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After rising to speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives in the wake of the 2010 election, Rep. Kurt Zellers was stung two years later by his caucus’s demotion to minority status. The Republican from Maple Grove struck an unassuming profile at the Capitol this past spring.

Zellers campaign: the guy next door as governor

In June, Rep. Kurt Zellers made his official entry to the GOP race to square off against Gov. Mark Dayton next year. “I’m the one guy that’s actually faced Mark Dayton, negotiated with him, and, I think, proven that we as Republicans — [that] our message and our method works,” Zellers says. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

In June, Rep. Kurt Zellers made his official entry to the GOP race to square off against Gov. Mark Dayton next year. “I’m the one guy that’s actually faced Mark Dayton, negotiated with him, and, I think, proven that we as Republicans — [that] our message and our method works,” Zellers says. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Former speaker’s bid for governor touts common sense ethos, Capitol experience

After rising to speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives in the wake of the 2010 election, Rep. Kurt Zellers was stung two years later by his caucus’s demotion to minority status. The Republican from Maple Grove struck an unassuming profile at the Capitol this past spring.

All the while, however, Zellers was laying the groundwork for his long-expected 2014 gubernatorial bid. In June he made his official entry to the GOP race to square off against Gov. Mark Dayton next year. That contest, which is all but certain to be decided in a primary, pits Zellers against Orono businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and state Sen. David Thompson, with others still expected to join the field.

Last Friday afternoon, Zellers discussed his campaign with Capitol Report after a day spent making the rounds at the State Fair.

Capitol Report: When did you know you wanted to run for governor of Minnesota?

Kurt Zellers: When my wife, Kim, said it’s time to get off the couch and out of your sweats. In all seriousness, it was after the [2012] election. It was not months after, but weeks after.

It wasn’t the loss of the fourth floor office or any of the stuff that goes with it. It was losing [former District 27A Rep.] Rich Murray. It was losing [former District 3B Rep.] Carolyn McElfatrick. It was losing [former District 13B Rep.] Bruce Vogel. Some of these people who were business men and women that were just great people. I was more disappointed in that, and kind of got disappointed with the fact that maybe this is the way the state goes. Maybe you shouldn’t bother.

And my wife, Kim — we had some friends that we met with over Christmas. Her friend was talking to her about how her kids are graduating and they were getting really worried because they are not looking for any jobs in Minnesota. It sounds a little cheesy that you’re doing it for your kids. But that’s really what it is. We have a great example. My mother and father-in-law live down here. My father-in-law is retired. [Our son] Will plays hockey, even in the summer, five days a week. [Our daughter] Reagan’s in dance and starting soccer. My father-in-law goes to all these games. To see him watch Will play hockey, he just beams.

So looking at that and listening to our friends, Kim’s like, “You know what? Reagan and Will aren’t going to end up in Minnesota. They are going to end up getting a career in another state.” And she said, “I don’t want that. You’ve got to get in.”

CR: What kind of campaigning have you been doing since your announcement?

Zellers: A lot of day-to-day. [District 30A Rep.] Nick [Zerwas] and I went on the road. We were up in Fergus Falls. We took off from here [St. Paul] and did a couple of radio interviews on the way up. Went to Fergus Falls, went to Otter Tail County Republicans and went down to Elbow Lake Republicans. Being good, frugal Republicans, we stayed at my mother and father-in-law’s lake place to save on a hotel. Then we got up and stopped in Deerwood and Elk River on the way back. One was a Chamber [of Commerce] event. A couple were BPOU events.… My truck has 246,500 miles, I think. A lot of that is from when I was speaker, but it’s a lot of road miles. A lot of it is door to door and hand to hand.

CR: What’s been your main message on the stump?

Zellers: A lot of it is that I’m like most middle-class Minnesotans. I’m a proud dad. I go to football games and hockey games and dance recitals. I’m married to the love of my life, who is way out of my league. I’m married to a public school teacher. I’m like a lot of middle class Minnesotans. We don’t mind helping people out. We don’t mind paying our fair share of taxes. We donate time to our church. Our kids go to a public charter school. We donate time there.

We just want to make sure all the money we’re paying to the government is going for the best purpose. That we’re actually getting a good value for what we’re paying in. I’ve been talking to lots of dads at hockey practices on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Some of the moms on Tuesday night at dance class. That’s a frustration I hear all the time. I don’t know why I’m paying more. I’m not getting anything out of it. All I see is crime’s going up, the unemployment rate is still high. This Obamacare thing is absolutely going to bankrupt our state. There’s a lot of that. A lot of what I heard from these folks is what I took on the campaign trail.

CR: What sets you apart from the other Republicans who are seeking the governor’s office?

Zellers: I’m the one guy that’s actually faced Mark Dayton, negotiated with him, and, I think, proven that we as Republicans — [that] our message and our method works. You can balance a budget without raising taxes. We lowered the unemployment rate. We took a $5 billion deficit and turned into a $3 billion surplus. And we actually asked government, through the use of technology and efficiency, to do more with less. And it worked.

The other thing I would say is that nobody else in the race has campaigned in the state for 20 years. Next year will be my 20th year in Minnesota since working for Rod Grams in 1994. I’ve been to every café, every Legion [and] VFW. I know where all the good caramel rolls are. And then my ability to fund-raise. One of the candidates can self-fund. But even if you get the maximum amount from a guy like Stan Hubbard, you go ask Stan Hubbard who he’s supporting in the race, he will tell you chapter and verse why he thinks I’m a great candidate. It’s not just that you’re getting a campaign donation and an endorsement, but also someone who’s willing to advocate for you.

CR: What did you learn about politics and being a politician from your time as speaker?

Zellers: I think the most important thing is learning where your adversary’s limits are and knowing where they can’t go. Make sure they know where you can’t go and then find that common ground.… My job as speaker was to remain consistent with the governor. I said, “This is where we can’t go. Just as you got elected on these sets of issues. This is what we got elected on.”

CR: One of the big issues during that time was the Vikings stadium. It was a bill you voted against, but there was also a moment on KFAN where you said you wanted to see it pass. Can you tell me how you explain that stance as you campaign?

Zellers: Sure. I got asked this last night at a Senate District meeting too. I said, “Trust me, when you do 100 different interviews, you will slip up.” With radio and TV, it’s different than when I’m talking to you or any other print reporter. What I meant was that I didn’t want to see the Vikings leave. But I didn’t think we should pay for the stadium. I didn’t like the bill. That’s why I didn’t vote for it. It was a flub-up on the radio.

And [KFAN host Dan] Barreiro’s good. He really had the thing cranked up. He was hitting hard. We were going really fast. It was going back and forth. I got caught up going too fast and my mouth got ahead of my brain. What I had said consistently all along was that I don’t want to see them leave, but I also don’t want to see the state — and especially now, in this case, it is the general fund — paying for a stadium.

CR: What are you doing with respect to fundraising? Are you meeting with donor groups, holding events, things like that?

Zellers: Lots of calls to donors. Lots of one-on-one calls. They want to get to know you. They don’t just want to talk to you on the phone. They want to be able to look you in the eye and say, “Let me ask you about this issue.”

But then [also] traditional direct mail. We’re using the PCR [Political Contribution Refund] program. We had people ask about that right away when the program was coming in. Some have said, “You defunded it while you were speaker, and yet now you’re taking it.” I say when I was speaker, we had a $5 billion deficit. So yeah, I didn’t think it was fair then to give money to a program that benefited us. But I’ve always said that it’s one way, especially for a candidate who doesn’t have personal wealth, either Democrat or Republican, to spend on a campaign.

CR: Are you going to spend any of your personal money on the campaign?

Zellers: No. She’s a public school teacher. I do this. I used to do public relations work in the off-season but I’ve scaled that back. Now there’s very little that I do that isn’t campaign-related.

CR: What are your plans with respect to seeking and abiding by the party’s endorsement?

Zellers: I’ve been actively seeking it since I got in the race. I’m working really, really hard. What a volunteer reminded me is that you’re the guy who’s been endorsed the most in the race. I’ve been endorsed six times. But I think you also have to prepare for the battle we’re going to have, not the battle you want to have. I know a lot of people would like to have just an endorsement battle. But one candidate who’s already in and another candidate who might get in have already talked about primaries. I think we’re going to have one either way. I’m going to put a lot of time and effort into getting the endorsement. But I’m also going to prepare for a primary, because we’re going to have one whether I’m the endorsed candidate or Jeff [Johnson] or David [Thompson] is. We’re going to have a primary, so I’m going to prepare for that.

CR: If you’re elected governor, you would have a DFL-controlled Senate at least for your first two years in office. On what issues do you think you can find common ground?

Zellers: This is yet another way I have a competitive advantage over any of my colleagues. I know [Senate Majority Leader] Tom Bakk. We worked together when I was in the minority as minority leader. He was the Tax lead. I’ve been on the Taxes Committee my entire time here.

Tom and I will work well together. It’s about Minnesota competitiveness. He wants to make sure the guys up in his area, the Iron Range, aren’t leaving to go out to the oil fields in North Dakota or to go to Michigan or to leave the state. I think when it comes to Tom, in particular, we can work on nonferrous mining. The copper, nickel, palladium mines up there, absolutely we would work on. And government efficiency. I think things like that that are common sense and have a lot of what I would consider middle class Minnesota values to them, I could work with that.

CR: What do you consider Mark Dayton’s biggest weakness as an incumbent governor?

Zellers: I think [it’s] breaking the promise on raising taxes on all Minnesotans. There are very few people that aren’t going to be affected either by the warehouse tax, by the sales tax on repairing your farm equipment and construction equipment. Any of those things. Anybody who buys an iPod. My little daughter figured out what taxes were this year thanks to this new tax increase. “Daddy, my iPod downloads aren’t $1.29 anymore. They’re $1.37. Why is that?” I said there’s an 8-cent tax on an iPod download. “Well, that’s not fair.”

He promised he would go after wealthy Minnesotans. That was his campaign motto. He has hit all Minnesotans. The 25-percent increase in the top bracket, there are small business owners all over the state, especially at the borders, that are looking at crossing the border now. Uline is the latest one moving to Wisconsin. There are small businesses, especially convenience stores, up on the border of North Dakota, it’s $2.39 cheaper for a pack of cigarettes in Fargo than in Moorhead. It’s $25 bucks a carton. I thought a carton of cigarettes was about $30 or $40. They are 50, 60 bucks. So if it’s $25 more just for the tax, you don’t think somebody’s not going to get in their car and drive two miles?

CR: How do you view the government shutdown in 2011? Do you think it could have been avoided?

Zellers: Yeah. If the governor had taken our last offer on the last day instead of waiting for 21 days and then saying, “Well, I should have accepted the last offer.” Maybe we could have sent him another round of budget bills. He probably would have vetoed them. But it would have given him another idea of where we were coming from.

But it was avoidable, because the offer he accepted was the last offer we gave him on June 30. At the time it was painful and it was something that none of us wanted. But when you look at what happened with the budget deficit, with the unemployment rate dropping, with productivity increasing, you can say that in all cases this was not only necessary, but it was successful.

CR: As you go forward in the campaign, how will you appeal to moderate Democrats and independent voters?

Zellers: I would say a lot of it is going to be on careers, not just jobs. Everybody in politics now talks about jobs and the economy. Define that. What is it? I talked to an engineer at Cargill who said, “My wife and I both work, we have three kids. I’m a Republican,” he said, “but I’m what I would call disinterested. You would probably classify me as independent.”… He said, “After listening to you and talking to you at hockey and looking at your website, you’re like the rest of us. I know what you’re telling me here at hockey on Saturday morning is exactly what you’ll do as governor.”

That’s really my appeal. You’re not going to get anything different. At the Fair somebody asked me, “So you’ve got a tracker. Does that bother you?” No. I could care less. I’m not going to say anything different to somebody on the street than I would if I was at a fundraiser or in an interview. I’m the same person on camera, off camera, at hockey, at the Capitol. There is no different version of me.

I think that’s what appeals to most Minnesotans. I’m a genuine middle-class dad who loves his wife and loves his state and wants the best for all of us. Not pitting one group of people against another based on their paycheck, based on their background, based on whether they’re Republican or Democrat. That’s really been my disappointment in Gov. Dayton — pitting one Minnesotan against the other.

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