A former speaker of the Minnesota House trading on that experience as he runs for governor, Republican Kurt Zellers barely mentions politics at all as he plows through the crowd at a suburban summer festival.
“How’re the kids?” Zellers asks old acquaintances, friends of friends and other potential supporters at the Chanhassen event. Though the Republican gubernatorial primary is fast approaching, Zellers’ conversations at the evening carnival center mostly around people’s families, sports, or anticipation for the following day’s big parade.
Clad in a light blue oxford shirt and khakis, with a boyish haircut, the good-natured and gregarious Zellers came off very much like the middle-class suburban dad that he is. But as he tries to battle past three GOP rivals in the Aug. 12 primary, the Maple Grove legislator is making the most explicitly political pitch: that his tenure as House speaker during the 2011 state government shutdown, when he led Republicans as they clashed with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton over the size of state government, make him the party’s best choice to take on Dayton in November.
“No other Republican candidate for governor has made Dayton surrender,” said state Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, a close Zellers ally who led him around the carnival. The shutdown ended after 21 days, when Dayton dropped his demand that Republicans approve a tax increase to fill in a hefty state budget deficit.
Dayton “came in saying, we’re going to raise taxes, that’s how we’re going to balance the budget,” Zellers said. “We said, you don’t have to raise taxes, you can balance the budget without raising taxes, just like families do in Minnesota, just like what businesses have to do. My Republican opponents can tell you what they might have done. They can’t point to black and white examples.”
But a rematch of the shutdown showdown carries clear risks for Zellers, and Minnesota Republicans in general.
Zellers and his Republican colleagues definitely did block a tax increase in 2011, but their proposed budget solution relied on nearly $1.4 billion in delays of state aid payments to K-12 schools and borrowing against state tobacco bonds.
Shutdown triggered losses
And Democrats wielded the high-profile state government stoppage against GOP lawmakers in the next legislative election. They won enough new seats to snatch away House and Senate majorities, toppling Zellers from the speaker’s post after only two years. In 2013, Dayton and the new DFL majorities enacted the income tax hikes on the wealthy that the governor wanted all along.
“I took heat for the shutdown, there’s no doubt about that,” said former GOP representative Bruce Vogel, who lost his Willmar-area seat to a Democrat in 2012. Asked if the shutdown contributed to his loss, Vogel replied, “I know it did because I had some people tell me that.”
Vogel said he doesn’t blame Zellers for what happened. But he’s also not backing him in the primary, opting instead for Marty Seifert, a former House minority leader from Marshall. The other chief contenders are Scott Honour, an Orono businessman and political newcomer, and Jeff Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner from Plymouth and the party’s endorsed candidate.
House Speaker is considered state government’s second-most powerful post, after governor. But the speaker’s rostrum has only rarely been a steppingstone to the top spot. In Minnesota’s 156-year history, just two House Speakers became governor: William Rush Merriam, governor from 1889 to 1893, and Samuel Van Sant, who led the state from 1901 to 1905.
More recently, former Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher failed in her 2010 gubernatorial bid. She won DFL endorsement but lost the primary to Dayton.
“Leadership has advantages and disadvantages,” said former GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, who teamed with Zellers to take on Dayton during the shutdown. “When a guy has a real record and has done some things, that comes with a downside too.”
Koch said Zellers is still a friend and ally. But this year she’s supporting Honour, whose running mate, state Sen. Karin Housley, is her close friend.
Other big moments of Zellers’ speakership have dogged him. He led the House as the Vikings made a final push for a taxpayer subsidy for their new football stadium, drawing widespread ridicule when he said in a sports radio interview that “I won’t vote for it, but I want it to pass.” He later said he misspoke.
Zellers also presided over the House when Republicans put the proposed constitutional gay marriage ban up for a statewide vote in 2012. It went down to defeat, and many Republicans felt that also contributed to 2012 legislative defeats.
“We had a lot of voters come out in my area that probably wouldn’t have come to the polls at all if that hadn’t been there,” said Rich Murray, a Republican who lost his Albert Lea-area House seat in 2012. “We gave up the Legislature for a battle that was going to be lost in two years anyway.”
Murray was one of four Republicans to vote against the gay marriage amendment in 2011. He said he tried to warn Zellers and other Republicans against putting it on the ballot. Murray said he plans to vote for Seifert or Johnson.
Zellers said Republicans had been trying for years to get the marriage amendment on the ballot. “The ball was rolling on that long before we got there,” he said. With gay marriage now legal, thanks to Dayton and DFL majorities, Zellers said he believes the people have spoken and that the issue should not be revisited.
“Let’s move on,” he said.
Zellers blamed the 2012 state House and Senate losses on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, saying his campaign’s decision to not compete in Minnesota left state Republicans outmatched financially.
“It’s just the idea that you’re not in play. That’s hard for your candidates, it’s hard for your voters, it’s hard for your donors, it just has a deflating effect,” Zellers said. He argues that Republican budgeting decisions in 2011 and 2012 set the stage for Minnesota’s ensuing economic rebound, a tough-to-prove argument that Democrats dispute.
As governor, Zellers said he would espouse the same principles that guided him as speaker. He said he’d push to cut income taxes at all levels, and eliminate Dayton’s upper bracket rate. He said if given a few years, he believes he could shrink the total size of state government, a goal promoted by many Republicans but never achieved in recent history. His main goal would be to turn tax and spending policies in a more business-friendly direction, arguing that owners of many longtime Minnesota companies have opted to remain in the state more because of personal connections than because it was the best business decision.
“We’ve been very fortunate for a long, long time that a lot of these decisions about whether to keep businesses in Minnesota are made with the heart, and not the head,” Zellers said. “If decisions start getting made with the head and not the heart, that’s going to cost us jobs.”
As of the last reporting period, Zellers had raised more than every candidate but Honour, who has donated a chunk of his own personal fortune to the campaign.
A Republican operative or politician most of his adult life, Zellers, 44, has a well-honed sense of political symbolism. Shortly after graduating from college, the North Dakota native went to work for the late Rod Grams in his successful 1994 bid for U.S. senator. Grams became his political mentor.
“If I’m good at any of this, I owe 99 percent of it to Rod,” Zellers said.
While he lacked formal training in public relations or marketing, Zellers showed a flair for helping burnish his boss’ down-home image. He recalled the 2000 state GOP convention in Rochester, where Grams rode a tractor onto the floor of the Mayo Civic Center to accept the party endorsement.
“I made him go get cowboy boots six months before, because I knew reporters would pick up on it if his boots were too shiny,” Zellers said.
Symbolism also plays a part in Zellers’ gubernatorial bid. He has repeatedly stressed his middle-class background as a major selling point for his candidacy — his wife, Kim, is a public schoolteacher, and Zellers has put his work as a public relations consultant on hold during his campaign. The couple have three children under 10, including a son born in March.
But his main argument is all about politics. Zellers calls Dayton a formidable opponent, suggesting that too many Republicans underestimate the incumbent governor.
“He is a strong candidate, and that’s why I believe we have to have the person that was sitting across the table from him,” he said. “If this is going to be your first campaign against Mark Dayton, you’re not going to be successful.”