Kurt Zellers: Man in the middle

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2011 - 10:11 PM

With the state's leaders at an impasse over the $5 billion budget deficit, House Speaker Kurt Zellers is navigating a perilous course.

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House Speaker Kurt Zellers said he is “not a hair-on-fire kind of guy.” If people see him as likable, he added, “that’s a compliment.”

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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House Speaker Kurt Zellers sat at a small table in his office this week after a string of biting back-and-forth exchanges between his Republican Party and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

He wasn't angry. There were no sharp attacks, no fist-pounding.

"Governor Dayton is a man of integrity," Zellers said in his usual easygoing, no-worries manner. "There's a way to get an agreement so that he wins and we win and we lose and he loses."

It was a remarkably restrained assessment from a man walking a political tightrope.

Amidst the fiery, final days of a budget deadlock that has state officials scrambling to prepare for a government shutdown, Zellers is emerging as the man in the middle, taking on the role of the more muted negotiator between the governor and the harder-line wing of the GOP.

Zellers must navigate a perilous and shifting political terrain. If he yields too much, members could lose faith and oust the first-year speaker from the second most powerful position in state government. If he clings too tightly to ideology, talks could melt down and voters might focus their blame on the GOP, costing Republicans their fledgling majority.

"It's certainly a big test," said former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who retired from the Legislature a year ago. "We are in uncharted territory."

Zellers is generally far less intense than the more hard-shelled Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo. In what sometimes has become a good-cop-bad-cop routine in public, Zellers often plays the role of the likable good cop.

The state's leaders are at an impasse over how to wipe out the state's $5 billion budget deficit. Dayton would tap the state's richest 2 percent with higher income taxes. Republicans have rejected that plan in favor of budget cuts the governor won't support. The two sides must reach accord by June 30 to avert a widespread government closure.

A fresh sign of Zellers' middle-man status emerged at the tail end of a recent news conference in which he sent a potentially game-changing signal to the governor's office. After months of reciting the GOP's refusal to raise taxes, Zellers did not immediately reject the idea of other revenue increases to bridge the gap.

"The governor hasn't presented anything else," said Zellers, who already has irked some in his party by expressing a willingness to expand gambling. "If the governor doesn't present any other 'what-ifs,' then it's impossible to respond."

Zellers' answer hinted at an emerging roadmap to a budget solution that both sides could live with. Dayton would get a little more money to eliminate the most painful reductions, and the GOP would score a victory in its no-tax pledge.

Holding his cards close

Was that the intent? Back at his office, Zellers was coy.

"I know how we got here, I know what our members ran on and why they are here," said Zellers, 41. "I think I have a pretty good read on where Governor Dayton is and I don't think he wants to shut down government."

The job of speaker is part political forecaster, part enforcer and part guidance counselor. Zellers must keep his eyes open for political icebergs, while alternately shoring up his members' desire to fight and preparing them for compromise.

It is not work for the weak-hearted. Privately, some members wonder whether Zellers has the fortitude to stand firm against a popular governor and a tax plan that has had strong support from voters in recent polls.

Lately, conservative talk-radio show hosts -- never shy about flaming Dayton -- have aimed a few barbs at Zellers and Koch.

Former Rep. Tom Emmer, who got Zellers' endorsement in his failed bid for governor against Dayton and who now co-hosts a morning radio show, said Republicans leaders have already given too much ground.

"Stop apologizing," Emmer said during a show this week. "Stand up for what you believe in ... Stop compromising."

Those who work closely with Zellers say he is far more comfortable cajoling members with a folksy anecdote than an iron hand.

"He doesn't come in with a hammer and beat on people," said state Rep. Jim Abeler, an Anoka Republican and chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. "He has not set himself up to be that way, and I think that makes him stronger."

Zellers' lack of fire-breathing, guns-blazing political DNA stems partly from his personal political landscape and partly from his stoic North Dakota upbringing.

Zellers has had several close races in his district, which includes parts of Maple Grove and Osseo. Tight races are usually not a good breeding ground for party hard-liners of either stripe. Political insiders also note that Zellers oversees fewer of the feisty all-or-nothing type of freshmen GOP members who have a tighter grip on the Senate.

"I am not a hair-on-fire kind of guy," Zellers said. If people see him as a likable, mild-mannered leader, he said, "that's a compliment."

That doesn't mean Zellers shies away from potentially bruising political skirmishes. Early in his tenure, he riled some in the party by stripping longtime Rep. Tom Hackbarth of a leadership position after Hackbarth had a run-in with police. When state party Chairman Tony Sutton told GOP legislators not to bend to Dayton's insistence on new taxes and other revenue, Zellers quickly dismissed the advice, saying: "I got a pretty big independent streak in my German heritage."

A defining moment

Many legislators and former legislative leaders say Zellers' performance in the coming days could define his political future.

The political landscape is sprinkled with dealmakers who overplayed their hand and lost both the confidence of their members and their job.

To succeed, Zellers will have to strike a pitch-perfect balance between the need to cut a deal with Dayton and the demands of members with a broad palate of principles and re-election pressures.

He'll have precious little room to maneuver.

"If tomorrow they say you haven't done that great of a job, we need you to step down ... I'd be happy to step aside and let someone else lead," Zellers said.

"Right now, on most days, I think almost 100 percent of my members are behind me."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

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COUNTDOWN TO SHUTDOWN

Days to shutdown: 7.

At issue: How to resolve a $5 billion two-year deficit.

GOP goal: Spend no more than $34 billion, raise no taxes.

Gov. Dayton goal: Spend $36 billion, cut $1.8 billion and raise taxes on the wealthy.

What's needed: An agreement by June 30.

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