Sen. Paul Gazelka quickly outlined his plan to toughen penalties on carjackers and other criminals before launching into five detailed bullet points blaming DFL Gov. Tim Walz for the recent rise in violent crime in Minnesota.

"In Tim Walz's Minnesota, there are now too many young, hardened criminals terrorizing and victimizing residents in the core cities and suburbs," Gazelka said.

He made the comments at a Capitol news conference last month to outline his legislative agenda to address crime in the Twin Cities and beyond. But it could have stood in for a campaign event in the race for governor, where the former Senate majority leader hopes a focus on public safety will set him apart from a growing field of Republican candidates.

"I make the case that I'm the law and order governor candidate," Gazelka said in an interview with the Star Tribune. "I was the one that would not defund or dismantle the police over the last couple of years, people know that."

He's making that pitch despite the recent entry into the race of former Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and former congressional candidate Kendall Qualls, who are also focusing on crime as a top issue.

Meanwhile, Gazelka must combat the steady rise of his former Senate colleague Scott Jensen, a physician who dominated the Republican Party's recent governor straw poll on a platform of questioning vaccines and COVID-19 mandates.

"Gazelka is identified as the more traditional candidate, the more mainstream candidate, and Scott Jensen is running as an outsider," said University of Minnesota-Duluth political science professor Cindy Rugeley. "The question is, who is the Republican Party in the state now?"

For some activists, Gazelka's experience leading Senate Republicans for five years has been a liability in the governor's race. Many of the Trump faithful prefer a candidate they see as anti-establishment. Still, Gazelka came in second out of six candidates in the GOP's caucus night straw poll, in part from supporters who see his experience at the Capitol as an asset.

"He's tested and he's proven himself. The stakes are just too high in this state at this time to take the chance on someone who is untested and unproven," said Mary Giuliani Stephens, the former mayor of Woodbury and Republican candidate for governor in 2018. "It's easy to sit on the couch and yell at the quarterback, but if you've actually been in there you know what it's like."

Focus on public safety

An insurance salesman from the Brainerd area, Gazelka unexpectedly rose to lead his caucus after the 2016 election, when Republicans narrowly reclaimed the majority from Democrats. The caucus leader at the time, David Hann, lost his bid for reelection, putting Senate Republicans in sudden need of a new face to lead them.

At the time, Gazelka appealed to his fellow senators as the measured, faith-driven middle man who professed no ambitions for higher office. He said things changed during the pandemic, watching Walz's response to riots in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020 and use of emergency powers early in the pandemic to institute mask mandates and other restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

He stepped down from leadership, and now the mild-mannered Gazelka has taken on a more combative tone — against Walz and other Republicans in the race — as he seeks to stand out in a crowded field for the nomination.

On his campaign website, he jabs at each of his Republican challengers in a candidate comparison, criticizing them for either being untested in politics or for wavering on conservative positions.

"It's important to convince the delegates that you are strong enough to win," Gazelka said. "I've been building relationships with blue collar unions, northeast Minnesota, the police, all groups that 10 years ago weren't really with us."

Gazelka sees public safety as the top issue for voters right now, and his legislative agenda includes proposing minimum sentences for carjackers and other criminals. He's authoring a bill to provide $10,000 signing bonuses to people who sign on to become police officers and is open to harsher penalties for juveniles involved in the recent spate of violence, calling them "children of Tim Walz."

"I've had meetings with different community members throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul and the suburbs and I hear quite a few that are looking for someone else who is looking to protect them," he said.

Walz's campaign says Gazelka and Senate Republicans have opposed universal background checks and other gun reforms, and supported cuts to local government aid (LGA) that local governments depend on to fund law enforcement positions.

"Paul Gazelka has opposed Governor Walz's efforts to provide more resources for law enforcement and to make it harder for criminals to get illegal guns," said Nichole Johnson, Walz's campaign manager. "We hope he will change course and start putting the safety of all Minnesotans ahead of his own political ambitions."

The tough-on-crime focus is a shift for the four-term senator, who was n better known for his work on tax policy and social issues at the Capitol. He was lead sponsor of a failed 2012 constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and later faced criticism for sending one of his children, who came out as a lesbian as a teen, to a therapist who decried same-sex relations.

"They've done nothing to address crime in the past. Now that it's become a potential liability for Democrats in the fall election, suddenly it's the only issue they want to talk about," DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said. "Senate Republicans have been part of the problem, they've stood in the way of any reasonable public safety bill in the past from passing."

Republicans have been shut out of the the governor's office for more than a decade, but Gazelka said they have one of their best shots in a generation to capitalize on national headwinds against Democrats and take the governor's office and control of the Legislature.

If he doesn't succeed in his run, Gazelka said he's retiring after more than a decade in state politics.

"I'll be happy to go up to the Brainerd area and run my insurance agency," he said. "That's still a good life."