WASHINGTON – Republican Stewart Mills III has cut his hair short. He has sold his family’s successful home improvement and outdoor retailer. And now he is trying to rebrand himself as a thoughtful conservative as he makes a second run to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.
The 44-year-old Mills faces a tough balancing act. He is aggressively trying to court voters in a district besieged by thousands of job losses while also shunning the image rivals painted during his previous campaign of a millionaire playboy with yachts and flowing hair who lucked into a windfall through his family’s hard work turning Mills Fleet Farm into a retailing empire.
The sale of the company this year has freed Mills to focus money and energy on his rematch against Nolan, a 72-year-old second-term congressman from Brainerd, who took a break from public service after serving in Congress in the 1970s.
“We will not engage in the old school slash-and-burn blood sport of politics,” Mills said. “They [Nolan’s campaign chiefs] are not going to have the ability to run the same ads, because they won’t be able to pick on such superficial things such as my long hair.”
Mills is also happy to finally open up about his business after what he calls a “painful” and “emotional” decision to sell to the New York-based investment company KKR.
“Certain members of the family did want to sell, and it’s unfortunate, but at the end of the day we had to make the decision,” he said. “After running the numbers, what it would have taken to buy my other family members out … it would be way too much debt and way too much leverage on the business.”
Mills said he and his family have been committed to the northern Minnesota his entire life and they are major job creators in the area. The Mills Fleet Farm stores — which sell everything from live bait to fleece jackets — were started in 1955 by Stewart’s father and uncle, eventually blossoming to 36 locations dotting Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The company has 6,500 full- and part-time employees.
Mills has faced criticism from opponents who saw a glaring conflict between the realities of running a modern business and his political ideology, particularly as he embraced the role of a small-government, budget-slashing conservative.
The Mills family has received various local taxpayer incentives secured by the company over the past few decades. Before the sale, the store received more than $5.5 million in subsidies and tax relief, usually from smaller towns trying to lure the retailer to their community.
The most recent agreement came out of Hermantown, just outside Duluth, where Fleet Farm paid for roads around the store — still under construction — in exchange for rebates on property taxes for five years totaling about $1.3 million. The idea behind these types of incentives — common for local governments — is that the project never would be built without them, depriving the community of a major new retailer and the potential jobs and revenue that come with it.
When Fleet Farm sold to KKR, a New York-based multibillion-dollar investment firm, it sparked concern among St. Louis County officials that the public investment may leave the county at risk. To their view, the Mills family gets a windfall and the taxpayers get the bill for tax breaks as part of the subsidy agreement.
“If you don’t put strings on it, all of the sudden all the promises are broken and all of the sudden you’re left holding the bag and you get screwed,” said St. Louis County Commissioner Tom Rukavina, who voted last year to support the subsidies.
Hermantown Mayor Wayne Boucher says he stands behind the deal to bring a Fleet Farm to his city. And he notes that if KKR closed its Hermantown location, the city would stop reimbursing the company for the infrastructure.
Mills calls the deals “win-win” and says these complex agreements are a sign of his knowledge of how small government and economic development can work in concert. He says he is proud of the subsidy arrangements such as those in Hermantown and elsewhere. He said those deals have created jobs and new development in communities that often have desperately needed both.
“I have never considered it inconsistent with a small-government conservative to create jobs that create an additional tax base which funds education, which funds park systems,” Mills said. “That’s a record that I’m extremely proud of.”
Mills’ campaign is aggressively promoting him as a business-savvy entrepreneur as he reintroduces himself to voters after the bruising, narrow defeat two years ago.
In 2014, outside Democratic groups spent more than $10 million to frame him as a wealthy and out-of-touch millionaire unfamiliar with the hardships of a region where more than 2,500 people have lost work mostly in the struggling local mining industry.
Nolan often jabs Mills’ for his Wisconsin upbringing and his allegiance to the Green Bay Packers, something of a political liability in a region that historically loves the Minnesota Vikings.
“They are a great family, they’ve done a lot of good for the community, but Mr. Mills III has never been apart of that great tradition,” Nolan said.
Born in Wisconsin, Mills’ mother worked as a public school teacher and his dad traveled around building the Fleet Farm empire. Mills says he spent many weekends, summers and holidays back in Minnesota with his father and family. He got married in the district, and his kids were born in the same hospital where his dad and grandfather were born.
He also contends his family’s history means he knows the importance of job creation and hard work. In part of his bid to show himself as a freethinking conservative, Mills has broken with the Republican establishment on key issues — such as his recent stance against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pending trade agreement supported by the many Republicans in Congress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
“I’ve spent my entire adult life here in this part of Minnesota creating jobs, my grandfather and my great, great grandfather worked in the timber industry,” he said. “Nobody understands job creation more than I do.”