ST. PAUL, Minn. — Kurt Zellers, Minnesota's most recent Republican House speaker, joined the race for governor Sunday, saying he would bring a middle-class family man's sensibility to the job.
"I think I'm every Minnesotan. I'm a dad who likes to go watch his kid play hockey," said Zellers, who held his campaign's kick-off event in his hometown of Maple Grove. He said as governor he would focus on giving Minnesotans more confidence their tax dollars are being well-spent, and reducing their tax burdens.
In an interview with The Associated Press ahead of the campaign event, Zellers stressed a common touch, noting that he was once laid off from a job and recalling past struggles to pay household bills. But he also boasts the most high-profile government and political resume among the growing field of Republicans vying to take on Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton next year. Zellers has been in the Legislature for a decade and worked behind the scenes as a Republican operative before that.
Zellers became House speaker when Republicans took over the Legislature in 2010, but lost the post just two years later when Democrats snatched back the majority. He incurred wrath from some fellow Republicans when he let the public financing plan for a new Vikings stadium proceed through the legislative process in 2012 despite his personal opposition.
Zellers defended his time as speaker, which also included the 2011 government shutdown brought about by a long standoff between Dayton and GOP leaders over tax hikes versus spending reductions. He said the Republicans' firm line against taxes showed voters a fiscal conservative in action.
"If nothing else, they know I will manage their money better than the governor did, and I will look through our budget just like I would my own budget," Zellers said.
On the stadium issue, Zellers noted that he had long pledged a fair process to supporters. "I wasn't going to be a dictator as speaker of the House," he said.
The House speakership is generally viewed as state government's second-most powerful post, after the governor's office. But it hasn't launched many successful candidates for the top job. Only two Minnesota House speakers went on to be governor: William Merriam, governor from 1889 to 1893; and Samuel Van Sant, who led the state from 1901 to 1905.
Most recently, former DFL Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher won her party's endorsement for governor in 2010 but lost the primary to Dayton.
"The speaker's office is not a great springboard for running for higher office," said Steve Sviggum, the Republican speaker from 1999 to 2007. Sviggum once hired Zellers to be spokesman for House Republicans, and they later served together. Sviggum said he thinks highly of Zellers but doubted his time as speaker would be an asset as he courts Republican activists.
"It's a difficult time trying to both keep a large caucus of members together while meeting the expectations of the electorate. It's a job that creates a lot of friends but a lot of enemies as well," said Sviggum, who has not endorsed a GOP candidate for governor.
Zellers, 43, becomes the third Republican to officially enter the governor's race, after businessman Scott Honour and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson. All three hail from suburbs west of Minneapolis. Zellers and his wife, Kim, a public schoolteacher, have an 8-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. Zellers was born in North Dakota and got his start in politics as an aide to former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Rod Grams.
The list of Republican entrants into the governor's race is likely to keep growing. State Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville told AP he plans to file as a candidate Monday and launch his campaign Wednesday. Another GOP senator, Julie Rosen of Fairmont, said Friday that she is "not ready to announce yet, but I'm getting very close." Further possible candidates include state Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie and two other former House Republicans leaders, Matt Dean of Dellwood and Marty Seifert of Marshall.
Zellers said he would seek the GOP endorsement at the party's state convention next summer, but that he would run in the August primary regardless. Honour previously said he would run in the primary no matter what happens at the convention, and Zellers said that influenced his decision.
"I think the decision's already been made for all of us," Zellers said. "Minnesotans should have a fair choice on their candidate and a primary offers them that."