Morgan, Minn. – State Rep. Kurt Zellers wasn’t the only politician who glad-handed amid the spreaders, sprayers and megatractors on display at Farmfest last week. But as he stood in line for a juicy pork chop at the Farm Bureau tent, he allowed that he may be the only statewide candidate who spent his youth operating such equipment at a family farm (near Devil’s Lake, N.D.).
Familiarity with wheat, soybeans and barley in its prefermented state is just one of the personal cards that Zellers believes could be aces for him in next year’s race for governor. (I would jest that Zellers milked his farm connection for all it’s worth. But the farm that has been in his stepdad’s family for 130-some years isn’t a dairy producer.)
“I’m an Every Minnesotan,” the former state House speaker said. “I’m a middle-class dad who’s like most Minnesotans. I go to my son’s hockey games and talk to the parents. I go to my daughter Reagan’s dance lessons and talk to the parents there. They ask the same questions Kim [his wife] and I talk about. What’s your job like? Can you stay in Minnesota? Will your job be here?”
Unsaid but implicit in his Everyman claim is the fact that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who plans to seek a second term in 2014, can’t be described in the same terms.
Dayton has good standing in the State of Hockey, with credentials as an all-state Blake High School and Yale University goalie and a youth coach for his sons. But most Minnesotans don’t need reminding that the Dayton family did not acquire its fortune by farming.
Zellers’ middle-class vita also sets him apart from at least one of his rivals in the GOP gubernatorial competition.
First onto the field was Wayzata’s Scott Honour, a former senior managing director of a Los Angeles-based venture capital firm who donated nearly twice as much to Republican candidates in 2012 ($100,000) as the average Minnesotan makes in a year. Honour seems positioned to test whether positive name recognition is a commodity money can buy.
Not yet on the GOP field, but also working the Farmfest crowd on Wednesday, was state Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont. (The pork chops came from her district, she boasted.) If she runs for governor, the ex-wife of beef-processing magnate Tom Rosen will present another contrast to the Middle Income Guys in the race, who include Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and Lakeville state Sen. Dave Thompson as well as Zellers.
I caught a whiff of a similar class distinction arising in Minnesota’s other 2014 marquee race, for a U.S. Senate seat.
Republican state Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen made her long-expected candidacy official last weekend, touting her suburban soccer-mom status as part of what distinguishes her from the DFLer she’d like to replace, U.S. Sen. Al Franken.
Franken’s blurry face (you know that old political ad trick) appears on her candidacy-debut video as her voice declaims: “We don’t need more poll-driven politicians or disinterested millionnaires or celebrities in Washington. We need a stronger advocate, grounded in principle, with a stronger connection to those of us that are working hard to support our families, pay our bills and save for our children’s future.”
Franken would be the celebrity she references. Despite five years and one month playing it very straight in the U.S. Senate, he may still be better known outside Minnesota as a former comedy writer/actor on “Saturday Night Live.”
But “disinterested millionnaires”? That swipe may also have been intended for Ortman’s GOP rival Michael McFadden of Sunfish Lake.
A mergers-and-acquisitions business adviser, McFadden is making his political debut at the U.S. Senate level. He turned heads by reporting last month that he has already raised nearly $765,000, or 80 percent of the amount that 2012 GOP Senate candidate Kurt Bills raised during his entire campaign. Evidently the friends and relatives whom first-time candidates usually tap for early money really like him a lot.
Let it be said that while the household incomes of the Zellers and Ortmans aren’t in the Honour/McFadden/Franken/Dayton league, there’s no need to take up a collection for them, either. Further, there’s a limit to how far they dare take an “average guy/gal” theme.
Zellers’ rise to House speaker in his fourth term was among the fastest in state political annals. He got off the tractor and into state politics at a young age to campaign for U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and work for U.S. Sen. Rod Grams. When he lost a PR job after the 9/11 recession hit, he quickly landed on the staff of Norm Coleman’s 2002 U.S. Senate campaign, then on a special-election ballot for the state House seat from Maple Grove.
Ortman, 50, isn’t Everywoman either. She’s an attorney who has been in elective office continuously for 13 years and held leadership posts in the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. In 2011-12, she was the first Republican in four decades to chair the powerful Senate Tax Committee, where she remains the ranking minority member.
Here’s where a wonkish editorial writer might be expected to advise voters to judge candidates on the policy positions they take, not their means or the class company they keep. Identity politics is superficial stuff unworthy of thoughtful voters — or so critical readers, many of them Republicans, have scolded through the years.
But this wonk learned from Star Tribune Minnesota Poll meisters years ago that this state’s discerning voters are particularly drawn to candidates perceived to have two characteristics. One is “strong leader.” The second is “cares about people like me.”
So I’ll just humbly remind voters that a candidate who “is like me” in means or background is not guaranteed to “care about people like me.” It’s the latter attribute that’s the prize.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.