by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter
Former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers wants to take a friend’s place.
“Absolutely,” Zellers said of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton being a friend. “We can still be friends, but I just disagree with the way he’s taking the direction of the state,” Zellers said on Sunday, June 23, of jumping into the governor’s race. Zellers made his announcement at a residence in Maple Grove, the city where the North Dakota native lives with his wife, Kim, a fourth-grade teacher, and children Reagan and Will.
Zellers’ entry into the race is not unexpected. He joins a growing cadre of Republicans, including Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and businessman Scott Honour, seeking to replace Dayton.
Zellers described his family as “smack dab” in the middle class, facing budgeting decisions, such as checking for deals on car tires, that the wealthy governor doesn’t have to do nor can he really understand, Zellers said.
“I don’t begrudge Gov. Dayton for not having budgeting experience,” Zellers said, standing on a small stage under a tree. “But I also fundamentally do not believe it gives him the right to say he understands what those of us in the middle class go through. And it sure doesn’t give him the right to say he’s fighting for us.”
Zellers is currently serving his sixth term in the House.
House Republicans, as Senate Republicans, gained the majority in 2010 — Zellers being elected Speaker by the new Republican House majority. But Zellers saw his majority and speakership slip away in the Democratic election surge of 2012.
Asked by a reporter about the reversal, Zellers was self-deprecating.
“In 2010 I was the hero. In 2012, I was not quite the hero,” he said.
Speaking about the loss last spring, Zellers was more direct.
“That’s a pretty big, traumatic swing in one’s career,” he said.
He worked as hard as he could last election and left everything on the field, Zellers insisted.
Zellers intends to seek the Republican Party gubernatorial endorsement. But he also expects a Republican gubernatorial primary and believes Republicans who support him should have a chance to vote for him in a primary.
“I’ll prepare for the convention first, the primary second, and Mark Dayton lastly,” Zellers said.
Zellers considers himself an underdog in terms of campaign finance, competing against wealthy Republican opponents.
He spoke of a gubernatorial campaign costing around $5 million.
“I will not be outworked,” he said.
In his announcement speech, Zellers harkened back to his North Dakota upbringing, family members who taught him about thrift, being true to one’s conscious and the value of enterprise.
Zellers called for a renewed focus on education, the state’s economy and spoke of the Republican agenda turning around the state budget.
“We collect more than enough,” Zellers said of taxes.
He chided Dayton and Democrats for not just taxing wealthy Minnesotans, but, through the expansion of the state sales tax and increasing the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.60, of taxing the middle class. Zellers spoke of striving as governor to create a state that is alluring to outside business and supportive of small Minnesota business.
DFL State Party Chairman Ken Martin was dubious of Zellers’ credentials.
“Rep. Kurt Zellers’ short tenure as speaker of the House will be forever remembered for his lack of leadership and uncompromising partisanship, which led to the longest government shutdown in our state’s history,” Martin said in a statement.
“After finally seeing some progress this past legislative session, the last thing Minnesotans need is to return to the times of ‘Shutdown Kurt’ where we would undoubtedly see gridlock, partisanship and shutdowns once again,” Martin said in part.
Zellers works in public relations, something he has done politically, having worked as communications director for former Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams and also the Republican Minnesota House.
Zellers earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Dakota; he played defensive back on the university football team and a North Dakota football adorned speaker’s office.
Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]