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Jeff Johnson picks former legislator Kuisle as running mate

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson became the latest contestant to pick a running mate on Wednesday, naming former GOP legislator Bill Kuisle as his choice for lieutenant governor. In introducing the former four-term representative, Johnson touted Kuisle’s experience in state government and as a southern Minnesota farmer as valuable assets to Johnson’s campaign team.

Kuisle, who represented the Rochester area in the House from 1997 to 2004, served as chairman of the Transportation Finance Committee in 2003-04. Johnson did not spell out Kuisle’s potential responsibilities in his administration, but said his portfolio would likely include agriculture and transportation.

“Not only will he help us win, but the plan is that he will play a very substantive role in our administration,” Johnson said.

Kuisle observed that Johnson had made him “no promises” about how prominent his role as second-in-command would be, but said he would not be shy about offering advice when Johnson seeks his counsel.

“If anybody knows me, I’ve never been the type to sit back and be quiet,” Kuisle said. “So if Jeff thinks he can have a token lieutenant governor, he’s going to be seriously mistaken.”

Kuisle said he would eschew the possibility of serving dual positions as both lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner, arguing that Carol Molnau had become a “lightning rod” when she tried to cover both responsibilities during then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty‘s tenure.

Johnson, who is himself a former House member and currently serves on the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, said Kuisle helps bring regional balance to the ticket, and will help to connect with rural voters. Johnson contrasted the rural-urban pairing of his slate with the “all-Minneapolis” ticket of Gov. Mark Dayton and Tina Smith, whom Dayton has tapped to replace outgoing Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon.

Kuisle, who grows corn and soybeans on his farm and raises Holstein cattle for beef, said Greater Minnesota is currently at an economic “crossroads,” adding that he intends to focus on retaining good economic opportunities for people living in rural areas.

“It’s one thing to try to attract businesses to the state of Minnesota,” Kuisle said. “It’s another thing to keep them.”

Johnson and Kuisle served two concurrent terms together in the House, and were both assistant majority leaders under then-House Speaker Steve Sviggum.  Kuisle said he had enjoyed his decade-long break from political life, and had some trepidation about joining the campaign trail — and, potentially, a new administration starting in 2015 — given that he and his wife have two young children. Ultimately, though, he decided that the offer was too good to turn down.

Johnson said he had assessed potential choices using a defined set of criteria, looking into candidates’ readiness to step into the job of governor as well as their helpfulness as a campaign partner. One aspect that was left off his list of concerns is gender; to this point, Johnson is the only candidate from either party who has not picked a woman as a running mate. The candidate downplayed the notion that voters might punish him for assembling an all-male campaign ticket.

“I don’t believe that women won’t vote for someone because he didn’t pick a woman lieutenant governor,” Johnson said.

If nominated, Johnson and Kuisle would be the first Republican Party ticket without a woman since 1986, when the party nominated Cal Ludeman and Dennis Schulstad, while the DFL ticket has included a woman for a running mate in each gubernatorial election since 1998 (when the pairing of Skip Humphrey and Roger Moe ran and lost in the general election). In 2010, Independence Party of Minnesota candidate Tom Horner ran with Jim Mulder, former executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, finishing in third place with about 12 percent of the vote.

Johnson and Kuisle both said they expected a difficult challenge in trying to win the party endorsement at the Republican state convention in Rochester later this month. Kuisle, a veteran of GOP activism and conventions, predicted the contest would need more than one ballot to determine a winner, and Johnson estimated that delegates might need “five or six” votes to find the right candidate. (Johnson is one of only two GOP gubernatorial candidates to pledge to abide by the endorsement. State Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville has made the same commitment.)

Kuisle’s selection came after months of work by a steering committee led by David Gaither, a former GOP state senator from Plymouth, who introduced the campaign duo at Wednesday’s media event. Two other notable politicos were also on hand for the announcement: Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, whose husband Gregg Peppin is a chief strategist for Johnson’s campaign, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, who took in the press conference as an observer, but applauded heartily at Kuisle’s introduction.

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