Budget deal leadership centerpiece of Zellers' gubernatorial campaign
When people ask Kurt Zellers, a Republican candidate for governor, why they should vote for him, he offers this pat answer: “I balanced the budget without a tax increase.”
That’s an exaggeration. No single state representative can, all by himself, dictate the tax and spending policies that go into a multibillion-dollar state budget.
But that line is Zellers’ shorthand way of reminding people that he, as the speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2011, and then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch were the lead Republicans in negotiating a $36 billion budget deal with Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton.
It wasn’t pretty. It took a three-week government shutdown and borrowing $700 million from public schools and another $640 million from selling tobacco bonds to get it done.
But Republicans achieved their main goal for the year by erasing a projected $5 billion deficit without increasing state taxes.
Zellers’ leadership role in that deal is the centerpiece of his campaign.
“I don’t have to convince people that I won’t raise taxes,” the six-term lawmaker from Maple Grove said. “I don’t have to tell them what I might do or could do. I’ve actually done it.
“That’s our one difference,” he said, from the three other Republicans running in the Aug. 12 primary. The winner will take on Dayton in the Nov. 4 general election.
To underline his stance, he started airing TV spots across the state last week in which he promises, “I will never raise taxes.”
DFLers say it’s odd for Zellers to brag about a government shutdown.
“Only someone as out of touch with working Minnesotans as Kurt Zellers would think that shutting down state government is a victory,” Carrie Lucking, executive director of the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Minnesota, said last week in a news release. “Putting 22,000 people out of work to protect big corporations and borrowing millions from our schools is hardly a victory for Minnesota.”
But Zellers contends that holding down taxes was and is a higher priority. He contends the next governor must cut taxes to attract and retain jobs. His Republican rivals — businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert — agree.
In addition to carrying the no-new-taxes banner, Zellers, 44, introduces himself to voters as a typical middle-class father. His wife, Kim, is an elementary school teacher. They have three children, ages 9, 8 and 5 months.
During Elk River’s annual summer parade last weekend, the candidate slapped “Zellers for Governor” stickers and exchanged high fives with the youngsters along the route.
“That’s how you reach mom and dad,” he said.
He also stopped frequently to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with the adults and soon fell a few parade units behind the fire truck carrying his campaign signs and volunteers. But he didn’t mind the disorder. He enjoys schmoozing.
He’s one of the most affable lawmakers at the Capitol. Even DFLers describe him as likeable.
Veteran Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, once described him as “an all-around nice guy who brings farm-kid charm to the table.”
Zellers grew up on a farm near Devils Lake, N.D. He first got involved in Republican politics while attending the University of North Dakota, from which he graduated in 1993 with a political science major.
He moved to the Twin Cities for a business management trainee job later that year but soon was hired as a driver for then-Rep. Rod Grams in his 1994 U.S. Senate campaign. He crisscrossed the state with Grams during the campaign, and then was hired as the new senator’s communications director, a job that took him to all the newspapers and radio and television stations in Minnesota, as well as many popular coffee shops, grain elevators and veterans clubs.
After Dayton defeated Grams in 2000, Zellers worked as a public relations consultant until Norm Coleman hired him as press secretary for his successful 2002 U.S. Senate campaign.
After the election, Zellers landed a job as a communications specialist for the House Republican caucus. When a Maple Grove-area House seat opened up in 2003, he jumped into the race and won.
He quickly emerged as a rising political star. In 2009, his GOP colleagues elected him minority leader. After he spearheaded the campaign that helped Republicans win control of the House in 2010, they elected him speaker.
When Republicans lost the majority in 2012, many party activists blamed Zellers for, among other things, putting unpopular constitutional amendments on the ballot that energized DFL voters.
Earlier this year, he finished a distant fifth in a straw poll at the Republican precinct caucuses, and he didn’t seek endorsement at the party’s state convention.
But after 20 years of roaming the state on political missions, Zellers has a long contact list of supporters and donors and is mounting a sophisticated effort to get them to the polls.
The RealClearPolitics.com average of three statewide polls taken since April showed him 9.6 percentage points behind Dayton. The other three Republican candidates were 10 to 13 points back.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.