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FAIRMONT, MINN. – Roaring past cornfields and farmland in a giant Ford F-350 pickup, the man who has embarked on a most unlikely campaign for governor is racing to his next meeting.
Republican Scott Honour has made a fortune confounding doubters in the business world. Now he is out to do it in politics, without a shred of political experience or even his party’s endorsement.
“You’ve got these career politicians in St. Paul who don’t know jack about what they are doing,” Honour said. “They sit in St. Paul acting like they are experts on this stuff and they don’t know anything about it.”
Honour is framing himself as the only successful businessman in a field of leading GOP rivals that, he is happy to point out, have more than 50 years of political experience among them. At each stop, he promises to bring a fearless and uncompromising business-minded approach to state government, whether it is to the state budget, unions or regulations.
“I fundamentally believe we are a country built on the back of the private sector, on capitalism, and that is a good thing,” Honour said. “We want people to have economic opportunity. It is not government creating more government jobs that drives this economy.”
Honour’s campaign is closing in on a make-or-break Aug. 12 GOP primary against former Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Zellers, former GOP House leader Marty Seifert and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who won the GOP endorsement. The winner will go on to face DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Honour is part of a larger trend of very wealthy political outsiders getting into politics in a big way, reshuffling statehouses and congressional races around the country. They each follow a similar playbook, swooping in, spending big, and trying to appeal to a growing swell of voters who share a dimming view of entrenched politicians. It worked for Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a former health care executive. It also worked for Michigan GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist who, like Honour, made most of his fortune in California.
“This is not an ego trip,” Honour said. “People like the fact that I am willing to bet on myself.”
That kind of message appeals to Mitch Davis, general manager of Davisco’s dairy operations in Le Sueur and an Honour contributor. Davis said he is tired of candidates who too quickly are co-opted by state government.
“We send people to change it, and they come back changed,” Davis said. “I am hoping Scott might be the guy who goes there and changes them. Isn’t it time we take a risk and back someone who might bring change?”
Honour is betting big on his run. He has loaned his campaign $300,000 this year, which is more than the $257,000 he has raised from individual donors. First quarter fundraising reports showed that nearly half his donations came from outside Minnesota.
Hitting the road
Like other first-time candidates, Honour is finding out that selling yourself to voters one at a time is not easy.
On one campaign outing, Honour walked into the Lone Star BBQ and Grill at 11:15 a.m. to meet his parents for lunch.
The restaurant sat mostly empty. A woman was writing the lunch specials on a light board by the entry.
“Is this your restaurant?” Honour asked the woman.
“Nope,” she said.
“Awesome. Awesome,” Honour replied.
After about 10 seconds of silence, “I’m Scott Honour, and I am running for governor.” Without a word, the woman went back to writing on the board.
At 48, Honour looks like the corporate-casual executive he is. He wears khaki pants and a sky blue button-up shirt, often a blazer. His face is round and slightly puffy, with few wrinkles and an easy smile. His salt-and-pepper hair is parted sharply to the side, grayer by the temples. He was raised in Mound, the son of a union airline pilot until the company went bankrupt and his father started a boatlift company. His mother stayed home to raise the children.
For much of his career, Honour was a major investment manager with the Gores Group in Los Angeles, which is involved in global transactions and handles multibillions of dollars in private equity, including investment from major pensions. The company specialized in buying companies and then finding efficiencies through layoffs, closing plants and other reductions, sometimes resulting in bankruptcy. His business interests included defense technology and private prisons, often businesses that had federal government contracts. Honour also created a company that allowed landlords to collect rent electronically.
Honour retired as senior manager in 2012. He opted to bring his wife and three kids to Minnesota, purchasing a $15 million home in Orono, on Lake Minnetonka.
By 2012, Honour was raising money for former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s presidential bid. When that fizzled, he led the state finance team for Mitt Romney’s unsuccessful run.
That was the year he started telling people he was going to run for governor, surprising even his mother, Marlys Honour.
“I was like, ‘What? Don’t you want to be city manager first?’ ” she said.
Ready to lead?
Honour’s tough-talking message is not unlike that of his GOP rivals, but with specifics have some Republicans worried that he may not be ready to lead a government ruled by checks and balances.
He has said, for instance, that he will cut state government spending 10 percent across the board, even though previous governors — including Pawlenty — were unable to come anywhere close to that amount during some of the state’s deepest financial crises.
Honour accepts that such cuts would result in layoffs. “Laying off that government employee will give us the opportunity to get more investment into the private sector, which is going to create more jobs,” he said.
But the complexities of running a $40 billion state government operation during a seesawing economy can strain the most rock-solid political ideologies.
“Being cavalier about cutting 10 percent out of state government is shortsighted and naive,” said Tom Hanson, who served as commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget under Pawlenty. “There is just not that kind of slosh. And unlike in the private sector, in the public sector, you have to pass bills in the House and Senate.”
Democrats have zeroed in on Honour’s opposition to a bipartisan measure passed this spring for more than $1 billion in state-backed construction projects.
“You have a guy in Scott Honour who really hasn’t spent any time in this state and really doesn’t understand the role of state government,” said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin, who noted that Minnesota has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and has been recognized as a top state for job creation. “It’s a little disingenuous for someone like Scott Honour, who has never really stepped foot in the Capitol, to say change is needed.”
Honour’s first foray into elective politics has not been without some misfires.
At a recent July 4th parade, organizers asked gubernatorial candidates to stay in their cars and not shake hands with the crowd. Three candidates — all veterans of earlier campaigns — jumped out anyway and worked the lines. Only Honour stayed in his car, passing up a prime chance to mix with would-be voters.
“I just wonder if he has enough time to get the name ID he needs,” said David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. “But in a four-horse race, anything can happen.”
Last week, Honour visited Prairie River Home Care in Fairmont, an organization that provides home care for the sick and the elderly. He talked about his determination to pass a so-called right-to-work law that would prohibit unions from forcing employees to join or pay dues. He is also strongly opposes state public employee and teachers’ unions, which he says are little more than a way to funnel tax dollars to unions.
Driving back toward the cities that night, Honour was still making calls trying to get donors to come to a fundraiser later in the month. He had been on the road all day and met with a total of about a dozen people.
Still, he pronounced himself satisfied with the day’s efforts.
“We are very comfortable with where we sit right now,” he said.