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Associated Press, Published July 15 2010

Servers give Emmer their 2 cents

ROSEVILLE, Minn. – Restaurant workers aggravated over Republican Tom Emmer’s comments about their pay confronted the Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Wednesday during a testy town hall meeting that ended soon after a sack of pennies got dumped in his lap.

The forum was Emmer’s attempt to tame backlash over his suggestions that businesses be allowed to factor server tips into the minimum wage, an idea he never fully explained and that he says was misinterpreted. The event drew a mix of Emmer supporters and detractors, leading to shouting among audience members and insults hurled at the candidate.

One man startled Emmer by running up to the stage and spilling the coins while yelling “I have a tip for you, Emmer!” A campaign staff member dragged the man out a side door; the man identified himself as Robert Erickson and said he was there to draw attention to immigration issues.

The legislator insisted he has no intention of lowering the minimum wage for tipped employees despite his previous support for a so-called tip credit and an amendment he offered in 2005 to eliminate the minimum wage entirely. “I don’t want to see your wages go down,” Emmer assured them.

“You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to even like me,” he said in brief opening remarks before turning over the microphone.

Some in the audience accused Emmer of backpedaling and said they were confused where he stood. He infuriated many restaurant workers when he claimed at an event last week that some servers were earning six-figure incomes because of tips.

The dustup has consumed Emmer’s campaign for more than a week and led him to pull a weekend shift waiting tables at the Ol’ Mexico Restaurante, where the town hall was held.

Emmer sat quietly, jotted notes and, a few times, interjected as members of the standing-room-only audience vented – most of them critical of him. Some wouldn’t give their full names or employers for fear of retribution from their bosses.

“My tips pay my bills,” said a Stillwater waitress who gave her name only as Colleen. “We need to get that across to you.”

Ann Potter, a veteran server at a Minneapolis restaurant she didn’t identify, told Emmer she watched a tape of his remarks last week and was “horrified.”

“Any attack on minimum wage is an attack on the working class,” Potter said. “We work so hard. Most of us don’t have health insurance. Most of us don’t have 401(k)s. Most of us don’t have any type of financial protection. I am absolutely enraged by what you had to say. I find it to be abhorrent.”

Emmer, trying to break the tension, responded with humor.

“I think I’m going to mark Ann down as an undecided,” he said.

Brooklyn Park waiter Alex Zacholski, who works at a chain restaurant, offered a rare defense of the candidate and said he worked in other states where businesses were allowed to pay servers less than the standard minimum wage.

He wants Minnesota to follow suit. “We’ll have more money to go into the business to thrive so we have a job,” he said to catcalls.

A day before the forum, Emmer proposed a plan that would exempt the first $20,000 in server tips from state income taxes.

Meeting with reporters after the event, Emmer distanced himself from the earlier tip remarks and refused to describe what kind of tip-credit proposal he would support.

Federal law allows states to set a minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped restaurant workers. Only seven states lack some kind of tip provision in their minimum-wage law.

Despite being knocked around for almost an hour, Emmer said he didn’t regret holding the meeting.

“I don’t know any politicians who are willing to walk right into the middle of emotions that are running high on all sides of an issue,” Emmer said. “I’m always going to do it.”

Emmer has denied the tip flap was a stumble, but internal communications from his campaign staff left a different impression.

On Wednesday, Emmer research director David Strom accidentally sent pessimistic messages intended to be private on the social networking site Twitter.

“We know this is a problem. Today is the last day. Over. Done. No Mas. Just help us stay on message: courage and willingness to listen. DS,” Strom wrote in one. In another, he said, “No more tip credit after today. We won’t win the issue. DS.”

Strom deleted the messages from his feed, and deputy campaign manager Bill Walsh downplayed them. “He works for us, but that wasn’t us speaking,” Walsh said. “He doesn’t speak on behalf of the campaign.”

Walsh said Strom thought he was communicating with someone about a possible newspaper commentary on the issue. Walsh didn’t say whom Strom meant to reach.

Emmer’s Democratic rivals are arguing for an increase in the minimum wage and say a tip provision would penalize workers.

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