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REDWOOD FALLS, MINN. – As Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert toured tiny RVI Inc., a handful of longtime employees recalled sadly when the plant that refurbishes electronic goods was a major employer in this small southwestern Minnesota city.
“There were 850 employees here once,” Doug Gould, RVI’s chief engineer, told Seifert, who had a handful of campaign staffers and two local state lawmakers in tow during a late June tour. Seifert, who grew up in nearby Marshall, bumped into more than one employee he knew personally — including a fourth cousin he hadn’t seen for nearly two decades. Seifert learned from workers that their ranks had dwindled to 35.
It is the kind of story the former House minority leader knows well: the economic uncertainty and anguish that ripple across Minnesota’s less populated environs as good-paying jobs gravitate to the Twin Cities and other regional centers. A lifelong resident of what he calls “rural Minnesota,” Seifert is trying to harness that anxiety into a political force he hopes can drive him past three fellow Republicans in the Aug. 12 primary — and to a win in November against DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
“If you’re a farmer, a small businessperson, a resident particularly of rural Minnesota, I think people are like, you know, ‘Marty Seifert’s like the quintessential Minnesotan,’ ” Seifert said at the Pizza Ranch in this city of about 5,000 people.
Seifert, who made a failed attempt at the governor’s seat in 2010, is playing up his small-town roots big, looking to turn his lack of polish to his advantage: “I have the ding of, ‘That’s the guy with the Minnesota accent,’ ” he said. “Like it’s some sort of bad thing, you know? I think it’s a good thing.”
The other leading GOP contenders are all from the metro area: investment banker Scott Honour of Wayzata, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth and Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove.
‘A different mind-set’
In recent years, a Twin Cities base has helped propel most candidates to governor. Minnesota has not selected a governor from outstate since Rudy Perpich, an Iron Range DFLer who served through 1990.
“There is certainly a tremendous desire among rural Minnesotans to have that statewide representation that we’ve been looking for and longing for, for a very long time,” said Justin Krych, a party activist and Seifert backer from northeastern Minnesota’s St. Louis County. “There are a lot of people, Republicans and Democrats alike, looking for someone who understands rural Minnesotans — where our jobs come from, what our schools need. It’s a different mind-set.”
Like his GOP rivals, Seifert’s governing vision centers on cutting government spending and reach. As a legislator, he laid into social safety-net programs he called overly generous and prone to fraud. He vows to cancel light-rail construction and pour the money into roads. His goal: to reduce the overall size of state government rather than just slowing its rate of growth — something former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty never accomplished.
Slight of build, with a clean-shaven head and a quiet voice, Seifert, who is 42, doesn’t come across much like a typical politician. He has a fondness for “Star Wars” references that befit a man of his generation, as when he compared his battered campaign plane to the Millennium Falcon. He talks easily about policy details, but made his reputation at the Capitol with his talent for withering quips, which he deployed against the DFLers he frequently accused of neglecting rural Minnesota.
As he works to unite the GOP around the idea of a rural standard-bearer, Seifert also must allay concerns among fellow Republicans about his own history. Seifert’s gubernatorial endorsement battle against Tom Emmer, now the GOP-endorsed candidate for Congress in the Sixth Congressional District, became one of the party’s most divisive fights in years.
In May, Seifert inadvertently rekindled some of those grudges — and created a few new ones — with a controversial performance at his party’s state endorsing convention in Rochester. After trailing on two ballots, Seifert took the stage late in the evening and told his supporters they were free to leave — typically a precursor to a candidate withdrawing. But he did not withdraw. Party leaders took his move as an attempt to deprive the convention of enough delegates to make an endorsement. That enraged some activists and drew an unusual public rebuke from Keith Downey, the state GOP chairman.
Seifert “will do or say anything he needs to to win,” said Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound, who helped run the Rochester convention, and who said he was not previously a Seifert detractor. “If he’s the next governor, I will be looking at him with a very careful eye.”
Johnson ultimately won the endorsement. Seifert now says that, in retrospect, he would have done things differently.
“I wish I could hit the reset button. It is what it is,” he said. But, he added with a touch of defiance, “Since then I’ve traveled the state, I’ve been to over 30 cities. Nobody cares. They don’t care about endorsement procedures and how conventions are adjourned.”
Seifert says that while he is emphasizing his rural background, he’s not neglecting the state’s most populous area. He tapped Rep. Pam Myhra, of Burnsville, for his running mate and his campaign schedule is heavily salted with Twin Cities appearances.
But Seifert is much more likely to boast of campaign stops in far-flung locales like Roseau, and it’s clear his most obvious path to an August win is racking up big margins in the state’s largely rural First, Seventh and Eighth congressional districts. Honour, Johnson and Zellers all live in suburban western Hennepin County.
Minnesota Republicans have not had a competitive gubernatorial primary in decades, so it’s tough to predict if Seifert’s strategy will pan out — particularly with what’s likely to be low turnout. But in the 2010 DFL gubernatorial primary, about 40 percent of the August voters hailed from the First, Seventh and Eighth districts, which contain only about a third of the state’s total population.
Seifert’s fundraising also reflects his outstate Minnesota tilt. Through the first quarter of 2014, he collected just 23 percent of in-state donations from Twin Cities residents, compared to 95 percent for Dayton, 93 percent for Honour, 90 percent for Zellers and 63 percent for Johnson.
Redwood Falls, about two hours southwest of the Twin Cities, is Seifert country. Seifert grew up on a family farm nearby and has lived most of his life 45 miles away in Marshall with his wife and two children. He represented the area for 14 years in a legislative career that ended in 2011.
On the day he toured RVI, Seifert stopped in for an interview at the Redwood Falls Gazette and a milkshake at the Dari King drive-in where he worked as a teenager. The Seifert family, along with about two dozen volunteers, marched in the city’s sesquicentennial parade.
“Had Marty been our candidate four years ago, I believe he’d be governor today,” said Leonard Runck, the Redwood County Republican Party chairman. Instead, Republicans chose Emmer, who lost to Dayton by about 9,000 votes in a year when the party won big nationwide and in Minnesota won control of the House and Senate.
Like the other candidates, Seifert has been light on specific policies he’d pursue as governor. Besides promising to shelve future light-rail routes, Seifert says he wants policies that will put rural residents on “a glide path to equality.”
“It’s not that on Day One we’re going to wave a magic wand and all schools will be funded equally,” he said. “It’s going to be a glide path over four years to make sure that every child — black or white, rural or urban or suburban — will be treated equally in the eyes of God and the eyes of government.”
But Seifert also wants major spending cuts, which could make it tough to find money for new, rural-focused programs. And an equitable balance may be hard to strike: Many rural communities in Minnesota already get more back in state tax dollars than they contribute.
If Seifert wins the August primary, his rural pitch will likely remain a major theme. Already he has lambasted Dayton for selecting his former chief of staff, Tina Smith of Minneapolis, as his running mate. Smith replaces outgoing Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth.
Another factoid Seifert likes to brandish is that, alone among both Dayton and the three other Republicans, Seifert has lived his entire life in Minnesota. Johnson, born and raised in Detroit Lakes, spent time in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Zellers grew up in North Dakota and moved to Minnesota as an adult. Honour is a Minnesota native, but built his business career in California. Dayton was born and raised in Minnesota, but spent parts of his life on the East Coast.
“I’m the only lifer in the group,” Seifert said. “Everyone else has lived at least some portion of their life outside Minnesota.”
Staff writers Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Glenn Howatt contributed to this story.