When a bitter public dispute between Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk threatened to derail the entire legislative session earlier this year, it was Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt who stepped between the two powerful DFLers and ended the turmoil.
Now, with only two weeks left in the session and gaping divisions between DFL and GOP spending goals, Daudt — a former car salesman who’s still a State Capitol rookie — faces a much greater test of his ability to close a deal.
“I kind of at times feel like I’ve got a lot of weight on my shoulders to really step up and show we can do a better job in St. Paul,” said Daudt, who joined the Legislature in 2011, representing an exurban-to-rural Isanti County district. “I know I believe that. But I have to show that. I have to lead by example.”
The stakes are high for both parties. But for Republican House speakers in particular, recent history is not encouraging. The two previous times that GOP speakers had to strike a spending deal with DFLers, in 2005 and 2011, state government went to shutdown. And in both subsequent elections, the GOP lost House majorities.
The GOP-led House has approved a two-year, nearly $40 billion spending plan that cuts taxes by about $2 billion — just a little more than the size of the projected state budget surplus. To be able to cut taxes by that much and still accomplish other changes, Republicans want to eliminate MinnesotaCare, the state’s subsidized insurance plan for the working class, lay off some state employees, and slash state aid to the DFL strongholds of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth.
That’s a sharp contrast to Dayton and Senate DFLers, whose budget goals are closer to $43 billion, with smaller tax cuts and, in Dayton’s case, much higher spending on schools. Dayton and Bakk support MinnesotaCare and oppose the big-city aid reductions. They favor a gas-tax increase to pay for transportation upgrades sought by both parties, but Daudt and fellow Republicans call tax hikes ridiculous in a time of surplus.
“There’s just some really wide caverns of disagreement,” said Marty Seifert, a former House Republican leader and political mentor to Daudt who now lobbies for outstate Minnesota interests.
The House Republican budget blueprint embraces a “give it all back” standard set by Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey, and dear to many in the GOP base, along with fiscally conservative House Republicans. To end the session in an orderly fashion, Daudt must pull that group far enough to the political middle to reach a final spending level that’s acceptable to Dayton and Bakk.
“They passed a very red-meat budget, but the more red meat you give, the harder it is to get away from that,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. Thissen praised Daudt as an expert relationship-builder, but said those skills are about to get their greatest test. “He likes to please people, and that works really well until decisions have to be made,” Thissen said.
Liked the spotlight
Though new to the rough-and-tumble of statehouse politics, Daudt, 41, has a long history of getting involved — from student council to his church to the Stanford Township Board (he sometimes drove snowplows when blizzards hit) to the Isanti County Board. His older sister, Melissa Hoepner, said all were a way for this youngest of three kids to occupy a place he liked: the spotlight.
“He was always kind of a big deal, if you know what I mean,” Hoepner said with a laugh. She compared him to Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox on the 1980s sitcom “Family Ties,” a lovable but stuffy young Republican who wore neckties to school and worshiped Ronald Reagan.
Daudt described himself as a “B-minus student,” more interested in socializing than studying. He studied aviation at the University of North Dakota in the early 1990s, but decided not to chase a career as a pilot, because, he said, airlines had begun laying off pilots by the score.
After leaving college — he didn’t graduate — Daudt came back to his family’s farm in Crown, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities. There he worked odd jobs, including school bus driver. Eventually, Daudt got a job selling cars at Elk River Ford. He later traded up to a Lexus dealership.
“It’s easy to sell something to somebody that they want,” Daudt said. “But really it was more about solving peoples’ problems. It was more about matching them up with what they needed.”
Daudt left the car business soon after joining the Legislature. In increasingly rare times away from St. Paul, Daudt, who is single, usually goes to a lake cabin near his home with his black labs, Daisy and Lucy.
‘A good persona for Republicans’
In 2008, Daudt met Seifert, then the House minority leader, at a pork-chop fundraiser for longtime GOP Rep. Sondra Erickson from Princeton, who also happened to teach Daudt (and Daudt’s mother) in high school. Seifert and Daudt, then a county commissioner, clicked. Two years later, Seifert hired Daudt to run his campaign for governor. When Seifert lost the GOP endorsement, Daudt shifted to a campaign of his own, for the state House.
“Even Democrats, I think, have a hard time not liking him as a person,” Seifert said of Daudt. “He’s a good persona for the Republicans, a new face for the party.”
Tall and lean, with a wolfish smile and a skill for crafting effective sound bites, Daudt is a more natural communicator than the sometimes-awkward Dayton and the often-gruff Bakk. But both veteran DFLers are more seasoned at the negotiating table than Daudt, who took over as House minority leader in 2013. After leading the GOP back to the majority last year, Daudt handily defeated two more long-serving Republican colleagues to take over as speaker.
Despite the public tension between Dayton and Bakk, in terms of ideology, the final negotiations will still be two against one. “Give it all back” will likely have to be scaled back to “give a little bit of it back.”
Bakk said he’s worried that pressures from Daudt’s more conservative House colleagues will make it tough to strike a final deal, avoid a special session and government shutdown brinkmanship. “How do you negotiate when there’s somebody else behind the wall?” Bakk said. “Does he have the authority to slam the door and close the deal?”
Following the February blowup between Bakk and Dayton over the governor’s salary increases for his cabinet officers, Daudt waited a few days for tempers to cool. Then he approached Dayton with a plan to settle the matter quietly. Some of Daudt’s closest advisers wanted to prolong the dispute, sensing it could help Republicans, but Daudt believed that the good will generated would pay dividends later.
“I have very high regard for Speaker Daudt, and I believe he has been an excellent leader for his caucus,” Dayton said last week. But the governor has been harshly critical of GOP spending proposals, and he vowed to stand on his principles even if it means a messy end to the session.
Control of the House has ping-ponged between the DFL and GOP in the last three elections. If Republicans break that streak in 2016 under Daudt’s leadership, his name is likely to rise to the top of the list of potential candidates for governor when Dayton’s retirement leaves the seat open in 2018.
“People said he’s never going to be minority leader; he’s only been there two years. He’s never going to be speaker; he’s only been there four years,” Seifert said. “He keeps defying the odds.”