Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

The Sacrifices of Mary Pawlenty

To advance her husband's political career, she sacrificed her own at key steps along the way

pawlenty fullll.jpg

So far in the Republican primary, we've learned that the wives of Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels dislike the role of politician's wife so much that they lobbied against presidential bids by their husbands. Less discussed are the sacrifices made by spouses of candidates who are in the race, largely because people in that position are inclined to pretend that their role is enjoyable.

Mary Pawlenty is an instructive example. She supports her husband's bid for the GOP nomination. "I suspect that perhaps he might not have gone down this path if I hadn't been supportive," she said earlier this year. Anecdotes from Tim Pawlenty's autobiography suggest she is being truthful. In those same stories, however, it is apparent that she's made manifold sacrifices over the years for her husband's political career. Had she given up less, he likely wouldn't be a contender today.

The pattern actually began before they were married. After dating in law school, he got a high paying corporate law gig in Minnesota, and she accepted a lucrative position at a firm in Texas. As time passed, however, the long distance relationship seemed increasingly burdensome. "So I began to pursue work in Texas and actually got as far as receiving a job offer from... a well-respected law firm that would have been a terrific place to work," Pawlenty writes. "I thought I was ready to leave Minnesota -- yet something about that decision just didn't feel right. It was purely a gut call, and when it came right down to the wire, I turned the job down. I wanted to marry the love of my life, but Minnesota was my home. And it was Mary's home too."

So he proposed. She said yes, quit her job, and moved back to Minnesota. Eventually they both got jobs at the same Minnesota law firm. He also worked on political campaigns on the side, keeping such long hours that she began to worry over his health and begged him to get more sleep. "Mary, after this campaign is over, things are going to be different," he repeatedly promised. "It's gonna calm down. It'll be better -- just after this campaign." But it never did get better, he writes.

As he campaigned for the Minnesota state legislature, he spent weeks going door to door for votes. "Even though she was pregnant at the time, Mary pulled out all the stops, riding along and helping put signs up wherever we could," Pawlenty wrote. "Occasionally she'd say, 'Ugh, I don't feel good,' and go sit in the car. Orange Popsicles were the only thing that made her feel better, so we made sure they were in abundant supply. She wanted to be there, and her support helped push me through."

And after they had a daughter?

...with my legislative duties and the inevitable lack of sleep an infant engenders, our lifestyle became almost unbearable. We loved this little girl more than anything else either of us could imagine. But our schedules were grueling.
Once again, God had a plan in mind just when we needed it most. As I left the capitol one afternoon in the early part of 1994, I noticed a posting for a district judge vacancy that needed filling in Dakota County--the county where we live. I came home that evening and asked Mary, "Honey, you wanna be a judge?" Mary said, "No." Her knee-jerk reaction was understandable. She had a fantastic job at a big law firm where she was a rising star, a young partner with good friends and a bright future. But I knew from experience that judges operated on much more reasonable hours than either of us were keeping. The commute would be less than twenty minutes in no traffic. In general, the workday was 8:30 to 5:00, and other than periodically being on call, the job rarely included nights or weekends. Although she would earn less money, a predictable, stable schedule seemed like an appealing trade-off for our family. So even though she initially declined, I kept pitching her on it.

Eventually she quit her position at the law firm and took the judicial opening. He continued working long hours in the legislature, and mulled a run for governor, but thought maybe he should return to the private sector and spend more time with his family instead. He told his wife he'd decided against running.

"Tim," she said, "the state needs you." Then she launched into this Rocky Balboa-esque speech about how if I didn't run, everything I had worked for would be washed away. She had other inspiring words as well, and they gave me pause. I had come too far to stop now, she said, and on and on. "The state needs you! Get in there and fight!"

He didn't need to be told twice.

That inspired speech was the work of a wife who loved me. It was not the product of a political supporter or an activist, but of a woman who saw the best in me and hoped I'd use whatever gifts God had given me for good. What's funny is that sometime later, when our schedules were as challenging as ever, Mary told me that she'd meant it in the best possible way but hadn't really thought it through. She figured I needed a pep talk at the time, but she didn't think I could actually win. She told me she just wanted me to run and get it out of my system, thinking that when I lost, we could at last get on with our lives. The best-laid plans . . .

Can you guess what happened next? She managed to keep her judicial post through his first term, but no longer:

I've been blessed by a wife who has put in Herculean efforts to make sure our kids stay on track. Mary decided to step down from the bench following my reelection in 2006, which made a tremendous difference in our family's ability to manage the many moving pieces. She's a mediator and arbitrator now, with the flexibility to decide which cases to handle and when. The bench lost a great judge, but our family gained her steady presence.

So there you have it: she sacrificed for her husband at almost every major point in both of their careers, supported all his bids for higher office, and is now helping him to campaign for the presidency. (Assuming that her husband's account is accurate.) Her story helps clarify how much is demanded of politician's wives. Hopefully she is thrilled with all the decisions she's made with her family in mind. Even so, it is easy to understand why it's a path that a lot of spouses would resist.

Image credit: Reuters

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Politics

Just In