Does Tim Pawlenty Have A Willie Horton Problem?

Tim Pawlenty may face trouble from a pardon he issued while he was Governor of Minnesota.

During the 1988 Presidential campaign, Michael Dukakis’s campaign was seriously damaged thanks to a “weekend pass” that he had issued while Governor of Massachusetts to a man named Willie Horton, who subsequently went on to commit a rather brutal murder in Maryland. The issue was actually first brought to light by Al Gore, who was running against Dukakis in the Democratic primary, but it was in October 1988 that this ad from a group unaffiliated with the George H.W. Bush campaign started running across the country:

Dukakis was already in trouble in the polls at this point, but the Willie Horton ad reinforced the image of Dukakis as a light-on-crime Northeastern liberal, and led to this exchange between Dukakis and CNN anchor Bernard Shaw at one of the Presidential debates:

Dukakis was dead, and the “Willie Horton” problem has been an issue for Governors running for President ever since. Mike Huckabee faced it in 2008, and several former Governors may have similar problems this year:

It’s still early in the presidential race, so the opposition research dumps haven’t really begun. But when the skeletons in the closets of 2012 GOP hopefuls begin to be revealed, the unique shape of the field—which will almost certainly feature a handful of current or former governors—makes it’s a good bet that someone is going to have a Willie Horton problem.

That’s code for a violent or deranged felon run amok on their watch—a reference to the notorious convict who went AWOL during a furlough from a Massachusetts prison, committed more crimes and ultimately became the subject of a devastating ad that helped seal the fortunes of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

With former Govs. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman in the 2012 mix—and a few other current and former chief executives perhaps in the wings—the issue of pardons and furloughs is one that could play an unexpected and damaging role for some campaigns.

Before he departed from the race, Mike Huckabee, who issued more than 1,000 sentence reductions and pardons as Arkansas governor, was widely viewed as having the most exposure. While no one in the current field has anything close to that in the oppo files, Romney and Pawlenty might be haunted by a few cons who could undermine their law-and-order credentials.

Pawlenty’s controversial pardon is considerably disturbing:

Jeremy Giefer served time in jail in 1994 for having sex with a 14-year-old girl. But you wouldn’t know it to look at the record of the man now charged with sexually molesting his daughter more than 250 times over the last eight years.

That’s because two years ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Attorney General Lori Swanson, and then-Chief Justice Eric Magnuson unanimously voted to wipe Giefer’s record clean, granting him a pardon extraordinary.

One reason Giefer wanted his record cleared? His wife wanted to open a childcare center in the house where they live–the same house where Giefer allegedly molested his young daughter throughout the six years prior.


As it turns out, Giefer’s wife–the woman he pleaded guilty to statutorily raping in 1994–had already opened a family childcare center next door to their Vernon Center home two months earlier, according to state licensing information.

Susan Giefer has told law enforcement that she was unaware of any sexual activity between her husband and daughter. She declined to comment for this story.

Under Minnesota’s pardon laws, an objection by any one of the three members of the Board would have meant that the application was denied.

The attack ad pretty much writes itself, doesn’t it?


FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. I am not sure on should lay the guilt on this case on Pawlenty. I know people will, but this guy pulled the wool over the eyes of some of the best investigators in the state. I worked in law enforcement for over 21 years, 7 as a major crime investigator in MN and WI. I am familiar with this case and there was never a hint of any crime being committed. In MN pardon cases there is an extensive investigation completed, and many people are interviewed prior to a recommendation being made to the board and this guy came out squeaky clean. I don’t know what you can do if no one talks and unfortunately in this case, it includes the victim.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    T-Paw left Minn. with a big deficit, declining education levels, and property taxes up some 25%. He had no vision…just a bunch of patchwork measures geared toward starving the beast. This pardon is just one mire item on a list. He’s like a fugly girl…nice, but… There’s serious doubt he could carry Minnesota if he wins the nomination.
    But I guess since Mitch’s wife told him he can’t run, T-Paw is the next guy that can’t win…

  3. Pete says:

    Hey Norm, stop your usual bloviating and exaggerations. According to this article, I’d conclude his record is certainly more debatable than you present.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    You are right…property taxes were up 26%…not 25%… as I bloviated.

  5. Jay Tea says:

    There’s one element from the Horton story that Doug doesn’t mention — and is often overlooked when his story is brought up for political hay:

    Horton was given his weekend furlough while serving life in prison without parole. A jury had decided that he was too dangerous to ever be free — and Dukakis’ state gave him a weekend pass to go and enjoy himself, just to come back when it was over. It was an insane program.

    Pawlenty’s case shows a single example of questionable judgment. Huckablee had a pattern. The Dukakis case was a matter of policy.


  6. Richard Gardner says:

    Before he departed from the race, Mike Huckabee, who issued more than 1,000 sentence reductions and pardons as Arkansas governor, was widely viewed as having the most exposure.

    Like the granting of clemency to Maurice Clemmons, who went on to murder four Lakewood (WA) Police Officers at a Forza Coffee Shop in Nov 2009? Easy google will show lots of commentary then calling it Huckabee’s “Willie Horton II.”

    Does it matter that the clemency (on a 95-year sentence) occurred almost a decade prior? Not in the court of tabloid commentary. I believe the lesson for a governor (and AGs) here is to never approve pardons and clemency cases if you ever want to run for any higher office..

  7. anjin-san says:

    I am thinking that Pawlenty’s groveling at Rush Limbaugh’s feet is a bigger problem for him than this. It is not really very Presidential, and once you get past the far right, people are probably too sophisticated to buy into it…

  8. superdestroyer says:

    Before there are any more posts about irrelevant Republicans, every policy-wonk wannabe should be required to lay out a case that explain how any Republican can possibly win in November 2012.

    As it now stands, no Republican candidate stands a chance of winning. The only question for the Repulbicans is how badly their nominated candidate will hurt the down ballot candidates. Pawlenty would have a horrible effect of the down ballot candiates and Pawlenty would probably win fewer states than McCain won in 2008.

    If the Republicans were thinking outside the box, they would not nominate a candidate in 2012 and put their efforts into winning a majority in the Senate.

  9. This is completely unacceptable and should be an automatic deal breaker for Pawlenty effective immediately. As the daughter of an FBI Agent and an advocate for child victims of sexual abuse I also take issue that Pawlenty, as a Governor granting a PARDON, should get a pass for anything. If he was convicted and it appears he was the notion that the Governor should have gone out of his way to grant a pardon, esp at a time when stronger and longer sentencing guidelines are needed, is ridiculous. Furthermore, the notion that he is now involved in a child care business is ludicrous.