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GOP race for governor; here's a look at four candidates

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By Bill Salisbury, St. Paul Pioneer Press

Which one will take on Dayton?

It will be a political phenomenon like nothing Minnesotans have experienced in decades: a wide-open, four-candidate Republican primary election for governor on August 12.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” said candidate Kurt Zellers.

After the GOP endorsed losing candidates in the past two statewide elections, this year more governor wannabes decided to skip the party’s cumbersome endorsing process and jump directly into the primary. The winner will face DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in November.

Here’s a look at the four Republican contenders: Zellers, Scott Honour, Jeff Johnson and Marty Seifert.


With rural roots, Seifert says he hears message from farmers, small towns

In the dairy barn at the Dodge County Fair in Kasson last week, farmer Mary Buck told Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert that a torrent of local, state and federal regulations triggered her family’s decision to sell off their dairy herd in 2009.

“Too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Buck, of West Concord.

“I get it,” responded Seifert, who grew up on a farm near Morgan in southwestern Minnesota.

As a farm kid and lifelong resident of rural Minnesota, Seifert says he understands better than his political rivals the feeling on farms and small towns across the state that folks out there are being left behind by the Twin Cities metro area.

The former House minority leader told Buck that he is hearing similar messages from farmers and small-business owners across Minnesota: “Government is suffocating the private sector with regulations.” And he wants government off their backs.

After the candidate moved on, Buck said she hasn’t decided which gubernatorial candidate she’ll vote for, but Seifert impressed her.

“Our state needs a governor who understands the ag economy and ag issues,” she said. “I think he does get it.”

Seifert, 42, of Marshall, is the only Republican candidate for governor from what is euphemistically called “Greater Minnesota.” His three rivals in the Aug. 12 GOP primary — Orono businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove — are all suburbanites. The winner will challenge DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in November.

Seifert says he doesn’t want to be labeled the “rural candidate.”

“My calendar is 50 percent metro and 50 percent rural,” he said. “I’ve spoken at five metro Rotary Clubs in the last three weeks.”

His most important distinguishing trait, he said, is bringing “the most diverse experience to the table.”

Since graduating from Southwest Minnesota State University, Seifert has been a public school teacher, college admissions counselor, 14-year legislator, real estate agent, small-business owner and hospital foundation administrator. He and his wife, Traci, live in Marshall with their two children.

“I’m the only lifer in the group,” he said, noting that the other candidates have spent a portion of their lives outside Minnesota.

Tall and thin with a shaved head and easy smile, Seifert acknowledged that he even sounds like a character out of the book “How to Speak Minnesotan,” by fellow Marshall resident Howard Mohr.

“Like he wrote, we only cleaned our garage when someone graduated from high school,” Seifert said. “And nobody would take the first bar or the last bar out of the pan. The same with the first scoop of hot dish.”

While his rural roots are “not my No. 1 issue by any means,” Seifert said studies over the past 20 years have shown that a majority of the votes in the state’s Republican primaries are cast in rural Minnesota.

“That’s the only election where rural Minnesota is in the majority,” he said.

And he thinks those voters would be proud to elect the first fellow rural Minnesotan as governor since Rudy Perpich in 1986.

Seifert calls himself a “mainstream conservative … not extreme.” Like the other GOP contenders, he calls for cutting taxes, shrinking government and strengthening schools.

He’s running a campaign heavy on retail politics. He’s the first and only candidate to visit all 87 counties and challenges his rivals to “Please give us a list of the counties that are not important enough to warrant your attention.”

His favorite stops are parades, county fairs, church picnics, American Legion clubs, civic club meetings, radio and television stations and newspaper offices.

During his two terms as Minnesota House minority leader and his failed campaign for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial endorsement, he attracted a network of volunteers who already have put up about 3,000 campaign signs — more, he contends, than any of his rivals.

His frugal, grass-roots operation lacks a high-priced staff of political strategists. “The consultant-industrial empire in politics has not made its way into the Seifert campaign,” he said.

For the second time in four years, Seifert sought and failed to win the Republican endorsement at the party’s state convention in Rochester in May.

He angered many delegates there when, after the third ballot, he withdrew from the race and announced he would challenge their endorsed candidate in the primary. Delegates chose to back Johnson.

While his actions rankled party activists, Seifert asserted rank-and-file Republican voters don’t care about it. He said he lost the endorsement in part because many of his supporters couldn’t afford to spend two days and about $1,000 on food and lodging in Rochester.

“If it’s expensive, far away, time-consuming and dominated by a very tiny group of people, then I don’t do well,” he said.

“Now, we’re going to let people vote for free, close to home and in private. When they do that, I do very well,” he said, noting that he won the straw poll at the GOP’s February precinct caucuses.


Johnson paints himself as ‘big-tent guy’

Members of the North Metro Tea Party cheered Jeff Johnson, the Republican-endorsed candidate for governor, when he bounded onto the Mermaid Ballroom stage in Mounds View for an evening forum this month.

The 150 partisans applauded when he pledged to cut taxes, slash government red tape and “fight Obamacare every step of the way.”

That’s standard fare for the four GOP candidates for governor competing in the Aug. 12 primary for the right to challenge Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton in November. But Johnson received a warmer tea party response than most pols. The master of ceremonies, Minnesota Tea Party Alliance President Jack Rogers, endorsed him before he handed over the microphone.

That was music to DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin’s ears. Democrats are trying to portray Johnson as a “tea party candidate.” They note that he’s spoken at many tea party meetings and has referred to members and himself as “we.”

Why is that a big deal? “There’s only one group that tests more negatively than the tea party, and that’s Congress,” Martin said.

But it might be difficult to make the tea party label stick to Johnson.

While the attorney, Hennepin County commissioner and former legislator embraces the tea party as “an important part of the coalition that I need to win,” he’s also a “big-tent guy” who welcomes support from all GOP factions.

He told the Mermaid Ballroom crowd that while he wants their support, he also is appealing to “liberty Republicans,” the business establishment and even moderates who voted for the Independence Party’s Tom Horner for governor in 2010.

Johnson won the GOP endorsement at the state party convention in Rochester in May because he had widespread support across party factions.

Republican activist Sheri Auclair of Minnetonka said she first saw Johnson’s skill as a “uniter” at the 2012 state party convention, where supporters of presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Ron Paul battled for national convention slots. As tension mounted, Johnson, then the state’s Republican National committeeman, gave a speech that “tamed 2,500 activist delegates,” Auclair recalled. “It was just jaw-dropping.”

Johnson, 47, of Plymouth, is not a charismatic leader. He’s a thoughtful, mild-mannered Norwegian Lutheran.

He tipped off his style when he told the tea party crowd that he would “go after Mark Dayton … (but) do it in a way that doesn’t come across as mean or nasty or angry, because mean, nasty, angry Republicans just don’t do well in statewide election in Minnesota.”

He’s taking the same approach in the primary, declining to bad-mouth his rivals.

He was knocked off the campaign trail last week while recovering from abdominal surgery at Maple Grove Hospital.

During his three terms in the Minnesota House from 2000 through 2006, when Republicans controlled the House and DFLers the Senate, Johnson earned a reputation as a problem solver willing to work across party lines. He teamed up with Sen. Tom Bakk, now the DFL majority leader, in 2006 to pass an eminent domain bill that increased property owners’ rights.

“I learned that if you want to make significant change in divided government,” he said, “you have to pick one thing at a time, go find the Democrats who agree with you on that one thing and get it done — and not be distracted by 17 other things that they disagree with you on.”

Johnson campaigns on a three-point platform that he unveiled when he launched his campaign 14 months ago. He wants to create jobs by cutting taxes and government regulations, close the achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates, and measure state programs to identify the ones that work and get rid of the ones that don’t.

Although the Republican Party has been riddled by debt, state GOP Chairman Keith Downey said the party will give Johnson and other endorsed candidates a significant boost. By last week, he said, it had opened 16 “victory centers” across the state where volunteers were being mobilized to make phone calls, canvass voters, distribute literature and provide other ground-game efforts.

Johnson trails in the money race. After spending more than $180,000 to win the endorsement, his campaign had $33,000 in its treasury at the end of May. By contrast, Orono businessman Scott Honour’s campaign had $227,000 in the bank, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert had $104,000 in cash and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers had $95,000.

Johnson acknowledged he wouldn’t meet his fundraising goal of $1 million before the primary, but he asserted that he didn’t need to raise that much because his rivals were spending far less than he expected on television ads.

Johnson grew up in Detroit Lakes and graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead and Georgetown University Law School. He and his wife, Sondi, have two sons, ages 13 and 16.

Johnson practiced law in Chicago and Minneapolis and worked for Cargill before starting his own employment-law business in 2001. He served three terms in the Minnesota House, then lost an election for attorney general in 2006 to DFLer Lori Swanson. He is in his second term as a Hennepin County commissioner.


Honour says businessman is best suited for job

Businessman Scott Honour is a first-time candidate, but he’s getting the hang of retail campaigning.

At the Sherburne County Fair in Elk River last weekend, Honour had no qualms about strolling up to complete strangers and introducing himself as a Republican candidate for governor.

“I’m a businessman, not a politician,” he told three men seated at a beer garden picnic table. “I’m running because I think we need more common sense in St. Paul.”

A millionaire from Orono, Honour is betting a lot of his own money that Minnesotans believe a business leader is best-suited to govern the state.

He and his running mate, state Sen. Karin Housley, a first-term lawmaker and Realtor from St. Mary’s Point, have “spent our careers in the private sector getting things done. I think voters are looking for that,” Honour said.

By contrast, the self-proclaimed “outsider” noted, his rivals in the Aug. 12 Republican primary – Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers – “collectively have spent over half a century in politics.” The winner will challenge Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton in the November general election.

The other GOP candidates all have experience in shaping government policy. He doesn’t. But his business experience, he asserts, taught him valuable lessons that could make government work better.

Asked if he could manage the give-and-take to get things done at the Capitol, he replied, “I’ve been in more negotiations than any of these guys.”

Honour, who did not seek the GOP endorsement, also is telling Republicans his is the “only campaign that will have the resources” needed to defeat Dayton.

At the end of May, the political newcomer had raised $573,000 this year, more than all three of his Republican rivals combined, thanks in part to a $300,000 personal loan to his campaign.

Last week, he announced he had donated another $500,000, bringing his total for the current two-year cycle to more than $1 million.

Last fall, Honour disclosed that he earned $1.7 million in 2012, and he owns a $9 million home on Lake Minnetonka.

Still, he hasn’t run a highly visible campaign. Although he has aired some television and radio ads, the other candidates expected him to swamp them with TV spots. That hasn’t happened yet.

But Honour said he will ramp up his on-air presence and has invested in “robust technology infrastructure … that surpasses the party’s.”

In addition to radio and TV spots, he said his campaign is reaching voters with social media, online advertising, direct mail and other “alternative marketing.”

He’s doing a steady schedule of radio, television and newspaper interviews, as well as meeting voters at parades, fairs, receptions, meetings of businesses and charitable groups, and the like — but his rivals say they haven’t seen as much of him on the campaign trail.

Polls indicate he’s the least well-known of the group. Why? “Honour spent all but the last four years of his adult life outside the state,” Seifert said.

But Honour, 48, has deep roots in Minnesota. He was born in Fridley and grew up in Mound. His father started a boat-lift manufacturing business, and Honour spent part of his teenage years installing boat lifts in lakes throughout the state.

The first in his family to go to college, he worked his way through Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. He met his wife, Jamie, a fellow Minnesota native, there. They have three children, ages 6, 11 and 12.

He earned an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Honour earned most of his fortune as a managing director at the Gores Group in Los Angeles, which he said “bought and fixed about 60 underperforming companies. … We saved and created jobs.”

But he acknowledged the process of restoring companies to profitability required some layoffs – more than 11,000, according to a count by the left-leaning Alliance for a Better Minnesota.

“He made a bazillion dollars by firing people the way that Mitt Romney did,” said alliance Executive Director Carrie Lucking. “That shows he’s much more interested in CEOs’ bottom lines than he is in workers’ bottom lines.”

But Honour said he saved far more jobs than he lost, and he also started a couple of job-creating businesses. He co-founded an online rent-payment company that went from 40 employees when the Internet bubble burst to one. But they rebuilt it, he said, and it now provides 225 jobs.

He and his brother also launched a natural-gas filling station business. His campaign vehicle is a natural-gas-fueled Ford F350 pickup.

Honour and his wife moved back to Minnesota four years ago to raise their children. He jumped into politics as a donor and fundraiser.

Honour decided to run for governor last year because he didn’t like what the DFL governor and Legislature were doing and he wasn’t hearing many alternatives from Republicans.

“The skills Karin and I developed in business will help us lay out a vision of where to go, a plan for how to get there and for putting a team in place to get and measure results,” he said.


Leadership in budget deal the centerpiece of Zellers’ 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 last week. “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 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 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, which includes the Echo Press.