Two milestones in the torturous history of stadium politics have shaped the views of House Speaker Kurt Zellers, currently the man on the hot seat in the debate over a new Vikings stadium.
The first was the disastrous 1997 Twins stadium special session, when angry callers melted phone circuits and the bill went down in flames. It was not until 2006, when Zellers was a backbencher in the House, that a bill was passed to build Target Field.
"The folks from 2006 looked at the 1997 example and didn't want to repeat that history,'' he said.
His recent decision to come out against the hurry-up offense proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton is guided by that historic lesson of moving too fast and possibly consigning the Vikes to years of limbo, Zellers said. "You bring up a vote because you circled a date on the calendar and it fails ... you alienate folks on both sides,'' he said.
Dayton used the word "duplicity" in referring to the way stadium talks broke up Nov. 2 over Zellers' e-mail to Republican caucus members opposing a special session. The governor accused legislators of trying to run out the clock until the next election. The Daily Norseman, a national Vikings fan site, posted Zellers' telephone number and instructed fans to "make sure he knows he will be held personally responsible if the Vikings leave.''
Whether the Vikings' plan is closer to the victory of 2006 or the disaster of 1997 is an open question. Zellers, a first-year speaker with a narrow majority to defend next November, will be a central figure. Within his conservative caucus and among a public that shouts "Skol, Vikings!" and "No New Taxes" in the same breath, it's no easy task.
"He has to find a way to thread the needle, to satisfy Minnesotans who want to keep the Vikings while not precipitating a revolt among those who do not want to increase taxes,'' said Lawrence Jacobs, political science professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Zellers said that he wants to keep the Vikings and will do his part but that he will not be in the vanguard. He sees his role as guiding a fair process rather than rounding up votes for passage. "It's up to the authors and the supporters to garner those votes,'' he said.
Zellers must also represent the argument that government is too big and taxes are high enough -- positions that prevailed in winning both the House and Senate last November and that guided Republicans through a budget showdown with Dayton this summer.
Zellers is not new to taking stadium heat. He recalled what he calls a "flog-a-paloooza" in '06, when he was part of a stadium public hearing in a Bloomington school gymnasium. Zellers recalled one person who "sang a song that got close to being defamation of character and had to be removed.''
The chief lesson of '06 -- when Zellers voted "no" on the Twins ballpark but "yes" on the Gophers stadium -- was that both parties must contribute votes toward the 68 needed for passage in the House. "That takes it away from a political election campaign, at least from the leadership level,'' said Steve Sviggum, a Republican who was the House speaker in 2006.
That year, Republicans put up 37 votes for the bill; DFLers nearly matched them with 34. In the Senate, a coalition of 22 DFLers and 12 Republicans pushed the Twins stadium bill through.
"That group, that model, is what is missing now,'' Zellers said.
Zellers, 42, is generally a low-volume politician in public and does not directly criticize Dayton on this issue. But he said a desire to save the team is a far cry from a finished bill with a site and revenues that meet the bipartisan equation.
"It's easy to say, 'I want a stadium, and here's a special session date I want it on,' " Zellers said. "That's an easy part for the governor to do. We've got to actually get the votes to pass the bills.''
No locked-down plan
He said there are as many liberal DFLers as conservative Republicans who will vote against any public help for a stadium. That could narrow the field of possible House votes from the 134 members closer to 100, he said. Sixty-eight is needed for passage.
"Then you start finding ways politically,'' he said. "You start looking at people who can vote for a stadium, or who can vote for it this way but maybe not that way."
Brad Finstad was a Republican House member from Comfrey, Minn., who guided the Twins bill through the House in 2006. He said the problem now is that there is no locked-down plan -- just a series of competing sites and possible funding sources. "Everyone is waiting for someone else to go first,'' he said.
After the stadium bill passed in '06, Republicans lost the Minnesota House majority. That year brought an anti-President Bush wave in which Democrats were ascendant, and veterans of the stadium battle of '06 do not think Target Field was the reason for Republican losses. But the issue had power: Stadium foe Phil Krinkie, who lost his House seat, said many front-door conversations began with heated criticism of his stadium position.
Zellers said that he understands the powerful emotions of the issue but that he believes 2012, like 2006, will largely be a referendum on the incumbent president and that his members will stand on their record of resisting general tax hikes and streamlining government.
How the speaker "threads the needle" of stadium politics will by then be a recent memory. "I don't know if there's a solution yet," Zellers said. "I don't know how many votes the governor has, the Wilfs have, the Democrats in the House and Senate have."
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042