Ol’ Mexico Restaurante and Cantina likely never has been as rowdy as Wednesday when governor candidate Tom Emmer met with food and beverage servers upset with him.
Emmer supporters and detractors exchanged jeers and cheers for an hour, before an opponent to Arizona’s new immigration law slid in behind Emmer and dumped a bag of pennies on the Republican state representative and a public address system failure ended the meeting prematurely.
The Republican-endorsed candidate admitted the penny protester surprised him — "I almost jumped out of my shoes" — but promised he would walk into the lion’s den with other opponents during the campaign.
"I don’t know any ‘politicians’ that are ready to walk right into emotions that are running high on all sides of the issue," a chipper Emmer said after the event. "I thought it was wonderful; I am always going to do it."
Earlier, Emmer told the crowd: "I really appreciate you guys showing up even if you shoot me down. … I will never run, I will never hide."
Woodbury waitress Connie Gott-McCoy joined dozens of other food and beverage severs in complaining that Emmer does not support them because he called for a lower minimum wage for servers who receive tips. "Our wages are a much needed supplement to my tips."
She told Emmer that tips vary day to day and cannot be counted on.
Gott-McCoy became emotional when charging that Emmer gets his meals for free because the state pays.
Emmer, who said the state does not fund his eating, told Gott-McCoy and about 150 others in the overflowing bar that reporters misquoted him last week when he suggested that the state should handle tips in a way that could lower workers’ wages, and that some servers earn $100,000.
In the bar, he said that he never suggested cutting wages for servers, or anyone else. This week, he announced a plan to eliminate taxes on the first $20,000 of most tips.
“Tips should be between the customer and the server, and state government has no business reaching in and taking a portion of that income,” Emmer said.
Despite Emmer’s attempts to clarify his position, servers repeatedly rose to complain about what they read as Emmer’s comments favoring cutting their pay. He repeatedly said he does not want to see that happen.
Few spoke on Emmer’s behalf, but some did heckle when servers spoke. Some servers and their supporters, in return, continually loudly rebutted pretty much everything the candidate said, at times shouting at the Republican.
Emmer praised servers, whose attendance made the audience much younger than at most political events.
"The servers are the most valuable asset the hospitality industry has," Emmer said after taking a week and a half of criticism about comments seen as anti-server. "They absolutely earn their money."
The public address failure followed the protester dumping a bag full of pennies on Emmer. A comment from the audience against the Arizona law prompted the protester, standing near Emmer, to dump the pennies. Emmer asked the protester to return, so they could talk, but he had disappeared.
The controversial Arizona law requires police to question, and perhaps arrest, people in the country illegally when they take other actions, such as traffic stops.
He did not comment on the immigration law, which has prompted debates nationwide, but in the past he has said he supported looking at law like in Arizona.
Emmer said about 45,000 Minnesotans receive tips, and his plan to nearly eliminate taxes on them would cost the state treasury $17 million.
The GOP candidate also would provide restaurant owners with sales tax deductions and "eliminate a tax penalty for providing free meals to employees."
Emmer opponents are making hay from his troubles and what they say are frequent changes in his stance.
“One could get sick trying to keep up with Tom Emmer’s Tilt-a-Whirling policies," said Dave Colling, manager of Matt Entenza’s DFL campaign. "Minnesotans won’t be fooled by such sleight-of-hand gimmicks."
Independence Party front-runner Tom Horner said Emmer was pandering to servers to try to win votes with his recent talk of supporting them.
A few days after Emmer dipped his hand into the tip situation, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a DFL candidate, said she would raise the state’s minimum wage $1.50 an hour.
“Make no mistake: What Tom Emmer is proposing is no different than stealing tips off the table,” Kelliher said. “And if you think this tip penalty was just a slip of the tongue, think again. After serving with him in the Legislature, I’ve come to expect this kind of extreme behavior from Tom Emmer.”
Emmer blamed the media for his problems. In a letter to supporters, he said that "the media took it upon themselves to put words in my mouth about the minimum wage during our Freedom and Prosperity jobs and opportunity tour last week. The adage ‘don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper’ has never been more true."