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Sen. Thompson now formally fourth GOP candidate for governor, says education is top issue

His campaign message: “I believe in the individual. As your governor, my goal will be to get out of your way.”

State Sen. Dave Thompson announced his run for governor surrounded not by crowds of supporters but just by his wife and children.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

State Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville — the fourth candidate in the race to be the Republican candidate for governor in 2014 — chose the simple setting of a state Capitol hearing room,  to make his Wednesday announcement. He was surrounded not by crowds of supporters but just by his wife and children.

He made the case for his candidacy just as simply and directly: “I believe in the individual. As your governor, my goal will be to get out of your way.”

Orono businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and state Rep. Kurt Zellers are also candidates for the GOP nomination, raising the likelihood of a Republican primary.

Honour and Zellers said they will seek the Republican endorsement but go to a primary if not endorsed.  Johnson and Thompson both said they would abide by the endorsement.

Thompson — one of the more conservative members of the Republican Senate caucus — said his top priority is education reform: “I intend not to use the old solutions.”

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He said he wanted parents to have more choice in education and endorsed tuition tax credits to give parents the option of sending their children to private schools.

Thompson also criticized the tax and spending increases passed by the DFL-controlled Legislature. “You folks… were treated like ATM machines,” he said, addressing the public. “We need to check out every line in the budget.”

Thompson, 58, is an attorney and former radio talk show host. He is regarded by Republicans in the Senate as an articulate, if somewhat undisciplined, spokesman for conservative causes.

The DFL Party immediately used some of Thompson’s rhetoric in a response to his candidacy.

“If Thompson got into the governor’s office, he’d look out for Minnesota’s wealthiest citizens and his personal interests rather than serving the average Minnesotans who make this state great,” said DFL Party Chair Ken Martin.

He was referring to statements Thompson made during a Senate debate and during consulting work Thompson did for the state Republican Party while running for office himself.

In an interview with MinnPost prior to his formal announcement, Thompson discussed the issues that would be part of his gubernatorial campaign. Here are edited excerpts from that interview:

MinnPost: Are you going for the endorsement of Minnesota Republican Party?

Dave Thompson: Yes.

MP: Will you abide by the endorsement?

DT: Yes. I believe that the stamp of approval of the delegates that put the hard work in to move this party forward is very, very important, and it’s my intent to honor that.

MP: Often candidates seeking endorsement (in both parties) stake out extreme positions, only to run toward the middle during the general election.  What will be your approach?

DT: I am a believer that all Minnesotans benefit from the same kinds of policies ultimately. And by that I mean families [and] individuals benefit from a healthy economy. They benefit from freedom. They benefit from a safety net that takes care of those folks that are truly vulnerable, incapable of taking care of themselves.

So, I don’t feel I’m going to change who I am or my tone at any stage of the campaign. I believe that if you speak the same way to all Minnesotans, tell them what you think about each issue, then you don’t have to worry about what you said yesterday. You just be who you are.

MP: As a relatively new elected official, what do you need to do to build a fundraising base?

DT: I believe the ability to raise money is largely dependent on the ability to convince people of two things: one, that you have the right ideas; two, that you can communicate them in a way that you’re likely to win.

So, I think that for every candidate early on it will be difficult to raise money. But I believe if a person can distinguish him or herself and demonstrate that you have the right ideas and that you can talk about them in a way that builds broad coalitions of Minnesota voters, the money will follow.

MP: Turning to the state budget, how would you change one of the biggest cost-drivers in the budget — health and human services?

DT: It’s impossible to talk about serious change in the overall state budget if you don’t try to manage the health and human services budget. We need to look at each program and determine whether or not it’s effective and if the money there that’s being spent is resulting in helping the people it’s supposed to help. That would be Step One.

I think we have to take a serious look at the degree to which we are allowing the federal government to drive our human services budget. That’s a tough one because, of course, the federal government often gives you matching funds, but I think anyone who wants to truly lead in this area is going to have to do that.

You have to look at health care. We certainly need to look at more private market solutions, less control by government. We need to get the provider and the patient involved more in the transaction, rather than a have third party dictate the way these things are going.

MP: How would you improve education outcomes?

DT: We don’t want to change things for those who are happy with the school system they have. We know that lots of Minnesota parents are very pleased with their local schools, that those schools serve their children well, and we don’t want to change that.

However, what we do need to do is look at a completely different approach at those areas where schools are underperforming. And the solution so far is  — well, if we just throw another $50 per student per year into the formula, we can change the outcomes.

That defies logic because right now the schools that are the highest in per-pupil spending are getting the worse results. This is not exclusively a money issue. Obviously, there has to be sufficient resources put into the system to provide the basics for an education. But that isn’t the problem where we have schools that are not doing well.

So, I believe the only realistic alternative is some sort of school choice that allows a parent to get his or her child into a school that is going to teach the children, and that ability can’t be dependent upon income.

Right now, people that have children in a failing school, by and large, cannot get them out unless they have resources, and that strikes me as un-American. In America we believe that once you hit the starting line, then you’re free to make decisions and fail or succeed by your own, but we believe that everybody should be at the same place on the starting line.

MP: How would you improve transportation in the state?

DT: We need to do a better job with our roads and bridges. There are many areas in rural Minnesota and areas outside the metro area that are not getting enough attention. Here in the Twin Cities, we’ve got huge problems on 494 and many of the other major arteries with insufficient capacity.

Then you get the issue of mass transit. I tend to be a believer in buses. The reason I like buses, as opposed to trains, is that, No. 1, you don’t have anywhere  near the upfront capital costs.  Secondly, it’s easer to adjust usage based on demand. It’s a much more efficient way to move people in large numbers.

MP: Would you support a gas tax or sales tax increase dedicated to transportation?

DT: No. We tax people enough in this state. For me, it’s a matter of priorities.  Three billion dollars [based on the $2.1 billion tax and fee increases passed this session and what Thompson says is additional revenue from economic growth] is enough money, that had we prioritized correctly, we would be able to take care of our transportation needs.

MP: Would you roll back the tax increases that were passed this session?

DT: First, you have to talk about the spending issues because — let’s face it — taxes at the state level are the result of big spending.

To reduce taxes is a very good thing. It leads to a healthy economy. But I can’t recklessly come in and reduce taxes without addressing the spending issue.

The other thing that I think is a little disturbing about the way the governor and Legislature raised taxes — it’s a very divisive approach: Well, we’ve got these people who make money and let’s stick ’em because they are not a politically correct group of people to protect.

And then we’ve got these smokers (and let’s be clear — I do not smoke cigarettes) but we’ve got this group and they’re not politically correct anymore because we all know there’s all these anti-smoking campaigns, so let’s stick them.

Taxes should be levied with the purpose of funding government without an eye toward manipulating people’s conduct.

MP: Would you support increased background checks for gun control?

DT: I believe right now we have sufficient gun-control laws and regulations and, in some cases, more than we need. So at this point, I don’t believe that we should be passing any more laws pertaining to gun control. We should enforce the ones we have. Obviously any reasonable person believes that we should not allow dangerous felons to have firearms, but for law-abiding people, there should not be impediments to their ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights.

MP: Would you attempt to change the new law legalizing same-sex marriage?

DT: No. The people have spoken. I’m a big believer in our system. I’m a big believer in our process, and the people voted down the constitutional amendment last November. They voted people into office who decided that they wanted to pass the same-sex marriage bill.  They did so. And I think the idea of one elected official coming in and saying, ‘We’re just going to tip that over right away,’ I don’t think shows respect for the voters and respect for the people of Minnesota.

MP: Would you support further restrictions in Minnesota’s abortion laws?

DT: I don’t know what those would be. I am thoughtfully pro-life. I was the chief author of the bill to discontinue state funding of abortions. I believe most Minnesotans agree with me on that, even many who are pro-choice. If that bill came across my desk, would I sign it, absolutely? Am I making that issue a linchpin of my campaign? I am not.

MP: How will you campaign to present a more inclusive face of the Republican Party?

DT: Well, NO. 1, I intend to campaign everywhere. Unfortunately, human nature is such that we tend to surround ourselves with people that make us feel comfortable and that we fit in with. I am going to do the best that I can to pay attention to all areas of Minnesota and address the issues of people, maybe a percentage of whom don’t vote Republican. And then I am going to listen to those people. I will spend time with groups of people that are not the traditional Republican voter.

MP: You have been very critical of unions and had a bill to allow a constitutional amendment to make Minnesota a right-to-work state. Would you try to revive this issue?  

DT: Certainly I believe that that is a very important economic reform. Most Minnesotans believe that people ought to be able to get together and form a union to bargain. But most people believe you shouldn’t have to sign up with group as a condition of your employment.  So that’s all the right-to work-concept is: Go ahead have a union, but you just can’t force people to sign up.

My concerns with unions are focused on public unions. Do I think some things need to be done there? Yes.  No. 1, to control the state budget, and No. 2, to help us resolve a lot of service issues.

Private unions are different matter. Private unions were created and formed to help individual employees amass market power to negotiate a fair share of profits from large businesses.

MP: You were a member of the Senate when Michael Brodkorb was fired, and you may find yourself a part of his legal action. Does that concern you?

DT: No and, obviously, I am not going to comment on the lawsuit. I learned about the situation between the former majority leader and Mr. Brodkorb four hours before you did, and have nothing to do with investigating, finding out about it, terminating employees. I can’t imagine how that can affect me in any way.

MP: How would you proceed as governor if you find yourself in office with DFL control of the Legislature?

DT: I think you have to make your arguments well and hopefully get the people with you, because ultimately, if the people are with you — by that I don’t mean check with polls. I mean a general sense that folks believe in the general direction that you want to take the state, then you’re given a little extra negotiating prowess.

And then, secondly, you have to realize that you are going to have to compromise and give some things up. Now, I believe you don’t cave on principles. You don’t give up things that our near and dear to your heart. But clearly, if I were to be elected and have the honor to serve and have the House and Senate controlled by the DFL, I would be required to sit down with the majority leader and speaker and find a way to compromise and come up with solutions.