Professionals in wool-blend suits and dresses milled around the high-class Bistro West campus restaurant, busting out day planners to pencil each other in at a recent reception for a visiting dignitary.
In the doorway stood a middle-aged, sandy-haired man in a deep green suit. The man, Tim Penny, spoke in a low, serious voice to a fellow at the West Bank Hubert H. Humphrey Institute.
Penny was waiting to greet the guest of honor — the ambassador to the United States from the United Kingdom.
Penny grew accustomed to such breakfasts with dignitaries during his 12 years in Congress representing Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.
For the past four years, he has worked as a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. He is also co-director of the Humphrey Forum, a program that organizes symposiums and breakfasts on campus like the one with the British ambassador.
Although Penny, 41, unexpectedly left his chair in the U.S. House of Representatives six years ago, he’s far from the retirement. Penny still works with several fiscal watchdog groups he started in Washington, D.C., and is on the national speaking circuit.
Closer to home, he’s one of Gov. Jesse Ventura’s top advisors and is considered a viable candidate for nearly every high-profile political office up for grabs.
Mr. Penny goes to Washington
In 1982, Penny flew out to Washington, D.C., as a first-term Democrat representing a traditionally Republican district in southwestern Minnesota.
But as a fiscal conservative in the Democrat-led Congress, Penny ran into trouble early. He marched a group of 24 freshmen into the House chamber to deride a $997 million spending bill supported by their party leadership.
That move set the pace for his career in Congress, where Penny earned a reputation as a “deficit hawk,” opposing excessive spending and fighting for a balanced budget.
He later founded the Concord Coalition, a group dedicated to lowering the federal deficit.
In another unexpected move, Penny took the floor in 1993 to speak about President Clinton’s budget, or so his colleagues thought. Instead, Penny announced his resignation.
“I come to the floor today to announce that I will not seek re-election,” Penny said on the House floor. “I viewed this as an opportunity year to dramatically reduce the deficit in a bipartisan fashion. We have failed to take advantage of that opportunity.”
Out of Congress, not limelight
After his congressional departure, Penny moved back to his hometown of Winona, Minn. But he’s still on the road or out of state about four days a week with his current jobs.
Penny gives speeches about his pet projects — cutting the deficit, agricultural issues, and reforming Medicare and Social Security — and working with his D.C.-based fiscal watchdog groups. Penny also co-directs the Humphrey Forum at the University.
John Brandl, dean of the Humphrey Institute, described the forum as a “link between the University and the world of public affairs.”
Along with former Republican congressman Vin Weber, Penny arranges breakfasts and luncheons, like the one with the British dignitary, to teach a group of about 30 future leaders about public policy and leadership.
Penny and Weber also organize larger symposiums for the public, like one held in January that dissected Minnesota’s recent gubernatorial election and Ventura’s victory. He said the conference drew the largest crowd ever — more than 300 people.
Penny also teaches one graduate-level class a year on public policy, another time-consuming endeavor.
“The University eats up more of my time than any other piece,” he said.
But at least one University student doesn’t mind Penny spending a few extra minutes on campus. His son, Joey, is a freshman in General College.
Even though his dad left Congress partly to spend more time with his four children, Joey said his father’s post-congressional days were still busy.
Since Joey moved into Territorial Hall, however, he said he usually sees his dad more than once a week.
“He’ll just drop by without any notice,” Joey said of the surprise father-son trips to Burger King.
Joey said he took interest in talking politics with his dad this year, as Penny consulted him before taking an advisory position in the Ventura administration and asked him about running for the U.S. Senate in 2000.
His son gave a thumbs up on both accounts, but doesn’t expect his dad to take up a Senate race.
Doing The Body good
Following the advice of his son, Penny rolled up his sleeves and helped out the newly elected governor last November as a top advisor, which is an unpaid position.
He served on Ventura’s transition team, where Penny said he made the biggest impact by recommending his former chief of staff, Steven Bosacker, as Ventura’s right-hand man.
Bosacker held an administrative position organizing the Board of Regents, but left to become Ventura’s chief of staff in December.
Penny called himself an “in-house resource” to the governor’s top staffers, offering advice on everything from press relations to strategic scheduling to management matters.
Penny said he and Ventura hold many of the same political priorities, like fiscal conservatism, increasing voter turnout, and reducing partisanship and negative campaigning.
“I’ll give the governor credit that he is much better at communicating these issues than I am,” Penny said.
Although they share some political views, Penny didn’t vote for Ventura — a fact the governor noticed when he met Joey in Winona over winter break.
Joey remembered Ventura’s comment: “It’s nice to meet the son that’s smarter than his father.”