13 years as a district court judge in Minnesota — a period that covered most of Tim’s tenure as Minnesota governor. Today she works as a mediator/arbitrator at Gilbert Mediation.

Mary Pawlenty expresses little of the distaste for politics so common among other candidates’ spouses nowadays. To the contrary, she gives her husband regular political advice, and played a key role in helping him write his 2010 memoir, Courage to Stand. She has already made a solo campaign trip to New Hampshire on his behalf. And she is comfortable talking about political tactics, as she does in this interview the Pawlentys gave to the Christian Broadcasting Network last October, when she discussed her husband’s appeal to independent and moderate Democratic voters.

In the interview you can also see the pair recount their early history. Her: “I thought he had this incredible voice and I thought, ‘Oh, who is this guy?'” Him: “Mine’s more simple… She walked through the library and I thought, ‘She’s hot.'” (Tim still refers to Mary in public speeches as “my red-hot smoking wife.”) He also offers that “Mary was smarter” in law school.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about Mary Pawlenty, however, is the role she played in her husband’s religious awakening and conversion. Tim Pawlenty grew up Catholic in St. Paul, and his faith seems not to have been a defining element of his early life. When he met Mary, she was a graduate of St. Paul’s Bethel University, which describes itself as a Christian liberal arts university that produces “Christ-followers, character-builders, truth-seekers, learners, salt and light, reconcilers, and world-changers.” Mary had also grown up attending the Wooddale Church, an evangelical mega-church in the Minneapolis suburbs, whose longtime pastor, Leith Anderson, is an influential figure who now heads the National Association of Evangelicals.

Tim soon began attending Wooddale with Mary because, as he told me in a recent interview, “we wanted to be in one church as a couple.” His memoir is more explicit: “Faith was intertwined with our courtship,” he writes, recalling his amazement at Mary’s detailed familiarity with the Bible. Pawlenty writes that his decision to join Wooddale “was not about rejecting Catholicism,” but offers an unmistakable evangelical catch-phrase: “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and personal Savior.” That life-changing experience may be the most important element of the Pawlenty’s marriage–at least as judged through a political lens–and it will influence how Pawlenty is perceived by religious conservative voters in key states like Iowa and South Carolina.

“For most of the Governor’s political career, Mrs. Pawlenty has been legally siloed from politics, but she’s excited for this next phase,” says Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. “She’s an enthusiastic supporter of her husband and a great asset to the campaign.” Anyone who is curious can catch her on a scheduled solo trip to New Hampshire in June–the first of many M-Paw is likely to make in the coming months.

Correction, 3pm: This item originally stated that Mary Pawlenty works at the medical nonprofit Children’s HeartLink. She no longer works there.