In the three weeks since his bid for the gubernatorial endorsement at the Republican state convention ended amid a chorus of boos, Marty Seifert has been crisscrossing the state relentlessly in his pickup truck as he looks to reverse that loss and whip up support for the Aug. 12 primary.
Seifert, the 42-year old Marshall native and former House minority leader, figures he’s visited 40 to 50 communities since the rumble in Rochester. He takes pride in declaring himself the best traveled of his three principal Republican rivals for the nomination — Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (who bested Seifert for the endorsement), former House Speaker Kurt Zellers and businessman Scott Honour.
While Zellers and Honour decided to skip the convention and head straight to the primary, Seifert split the difference, seeking the endorsement but not agreeing to abide by it. That heresy — and Seifert’s failed gambit to block Johnson’s endorsement by “releasing” his delegates — elicited considerable acrimony among the party faithful in Rochester.
But if Seifert was wounded by the rough reception, it doesn’t show. In a wide-ranging interview with Capitol Report at his campaign headquarters at the Kelly Inn in St. Paul, Seifert talked about what he’s learned from his travels, what he’s reading and why he is the Republican candidate best suited to take on Gov. Mark Dayton in November. What follows is a transcript of that talk, edited for length and clarity.
Capitol Report: You spent most of your adult life in the Legislature before retiring four years ago after your first gubernatorial bid. Did you miss politics?
Marty Seifert: Yeah. But I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I was the person best able to beat Dayton. Everyone who is running on the Republican side is a good person, but I bring the depth and breadth of experience. As people look for who has the most to bring to the governor’s office, I think they are going to view me as the guy who is ready on day one.
CR: In your 14 years in the Legislature, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
Seifert: There are a variety of things, and some don’t get an enormous amount of attention. Brandon’s Law, which was named for a young man who went missing in southwest Minnesota, addressed how you enable law enforcement to search for adults who disappear under mysterious circumstances. It became the model law for all 50 states. When I was the minority leader for three sessions, government spending was kept in line. We had no bonding bill in 2007. When government got too big, we pushed back.
CR: As minority leader, you stripped away the leadership positions of six members of the caucus who broke ranks to override former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a gas tax hike. Any regret over that?
Seifert: That was one thing I wish I would have handled differently. I’ve since called all six personally and told them it was something that I shouldn’t have done and I regretted doing. There’s no hostility or outrage toward me from that group.
CR: Why did you do it?
Seifert: A lot of caucus members felt that if we didn’t act swiftly, we’d have more overrides and we’d become irrelevant because the only thing we had for leverage was [Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s] veto. And we didn’t want to be irrelevant to the policy discussions.
CR: You told one reporter you wish you could “hit the reset” button on Rochester convention. Can you elaborate?
Seifert: Let me preface this by saying, I’ve traveled to 40 to 50 different communities since the convention and I’ve heard almost nothing about it. Convention adjournment procedures are number 500 on the list of the 500 issues that the average Minnesotan cares about. But the reality is, I probably should have just said, “I’m heading to the primary.” I still would have gotten booed.
CR: With four candidates heading to the primary, this is uncharted territory for Republicans.
Seifert: The winner of this thing is going to have a plurality, not a majority. It’s really a matter of who shows up, who gets their message out.
CR: Your three rivals live in suburban Hennepin County and you’re from outstate. Does being “the rural candidate” help or hurt?
Seifert: I don’t characterize myself as the rural guy. But I think by default I get pigeonholed that way. There are certain demographics characteristics that make me unique among the candidates and they are what they are. I’m the only Catholic. I’m the only candidate who has spent his whole life in Minnesota. I’m the only candidate from a rural area. I’m not campaigning on that. But when people observe that we are traveling everywhere, I think it does send a message that I’m there for everybody. I don’t see it as a chore to go to rural Minnesota, because I live there.
CR: What are you hearing from rural voters?
Seifert: What you hear around the Capitol Mall complex is a lot different than what you hear in Crookston. There are a lot of people in rural areas who feel ignored, no doubt about it. When I was in Roseau in January, people said we rarely if ever see a candidate for governor in Roseau County.
There are a lot of political folks who think the way elections are won in the 21st century is that you just throw stuff on Twitter and Facebook and hope it works out. It gets to be an echo chamber. But I would argue that there are more Republican primary voters who don’t know what Twitter is than who are on Twitter. The average 75-year-old in Madison, Minnesota, is not on Twitter.
CR: What is the key to winning, then?
Seifert: You’ve got to hustle for it. Minnesota has a history of electing people who hustle the most — you can talk about Pawlenty as a Republican, [Paul] Wellstone as a Democrat, or Rudy Perpich. Many of them were outspent vastly — Wellstone by 11 to 1. But there’s a common thread in Minnesota: Candidates are rewarded for their work ethic.
CR: Your rivals identify as fiscal and social conservatives. Can you highlight any specific policy differences?
Seifert: I don’t see a huge differentiation on a lot of things. I think I might be more passionate about some things. I’m very passionate that the Metropolitan Council is out of control and needs to be dismantled from its taxing authority and dismantled from its centralized autocratic nature. I look at it as a very fat, expensive layer of middle management that has no accountability. Who do you vote out if you’re angry about your levy from the Met Council? I’m shocked that people in the seven-county metro put up with it. It’s a Politburo. I’m not hearing that passion from the other candidates.
CR: Since 2006, no Republican has won a statewide race in Minnesota. Why?
Seifert: Before people get out the violins, remember that the two races on the ballot this year — governor and U.S. Senate — were determined by the narrowest of narrow pluralities of any races in the country. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent.
CR: Along with the other Republicans in the field, you have criticized Gov. Dayton for how he’s handled Polymet’s proposal to mine copper and nickel. What would you do differently?
Seifert: Should I be elected governor, I’ll be aggressively telling the agencies that, in a safe and environmentally responsible way, we want the Polymet and Twin Metals projects to go forward.
Dayton comes off as very indifferent. What he’s doing, very purposely, is playing kick-the-can and hide-the-ball until after the election. He doesn’t want to offend the environmentalists and he doesn’t want to offend the Iron Rangers. He needs to be called out on that. He needs to tell people before the election what his position is. This is like Nixon having a secret plan on Vietnam. What secret plan do you have on mining? Are we going to allow it or not allow it? It’s indifference. And indifference is hostility.
CR: In 2012, Republicans lost control of the Legislature, and a lot of people attributed that defeat to the decision to put a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage on the ballot. Did you think that was a mistake?
Seifert: I wasn’t in the Legislature. I was building a cancer center in southwest Minnesota. But I look at it from the perspective, what are the people of Minnesota demanding, and I didn’t see that as a big demand. Kurt Zellers, as speaker of the House, made that decision.
When I was minority leader, we could have moved to suspend the rules and had all sorts of roll calls on marriage, but we didn’t do that. We focused our message on jobs, economy, fixing roads, improving education. We also recruited a lot of good candidates. In 2010, after I finished up, the Republicans took the majority with a lot of the candidates I recruited. I think there was more to the story [of Republican losses in 2012] than the marriage thing. The popularity of Obama and Amy Klobuchar. But was [the marriage amendment] helpful? Probably not.
CR: Would you have opposed putting the amendment on the ballot?
Seifert: I had my position in leadership for three years before that, and it speaks for itself.
CR: You’ve been the minority leader and the majority whip. You also described yourself as a maverick. What is a maverick, in your view?
Seifert: I’m willing to go against the grain. Throughout my tenure in the House, I never accepted a penny from a lobbyist. I think there were four of us — among 201 lawmakers — who didn’t take money from lobbyists. I got lectured about that because it’s the easiest way to raise money. I’m willing to go against the grain on things like that. If you take a look at the convention, I was willing to participate and stand in front of a big group and say I’m going on to the primary, whether they booed me or not.
CR: Does the Republican Party need to rethink its endorsement process?
Seifert: There are certainly improvements to the process that need to take place. To the average observer now, the Supreme Court endorsement [of Michelle MacDonald] looks like a debacle. The process by which people are chosen to be delegates ends up being a poll tax for a lot of people. It costs $75 to get in, and then people had to wait seven and a half hours to cast the first ballot. But the improvement of the caucus process is not on my list of top priorities.
CR: What do you think of the emphasis on getting all party officers — not just the candidates — to abide by endorsements?
Seifert: We have an enormous number of party officers at the county level who are supporters. They are not going to be told what to do by someone else. They are going to be accountable to the people who elected them. So we have 50 days to figure this out, and everybody needs to just take a deep breath, support the candidate they want to support, and then on Aug. 13, the day after the primary, everybody has to be on the same page. Including me.
CR: From your travels, do you have a sense of the damage caused by the recent floods? And will it require more money?
Seifert: I’ve observed a lot of the flooding and damage first hand. This is one of the worst that I’ve seen in years. I don’t think there’s enough money in the contingency account to leverage federal flood aid. It’s a 25 percent match. I think the contingency fund has $3 million, which would leverage $12 million. That’s just a handful of bridges and roads in a couple of counties. There’s no way there’s going to be enough money in the contingency account to leverage the flood aid.
CR: In St. Paul, the Mississippi is expected to reach its highest crest ever recorded in a summer flood. What do you think of the claim that it is connected to climate change?
Seifert: I haven’t heard that yet. I don’t see it that way. We got a lot of rain. I don’t know that they blamed climate change when Noah and his animals were in the ark. I say that in a little bit of jest. But no, I don’t.
CR: Who is the political figure you most admire?
Seifert: My dad. He was on the township board and he solved problems. He didn’t ask people about the partisan slant, spent the least amount of money to get the job done, and listened directly to the people. He had an eighth grade education and he was honest as the day was long.
For historical figures, Abraham Lincoln. That’s why I really bristle when I go to a caucus event and people say, “Should we consider secession?” I have a big problem with that. It’s pretty difficult to pander to someone who is talking like that when Lincoln is one of your historical heroes. But you meet a lot of interesting people when you run around campaigning.
CR: Is that “interesting” in italics?
Seifert: It’s a Minnesota nice way of describing people.
CR: Do you hear that sort of talk often?
Seifert: I come across it periodically. I dismiss it as unrealistic jabber. You’ve got radical people on both sides.
CR: In general, political opinions seem more polarized. How can you deal with that?
Seifert: I think it’s being realistic about what you can accomplish and still have principles. For Republicans in Minnesota, there are certain things that are achievable. I think reining in the Met Council is achievable. I think downsizing government is achievable. But there are certain things that have passed that aren’t going to be repealed. Medical marijuana is not going to be repealed. The minimum wage is not going to be repealed. Gay marriage is not going to be repealed. When you go to a caucus meeting, there are a lot of people who are not realistic about certain things.
CR: What’s the last good book you read?
Seifert: “There is No November,” the Grunseth book. People think there are divisions in the Republican Party now. Were they around in 1990, when I was the youngest delegate at the state convention? There were deep, deep divisions.
CR: Favorite movie?
Seifert: The “Star Wars” movies. No question.
Seifert: We generally have the ’80s station on the Sirius XM in the pickup as we travel. Country music, periodically.
CR: What’s something people around here don’t know about you?
Seifert: I collect antique cars and engines. When I was out of office, I used to take them to antique car shows almost every weekend during the summer. I have a 1926 Dodge Brothers car and a horseless carriage with a one cylinder engine that starts with a crank and goes eight miles an hour. When I’m talking about antique cars, that’s when I light up. Forget about all the political stuff.