Endorsement: Johnson in GOP primary for governor

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2014 - 7:02 PM

He’d give GOP the most formidable candidate to take on Dayton.

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Jeff Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor, greeted supporters at a fundraiser at Day Block Brewing in Minneapolis last month. Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner, is the choice of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, as well.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • Star Tribune,

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It’s been 20 years since Republican primary voters had a choice for the party’s gubernatorial nomination as significant as the one on the Aug. 12 primary ballot. In 1994, a fight between moderates and conservatives was tearing the state GOP asunder, costing sitting Gov. Arne Carlson his party’s blessing for re-election.

No such philosophical split is in play this time. Instead, four candidates with similarly conservative ideas about issues but differing backgrounds, personalities and approaches to governing are making serious bids for the nomination, in a race without a clear front-runner.

How to decide? Primary voters would do well to put the four contenders to two tests: Is this candidate suited to be Minnesota’s governor? And would he give the GOP its strongest voice in the fall campaign against DFL Gov. Mark Dayton — thereby giving whomever wins the Nov. 4 election the benefits that derive from keen political competition?

We were torn between two candidates when we applied the first test. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and former state Rep. Marty Seifert both display more of what it takes to be Minnesota’s governor than the others, former House Speaker Kurt Zellers and businessman Scott Honour. Seifert and Johnson evince fuller understanding of the issues facing state government than we detected in Honour, and more recognition of what’s required when control of the statehouse is divided, as it would be for a Republican governor in 2015-16, than we saw in Zellers. (The DFL-controlled Senate is not up for election this year.)

But when we then asked which of those two could give Dayton and three minor-party contenders keener competition, our choice was clear. Johnson, the party’s endorsee, is our pick as well.

Johnson, a 47-year-old attorney, has a firmer political base. As the endorsed candidate, he can more easily consolidate the GOP faithful behind his candidacy and more readily tap party resources this fall. As a two-term Hennepin County commissioner and three-term member of the state House, he represented northwestern Hennepin County, an area rich in votes for Republicans. In 2012, he was unopposed for re-election, confirming his appeal.

By contrast, Seifert, 42, hails from sparsely populated southwestern Minnesota and has been out of office for four years. An educator by training, he’s also a been a small-business owner and nonprofit fundraising executive who put in 14 strong years in the state House. That varied background would be an asset in the governor’s office. But the fact that Seifert trails the other three most active candidates in fundraising indicates that he would have a steeper hill to climb to compete with a well-funded incumbent. (A fifth candidate, Merrill Anderson, is also on the GOP primary ballot.)

Johnson also has rural ties; he’s a native of Detroit Lakes. But his professional career has been in the Twin Cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C. That gives credibility to his claim that he can appeal to the whole state, and as governor could relate to concerns in DFL-dominated Minneapolis and St. Paul. The familiarity with human services issues that he has gained during six years on the Hennepin County Board serve him in good stead. We admire Johnson’s emphasis on seeking hard data about government program effectiveness and using it to guide budgeting decisions.

That said, Seifert may be the keenest public policy thinker in this field of four. His campaign has issued a 28-page set of position papers on issues from A to W — agriculture to welfare reform — spelling out specific intentions. Among them: require that at least one year of every four-year degree program available at a state higher education institution be available online. Combine the state Department of Health with the Department of Human Services. Explore whether a different entity could provide bus services in the metro area more cost-effectively.

Seifert’s list is provocative and, in the eyes of the Senate’s DFL majority, would be plenty controversial. But both Seifert and Johnson point to records that include reasoned compromises with DFLers. Both are already thinking strategically about where compromise might be possible in 2015 — say, on reducing the state’s uncompetitively high corporate income tax rate.

That commends them over Zellers, 44, an affable six-term legislator from Maple Grove. On his watch as House speaker in 2011, state government endured a damaging 20-day partial shutdown. We’re mystified by Zellers’ boast that the shutdown produced a victory for Republicans over Dayton. That’s true only in the narrow sense that no general state tax was increased in 2011. In other respects, the shutdown was a bad show that damaged this state’s reputation for effective, fiscally prudent government and contributed to GOP legislative defeats in 2012.

All four candidates say they do not now support a tax increase. But only Zellers signed a formal pledge not to raise taxes. As Minnesotans witnessed during Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration, such formal pledges can hamstring a governor when trouble strikes, and ought to be avoided.

Both in background and in familiarity with the office he aspires to hold, Honour, 48, is an outlier among the four GOP candidates. He’s an entrepreneur and former investment manager for Los Angeles-based private equity firm Gores Group. His simplistic proposal for a 10 percent across-the-board cut in state spending reveals how little he knows about government obligations in a state whose population is simultaneously growing, aging, becoming more diverse and becoming more unequal in income.

Because his campaign is largely self-funded, the well-heeled Honour has the wherewithal to mount a vigorous general election campaign. But Republican voters won’t do their party or their state any favor in this race by opting for an ill-prepared candidate simply because he possesses the fattest war chest.

Instead, GOP primary voters should send into the fall campaign a candidate who both thinks like a governor and can lead a competitive fall campaign. We think Jeff Johnson best fills that bill.

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