Paul Gazelka fused faith and career as he applied Christian principles to building an insurance business in the Brainerd area. Now the man who wrote a memoir about it titled, “Marketplace Ministers,” is set to become one of state government’s most powerful politicians, the most socially conservative person in modern times to serve as Minnesota Senate majority leader.
“I had met the qualifications of high performance, but would I be able to relate to agents who didn’t share the same spiritual ideas that were important to me?” Gazelka wrote of becoming a manager with his company, in the book released in 2003 by a Christian publishing company. “How would I relate to someone who consumed large amounts of alcohol or who had been married multiple times?”
Gazelka, of Nisswa, takes over as Senate majority leader when the new Legislature convenes on Jan. 3. With Republicans now in charge of the House and Senate, Gazelka and House Speaker Kurt Daudt will collaborate on a GOP vision for state government as Minnesota grapples with skyrocketing health care costs, deteriorating roads and bridges and a deepening urban-rural divide.
“Not having to be looking at the whole state (before), it wasn’t my first priority,” Gazelka told the Star Tribune. “My first priority was my district. So now I know I have to think broader, I want to think broader.”
Little known until now, Gazelka, 57, was a surprise pick for Senate majority leader. Republicans wrested control of the Senate from DFLers in November, but their previous caucus leader lost his own seat in an otherwise rosy Election Day for the GOP.
Soft-spoken, with a ministerial air that befits the title of the book he wrote before entering politics, Gazelka is described by colleagues from both parties as thoughtful, polite and measured.
“We don’t agree on a lot of things, certainly on the social issues, I’m sure, but I found him to be reasonable in terms of being able to sit down and talk to you and work through issues,” said Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis, the deputy leader of Senate DFLers.
Gazelka’s path to the Senate was fraught with the politics of GOP social issues. Elected to the House in 2004, he lost his seat two years later to a DFL opponent. Gazelka relaunched his political career in 2010 by challenging a fellow Republican.
As the state’s only openly gay Republican, Paul Koering courted controversy that summer when his dinner with a gay adult film actor became public. Gazelka, emphasizing his opposition to same-sex marriage, defeated Koering in the Republican primary.
Once in the Legislature, Gazelka built a political profile around social issues. Among other priorities, he has pushed an exemption to Minnesota law that would allow “individuals with certain religious beliefs” from having to, for example, provide their business services to a gay couple getting married.
That will not be a priority for Senate Republicans in 2017, Gazelka said. In his interview, he said he would resist pressure from conservative groups who have supported him in the past if necessary and pointed out that Republicans’ one-vote majority in the Senate would make it difficult to tackle hot-button social issues.
Navigating a secular world
A father of five, Gazelka has lived a life guided by his deep Christian faith. It was pivotal to starting an insurance business, a career goal he settled on when he was 15, according to “Marketplace Ministers.”
The revelatory book details the challenges of honoring his beliefs in a secular world, particularly after he decided to merge business and ministry.
The dilemma presented itself during a business trip to Paris and a company dinner at the Moulin Rouge.
Gazelka and his wife, Maralee, weren’t sure if they should go to the famed cabaret after he learned topless dancers would provide entertainment. Determined to attend, Gazelka phoned ahead and understood by phone that the dancers would emerge after dessert. He and his wife hatched a plan: They would attend the dinner, eat dessert quickly and leave.
But the sequence was lost in translation. As it turned out, the dancers arrived with the desserts.
Feeling they had little choice, the Gazelkas left abruptly.
“We looked at each other, got up, and simply said we had to leave,” Gazelka wrote. “After a week, one agent had the courage to ask us why we’d left so early. ... I told him I was uncomfortable watching topless dancers, and that for me, it would have been a sin to watch them.”
Strong stance on marriage
Aside from his faith, Gazelka places a strong emphasis on marriage — both his own and that of others. A pivotal moment in his own union comes up in “Marketplace Ministers,” in which he writes of telling his wife a secret about his business trips.
“I was ashamed to admit that I secretly looked at pornography at times when I traveled away from home,” Gazelka wrote, explaining that “any sexual activity outside the marriage covenant affects the intimacy of the marriage, whether it occurs before or during the marriage,” he wrote.
Not long after, the Gazelkas began to counsel other married couples through an organization called Marriage Ministries International, or MMI. For a time, they were Minnesota state directors of the ministry.
“MMI’s interpretation of the scriptures is that divorce and remarriage is sin,” Gazelka wrote, setting up a disagreement with his local pastor who occasionally remarried divorced individuals. He writes of their opposing viewpoints, concluding that the pastor “does not have the authority” to require Gazelka to teach something.
“I had no thoughts of politics at the time,” said Gazelka when asked about details from his book by the Star Tribune. It came out a year before he ran for office the first time. “A political adviser probably would have said, maybe you shouldn’t write the book, but I’ve always been an open book, as far as how I live my life.”
Gazelka’s leadership style is reflective of how he runs his insurance agency, often empowering members of his team and delegating tasks to free him to build consensus.
At a recent roundtable discussion on mental health at a Wadena coffee shop, Gazelka listened intently and nodded as emergency responders, nurses and mental-health professionals talked about the need for additional resources in rural areas.
He asked participants for ideas about how to provide additional beds for youths and adults suffering mental health crises. He gave them an assignment: “As you think about that, think about what are areas where we can be more efficient, if possible,” he said. He encouraged the group to follow up with him.
State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, nominated Gazelka to be majority leader. She cited his time living in various parts of Minnesota, including the Twin Cities suburbs of Arden Hills and Maple Grove. She predicted he would be effective at delegating duties to fellow Republican senators.
“He’s working really hard at finding the strengths of each member, dispersing power and asking members of the leadership team to take on specific responsibilities and roles,” Benson said, adding that “there will come a point where he will very confidently say, ‘You know what, we’re a team and we’re moving forward.’ ”
Aware of his razor-thin majority, Gazelka said he will focus on finding areas of common ground to pass legislation and set an agenda.
“I don’t have to have everything that I believe in,” Gazelka said. “As a majority leader, it’s not about taking my personal life and forcing everyone to agree with that. It’s being one of many, working together for a common cause that we all agree with.”