Among the four principle gubernatorial candidates competing for the Republican Party nomination, Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, is probably the best known, a distinction that stems from his relatively recent tenure as speaker of the House.
Whether that two-year stint at the helm will help win over voters or simply evoke painful memories among Republican faithful remains an open question.
For his part, Zellers has repeatedly emphasized his “victory” in the rancorous 2011 budget fight between Gov. Mark Dayton and the then-GOP controlled Legislature. While Dayton ultimately relented and the final deal helped plug the bulk of a $5 billion deficit, the partisan showdown also led to the longest government shutdown in state history.
Zellers is less enthusiastic about revisiting another defining episode of his tenure as speaker: the decision to place two controversial constitutional amendments — a ban on same-sex marriage and a voter ID requirement — on the ballot in 2012. Voters rejected both of those measures and toppled Republican majorities in the House and Senate, giving the DFL total control at the Capitol for the first time since 1991.
Although Zellers announced his candidacy a year ago, he opted not to compete for the party endorsement at the Republican State Convention, where delegates ultimately selected Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.
In past years, such a flouting of the party establishment might have cost him. But with former minority leader Marty Seifert and Orono investment banker Scott Honour also heading to an Aug. 12 primary, there is more political cover for that decision.
In an interview at his campaign headquarters in an Osseo strip mall, Zellers, 45, touted the pragmatism he learned as a North Dakota farm boy, defended his leadership record in the Legislature, and, as befits any Republican girding for an intramural brawl, emphasized his conservative credentials.
His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Capitol Report: This is an unusually crowded primary field. How many voters do you expect will turn out?
Zellers: It could be a 150,000 people, it could be 350,000. That can go up or down depending on events.
CR: Can you envision a scenario in which the winner comes in with 30 percent — or less – of the vote?
Zellers: I hope it’s over 30, 35 percent. At this point, it’s hard to know. We really don’t have a road map from the past for what this is going to look like.
CR: There was a similar primary in 1924, when Theodore Christianson won the Republican nomination with less than 23 percent of the vote in a six-way race. He went on to become governor.
Zellers: Yeah, “Tight Wad” Ted. His picture hangs out in the Capitol. When I bring in student groups, I’ll point him out and say, ‘Hey, this is a guy they called Tightwad Ted.’ The sixth- and seventh-graders get it. First- and second-graders, not so much.
CR: As far as policy goes, there are not a lot of differences between you and your rivals for the nomination. How do you set yourself apart?
Zellers: I’ve actually balanced the budget and stood up to Mark Dayton’s tax increases. In a lot of cases, my opponents will say, ‘This is what I’ll do if elected’ or ‘This is how my private sector experience is analogous.’ But it really comes down to what you’ve done. Working with Gov. Dayton, we passed permitting reform. A lot of the other guys say, ‘We should do permitting reform.’ Well, what kind of permitting? What area? It’s easy to say ‘Me, too.’
CR: The next governor is going to have to reform the Minnesota Sex Offender Program or risk the prospect of court-ordered releases. Explain your views.
Zellers: I’ve been very vocal about how Gov. Dayton has handled this process. I believe there’s a pathway to fixing this program but it involves leadership from the top and not allowing your commissioners telling you what to do.
CR: The hundreds of offenders in the program have completed their criminal sentences and yet none have been deemed well enough to be released. Do you agree with critics who say that raises constitutional concerns?
Zellers: I don’t. I think the program hasn’t been properly implemented. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think you’d see the confusion from the courts and the legal community on this issue if there was a more consistent program. Because we treat every case differently, there’s no set path for treatment. And that’s because of the leadership from the top.
CR: So in your view the fix is essentially administrative?
Zellers: It’s leadership. As governor, I would say, ‘We’re not going to let a guy out who beat, raped and tied up a 15 year old. He’s not fixed.’ Until you can come up with a cure for these people, I don’t think you should let any one of them out.
CR: But if you say, ‘We’re going to treat people’ and yet that treatment never produces a cure, isn’t that a sham?
Zellers: I think it’s what that program is for. To assess whether offenders are safe to release in society and if they find these individuals will recommit. One victim’s life is not worth testing a legal argument. If they are treated and assessed and the experts say, ‘They’re not fixed,’ then I don’t think they should be released. If there is a constitutional challenge, as governor you have to fight it to the very end.
CR: Doesn’t that invite the courts to mandate the release of some of these individuals?
Zellers: That’s up to the legal experts to decide.
CR: You opposed the medical marijuana legislation that was enacted this year, which is regarded as one of the most conservative such measures in the country. Can you explain your thinking?
Zellers: Being a farm kid, I look at things comes from a very practical standpoint. If you plant corn and it doesn’t grow after two years, you don’t plant corn there anymore. In all the time we’ve been debating medical marijuana, I haven’t seen doctors at the Capitol testifying, saying ‘Yes, this is the miracle treatment we need.’ If there aren’t doctors and neurologists and oncologists saying we need this, then I don’t see the need.
I’ve talked to a lot of deputies, police officers, county sheriffs, and police chiefs. They say we’re going to have a heck of a time assessing whether someone is impaired. The potency of marijuana today is completely different than 20 years ago. If they don’t know how to assess that, are we as policymakers going to say, ‘That’s OK?’ I trust the public safety experts. Do you really want to run the risk of someone driving around high and running over some kid?
CR: Do you think medical marijuana is a Trojan horse for full legalization?
Zellers: I don’t question people’s motives, especially the families that were testifying down there [at the Capitol]. My grandmother died of liver and pancreatic cancer. I would have done anything to help her. But some of the other people down there were just saying, ‘Let’s legalize everything.’
CR: You were speaker during the government shutdown. Did that hurt Republicans, politically?
Zellers: If you go back and look at the history, the shutdown is on Gov. Dayton. The bill we presented him before the shutdown was the same bill he signed after the shutdown. It’s revisionist history to say this was the Republicans’ fault.
At the end of the day, what was the reason for the impasse? We had a lagging economy, unemployment was on the rise, and people in business were not ready to expand in Minnesota. To raise taxes on top of that would make us really uncompetitive, especially with our neighboring states. The argument, from our standpoint, was about Minnesota’s competitiveness.
CR: But can’t Dayton and the Democrats now point to those neighboring states and say, complain all you want about the tax rate but we have a relatively robust economy?
Zellers: It may be good on the surface but this budget has been barely in effect for a year. Eventually, it’s going to catch up with our economy.
CR: Nationally, many Republicans are concerned that demographic trends spell trouble for the party’s long term prospects. What can your party do to grow the base in Minnesota?
Zellers: You recruit candidates like me and like Jeff [Johnson], middle class, Gen Xers. Voters want to elect who has gone through the same things that they have, someone who will make sure we get the best value on what the government spends.
CR: Has the Tea Party hurt the Republican brand?
Zellers: I think it’s a good thing anytime you add somebody to your movement. I don’t think we should ever be afraid to have more people join us in the Republican tent, whether it’s business Republicans or pro-life Republicans. And I agree with the Tea Party. We are taxed enough.
CR: Like the other candidates in this primary, you say you’re not interested in revisiting the issue of gay marriage. But you were the speaker when the decision was made to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot and it failed. Tactically, do you believe that was a mistake?
Zellers: I’m a big fan of initiative and referendum. Letting people vote on an issue is never a bad thing. Was it the right time? This issue had been bubbling up for a decade. The voters spoke and I’m moving on. We don’t hear about on the campaign trail. You don’t hear about it when you’re calling individual primary voters. It’s not something that people are talking about.
CR: But the ballot question also prompted outside groups to pour a lot of money in Minnesota. Do you think that was the reason Republicans lost the House and Senate in 2012?
Zellers: The Democrats have been the party of big money ever since I’ve been in office. They have the big donors who write the big checks. They have the unions that spend multiple millions on their behalf. Mitt Romney didn’t even make a stop in the state of Minnesota, which had a demoralizing effect. More than anything, it was money and a weak showing by our presidential candidate.
CR: But didn’t marriage amendment effectively tip that financial imbalance even further in Democrats favor?
Zellers: Most of the money came from people who had given to Mark Dayton two years previous. That money would have been there anyway and it will be there again this year. Democrats are the party of big money. They do a really good job of getting big donors to give to independent expenditure groups.
CR: If money is key, then why shouldn’t Republicans vote for Scott Honour?
Zellers: It all depends on how you spend it. You can have a lot of money and a bad message and still lose.
CR: You have been trying to win over voters in the Iron Range on the mining issue. Can a Republican gubernatorial candidate really pick up significant votes on the Range?
Zellers: I think this will be a watershed year for us. If you go up in August of an election year and say, “I’m a Republican and I’m going to help you mine,” they’ll give you a pat on the back and a hearty handshake and say, “Thanks for coming.” Because they know you’re not coming back. But if you’ve campaigned up there like I have for almost three years — as minority leader and then as speaker — they know they can trust you.
CR: What political figures most influenced you?
Zellers: Ronald Reagan and [former U.S. Sen.] Rod Grams. As a kid, I asked my grandmother who she was voting for and she said, “It’s supposed to be a secret but Ronald Reagan, because he believes in America and he believes in us as individuals.”
CR: How did you get to know Rod Grams?
Zellers: From a friend who worked with [former U.S. Sen.] Dave Durenberger. I had gotten a political science degree and was planning to go to law school. My friend said, ‘This is a great opportunity and I think you could do well in this business.” I started out doing small dollar fundraising for Rod. After one of the guys working for the campaign got lost a couple of times, the campaign manager said, “We need someone we can count on to drive Rod around. You’re a farm kid, you won’t get lost.”
Every year around Christmas, Rod would ask me, ‘Do you want to work in D.C. this year?” I said “Absolutely not.” So I worked with him in Minnesota, doing press releases and all the advance stuff. In six years, I got to see more of Minnesota than 90 percent of the people who were born and raised here.
CR: So you bailed on law school in favor of politics?
Zellers: I found it really fascinating. A lot of people in politics run around with their hair on fire but don’t get anything done. Politics is an upwardly mobile business. If you do what you say you’re going to do and work hard, people are going to want to hire you over and over. It’s kind of like farming. In spring you plant a crop, in summer you tend and water it over and over, and in the fall you harvest. Politics is the same thing.
CR: What is your biggest disappointment about politics?
Zellers: How slowly things move. You’d like to see reforms take effect a lot faster. That’s how business is different from politics, the speed at which the machinery moves.
CR: Scott Honour says he wants to bring business principles to the Capitol and cut spending 10 percent across the board. Is that naïve?
Zellers: Naïve. Un-informed. He hasn’t had the experience. You can bring the business practices to government, but it’s not going to work in the same way. As a CEO, you can say, “This is going to happen today” and it happens. But when I was speaker, there were 71 other type-A personalities [in the Republican caucus] who are also leaders in their communities and who also have a say. If you don’t understand that part of the process, you’re going to be really hamstrung — and really frustrated, as well.
CR: What’s the last book you read?
Zellers: Vince Flynn’s last book. That was last year. I read his first book after [talk radio host] Joe Soucheray had him on the air. I read every one, two through 11. I’d literally read those books in one day. Mitch Rapp, the main character, is a little bit dark but at the core does the right thing. He’d be a great movie character. Ronald Reagan’s “[An] American Life” is one of my favorite books. I knew his politics but I didn’t know his personal story.
CR: What music do you enjoy?
Zellers: County and rock. I listen to Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean and I’ll mix in AC/DC and Van Halen. My wife and I go to WE Fest pretty consistently
CR: What your favorite movie?
Zellers: Being a kid from the ’80s, I still love “Caddyshack,” “Fletch” and “Stripes.”
CR: So you prefer comedies?
Zellers: Life is a serious enough. Losing a daughter, losing a little brother, I’ve seen enough of the dark side.