Matt Dean, an architect and a state representative with strong conservative credentials, is bringing an understated style to his bid for governor that will test whether GOP voters can still be won over by a soft-spoken approach to politics.
Despite a persona that's pretty much the opposite of the current Republican president, Dean has emerged as an early leader in the still-forming GOP field. On the campaign trail, he's blending sharp critiques of taxes, regulations and health care laws that he says overly burden his favorite kind of potential voter — "middle-class Minnesotans" — with a subdued approach that is almost retro in its appeal.
"I think it's a mistake to try to rerun the last election, no matter who you are," said Dean, 51, over breakfast recently. His gamble is that Minnesotans have had their fill of politics as professional wrestling and want some old-fashioned Midwestern restraint.
"They want competency. They want to see some results," said Dean, a 12-year veteran of the state House who spent two years in the powerful post of majority leader. He and his family live in Dellwood, a small residential community on White Bear Lake.
Beneath the droll facade, Dean is a fiercely competitive and conservative politician with ambitious, far-reaching policy goals should he become governor: a significantly smaller government footprint and, more specifically, a shrinking of the state's public health care programs.
In a sign of Dean's emergence as a potential front-runner, his rival Keith Downey launched the first major attack of the Republican contest last week by hitting Dean on health care, a signature issue of his campaign and time in the Legislature. Downey described Dean as a "typical politician" in one Facebook post and challenged him to a one-on-one debate.
Dean responded with a bit of passive-aggressive venom familiar to many Minnesotans: "I'm confident Republicans will endorse a candidate who has the care, credibility and integrity to know his facts before blindly launching into a political attack to grab a cheap headline," he wrote.
Rice Street roots
Dean's life has been a journey south on St. Paul's Rice Street. He is the son of fourth-generation owners of a Rice Street bar who wanted college for their kids. Matt, the youngest, wound up on the other end of Rice Street at the Capitol, where he now chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee — a $14 billion, two-year budget for assistance programs largely benefiting low-income Minnesotans.
Dean's first career was architecture. The Minnesota Historical Society says he would be the first architect to serve as governor of the state.
In downtown St. Paul, Dean showed off a dilapidated tire garage that he redesigned into the Union Gospel Mission Child Development Center early in the previous decade. "If I built a 100-story skyscraper, I don't think I would have worked as hard as I did on this building," he said of the site that now offers child care and other services for families recovering from crisis.
In his former career, Dean had an up-close view of government through zoning and building codes and enforcement. He was alarmed enough by what he saw to volunteer for Republicans, leading to his own election in 2004.
At the Capitol
In 2010, Dean helped execute a plan that swept Republicans back into power in the House. His colleagues elected him majority leader, the No. 2 position in the House.
With newly elected DFL Gov. Mark Dayton as their foil, Republican lawmakers pushed an assertive conservative blueprint in 2011 and 2012. Budget negotiations with Dayton ended in a three-week government shutdown, and Republicans also approved constitutional amendments to outlaw same-sex marriage and to require voters to present an ID at the polls.
Both went down to defeat at the polls in 2012, and Republicans lost their majority.
Dean took some of the blame.
The new taxpayer-funded Minnesota Vikings stadium, which angered some conservatives, is another potential political vulnerability from his time as majority leader. Dean voted against the project but declined to use his influence from blocking it entirely. He acknowledged it's still a sore point with some on the right.
Republicans regained the majority in 2014, and Dean ran for speaker of the House. Fellow Republican Rep. Kurt Daudt beat him and is now a potential candidate for governor himself, expected to announce his plans soon.
Besides Dean and Downey, the major contenders in the Republican field so far are state Sen. David Osmek of Mound and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who lost to Dayton in 2014. A full roster of prominent DFL candidates are vying for that party's nomination; Dayton is retiring.
Health care focus
With Republicans in control, Dean has settled in at the back of the House chamber as a leader of the conservative wing of the GOP caucus and is one of its most notorious pranksters. He's duped a few first-year lawmakers, their egos inflated by the trappings of their new position, into scurrying up to the House balcony for an "emergency live TV interview," only to arrive for a nonexistent interview — and laughter from below.
When Dean took the gavel of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee, he tried to cut spending in programs that have rapidly grown more expensive to the state in recent years. He pushed to eliminate MinnesotaCare, a health insurance program for the working poor, and to dismantle MNsure, the state's health insurance marketplace. Resistance from Dayton and DFL legislators thwarted those efforts.
Dean says his goal is to return Minnesota's health care system to its former excellence before — Dean alleges — so-called Obamacare ruined it.
"What I hear is, 'The government has screwed up this thing for me,' " Dean says. "Minnesota was really good at health care. We had low cost, we had quality, we had access, we had choice. Now that's screwed up, and the government screwed it up."
If Dean becomes the Republican nominee, expect the DFL to mirror Dean's own focus on health care: "Dean and Republicans have been paying lip service to health care while working to take away Minnesotans' ability to care for themselves and their families," said Joe Davis, executive director of the DFL-aligned Alliance for a Better Minnesota.
Dean is probably the second most knowledgeable member of his immediate family when it comes to health care. His wife, Laura Dean, is a Mayo-trained OB-GYN who has delivered thousands of babies.
A common joke in Republican circles: "We elected the wrong Dean."
Laura Dean, active in anti-abortion politics, was a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year. She is well-known and liked by party activists and is considered a key asset to her husband's campaign.
They met in kindergarten. As a new husband, Matt Dean commuted to St. Paul from Rochester to support Laura in medical school.
Their loyalty was forged in tragedy, as Laura Dean's family suffered the loss of two of her siblings to a degenerative disease. She said her husband is very capable when life's most serious moments arrive.
"Growing up with siblings slowly dying in front of you is a pretty serious task," Laura Dean said. "He knew my family and understood the challenges and could support me."