Kurt Zellers means business. At least that’s what emerges when you talk to the state representative from Maple Grove, who was elected the new Republican minority leader for the Minnesota House last week, replacing Marty Seifert, who is leaving the post to make a run at governor in 2010.
By most accounts, Zellers is a personable sort, with a life in politics that goes beyond when he was first elected to the House in 2003. He makes much of the fact that he grew up on a farm in Devils Lake, N.D., and after that he attended the University of North Dakota, where he majored in political science and played defensive back for the football team.
From there, he came to the Twin Cities in the early 1990s, working for former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams’ campaign in 1994, and eventually serving as the senator’s communications director.
Zellers, 39, speaks broadly about being a citizen politician rather and a career one, but he also emphasizes that he plans to serve his party in his new post for at least the next four years.
DFLers have a veto-proof majority in the state Senate and an 87-47 majority in the House. That, coupled with the news that Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty will not be seeking a third term, means that Zellers, largely unknown outside of hardcore political circles, will now be one of the most prominent faces of the state’s GOP.
The fourth-term lawmaker, who also worked on Norm Coleman’s Senate campaign in 2002, will leave his PR consulting business to work his new gig full time. He lives in Maple Grove with his wife, Kimberly, and their two children. MinnPost talked to him on Wednesday.
MinnPost: Given the DFL majority in the House and the recession — as part of your duties is now fundraising — why the heck would you want this job?
Zellers: The reason I ran for office in the first place: Because of my family background. Personally, I was a small business guy, my stepdad is a farmer and my father owns a small GPS company. What big business and not necessarily just government does to small businesses is tough. I want to help those folks out because they’re the small engine of our economy. If they start doing well, the rest of the business community does well.
MinnPost: But with the minority leader post, you have your work cut out for you on a couple different fronts. What’s the most challenging part in your mind?
Zellers: Fundraising is a big thing. With the House races this year, and the state Senate up for reelection this year — which a lot of folks forget about — then on top of it, all the constitutional offices, I think finding good candidates is going to be the most time consuming. Then fundraising would be a very close second.
MinnPost: If you picked up 20 seats in the House, that would even things out. Is that even viable?
Zellers: It’s a question of is it probable and is it possible? It’s possible. I worked for Senator Grams in 1994, and there’s a lot of similarities to 2009 when it comes to who’s in control in Washington. Now that the Senate has that 60th seat, it’s an oppressive majority. The American voter and the Minnesota voter have a way of equaling out. When I was out there [in Washington, D.C.], we had Paul Wellstone, Rod Grams and Jesse Ventura. I do think it’s possible we could swing it the other way. It all depends on how nationalized we become in these local races.
MinnPost: It’s a mantra for some Republicans to rail against big government. At the same time, these Pawlenty unallotments are going to come down. How are you going to deal with that? I imagine some pretty conservative voters are going to see cuts they don’t want to see.
Zellers: We have to see them first. A lot of what we’ve been doing and a lot of what folks in the media have been doing is speculation. Minnesota job providers have already been through what I would call an unallottment process.
My neighbor had his budget at work cut 40 percent and his wages cut 40 percent. He said, “I’m thankful to have my job.” That’s going to be our philosophy, our message going forward to the taxpayers: Be thankful but also be respectful of those hard-earned dollars coming in.
MinnPost: I guess it would be fair to brand you as a fiscal conservative, but it would also be fair to brand you as a social conservative as well. Can you tell us a little bit about your social philosophy?
Zellers: Minnesota has always had a prairie populist thing. If it’s not broken, if it’s not too much of an infringement on my life, if it’s not what a vast majority of Minnesotans are going with, then we probably shouldn’t change it.
MinnPost: But am I right that you voted against benefits for domestic partners?
Zellers: I voted against the state government finance bill [in 2007]. Also in that bill was light pollution — having to turn off street lights at night. I think that’s dangerous and awfully foolish … these are omnibus bills. For every two good things in there …
MinnPost: OK, but would you vote for domestic partner benefits?
Zellers: That’s a hypothetical. We’ll never have an up or down vote on that. I voted for the defense of marriage in, what was that, ’04. I think in tough economic times, a lot of those social issues go away. People are worried about their jobs, they’re worried about their business, they’re worried about their jobs leaving the state.
Even the abortion stuff. I’ll be honest with you, even the delegates, the people who are very close to us say, “What are you going to do about the business climate, what are you going to do about jobs?”
MinnPost: How do you see yourself as differing from Marty Seifert?
Zellers: Well, he’s taller.
MinnPost: You were ready for that question …
Zellers: I’ve been asked once or twice. Marty and I are a lot alike. I can’t pull off some of the quips he does. I won’t even try to walk in those shoes. You know, Marty was a very tenacious fundraiser and recruiter. I think we’re very alike in that standpoint.
MinnPost: Looking ahead, in 2010, there’s a chance that there will be a Democratic governor and that the DFL will hold on to majorities in both chambers. What’s your strategy then?
Zellers: It’s been three years now that I’ve been in the minority. I’ve also been in the majority. What we’ll do is offer solutions. We’re gonna go to folks like you and offer a black-and-white contrast: Here’s what they did, and here’s what we did. You decide which one you like better.
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.