House Speaker Kurt Zellers last week waded into an already messy legislative Republican primary, choosing the challenger over the 22-year incumbent in House District 33B.
In an unusual move, he endorsed Cindy Pugh, co-founder of the Southwest Metro Tea Party, over GOP Rep. Steve Smith, who is more moderate than other Republicans on such issues as worker’s rights and gay marriage.
Zellers praised her as a candidate who “will represent the conservative values of the district,” which covers west metro suburbs near Lake Minnetonka.
Controversy surrounds both candidates
The race already has involved controversy surrounding both candidates.
Criticized by liberals and her incumbent GOP opponent, Pugh sparked ire in June when she seemed to compare the appearance of women wearing traditional Islamic clothing to trash bags through a picture posted on her Facebook page.
Smith, too, has had his share of controversy, too. In January, House leaders removed the Mound Republican from his post as a committee chairman at least in part because of allegations Smith had an inappropriate relationship with a staffer.
In May, he lost the Republican endorsement to Pugh.
Zellers’ endorsement of a conservative newcomer over a member of his own House caucus caused waves last Monday, but Smith — who often avoids the spotlight — remained largely silent until two days later.
The longtime representative sent an email to all of his House colleagues with two links: one to a City Pages article recounting Pugh’s Facebook mishap and one to an MPR article outlining Zellers’ endorsement.
Smith didn’t return multiple requests for comment for this article.
In a July 22 interview on KLTK-FM’s “Late Debate,” though, Smith criticized Pugh for racial and religious intolerance.
Smith shrugs off endorsement loss
Smith also shrugged off his steep loss at the endorsing convention:
“My answer is this … That’s what primaries are for in Minnesota, to correct mistakes made at endorsing conventions. Eighty-eight people endorsed my opponent. There’s over 19,000 voters in the House district, and I think I want to give them the opportunity to continue the good work that I’ve been doing.”
But some of the “good work” Smith referred to appears to have angered Republican leaders over two proposed constitutional amendments.
He voted against the controversial marriage amendment passed by the Legislature in 2011, and also opposed the divisive right-to-work amendment that legislative leaders couldn’t get off the ground this biennium.
To make Smith’s life even more interesting, Jason George, political director for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, set up an independent expenditure group to support Smith’s candidacy. It’s potentially the only group of its kind supporting a single candidate.
“There’s quite a few folks down there [at the Capitol] lately, the last few years, particularly this new wave of some Republicans … that are more about giving speeches or some ideological cause or crusade,” George said. “We need more people like Steve Smith if we’re going to move this state forward.”
Pugh, a right-to-work advocate, has criticized Smith for his support of organized labor and noted that a local union is campaigning for him in the district.
“That’s one of the big differences between Rep. Smith and myself,” she said in an interview.
In his endorsement of Pugh, Zellers said: “Cindy is a true conservative, and she’s proven it through her years working on behalf of conservatives as a party and local volunteer. She is endorsed by the Republican Party, and is going to stand up for what is right –- limited government, lower taxes and economic freedom. A vote for Cindy is a vote for the principles that make us conservative.”
The House speaker didn’t return multiple requests for comment, and his statement didn’t address the controversies surrounding both Pugh and Smith.
DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, who flooded Twitter with his thoughts and partisan jabs on the endorsement, called the move “opportunistic.”
“I think it’s just opportunism,” the Golden Valley legislator said in an interview. “[Zellers] believes that Smith is going to lose, and so he gains more credibility with Tea Party folks if he endorses one of the challengers, but he’d never do it if he thought Smith was going to win.”
But GOP strategist Chris Tiedeman, who campaigned for former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Sen. Norm Coleman, views Zellers’ motivations differently.
“My view of Smith is that he’s deviated on a lot of issues over the years, especially recently, so I’m not terribly surprised” about the speaker’s choice, Tiedeman said.
Tiedeman also called into question the political viability of Smith’s candidacy, given his partial union support, labeling the move “political games.”
George, who founded Citizens for Smith, said he’s supported both DFL and Republican candidates in the past.
To Pugh’s credit, she appears to have built on her 70 percent endorsement support.
“It’s going very well,” she said. “We’re very excited. Obviously, we have less than three weeks left.”
The winner of the Aug. 14 primary will take on DFL candidate Denise Bader.
Jennifer DeJournett, executive director of the Voices of Conservative Women state PAC, which endorsed Pugh in early July, called the Chanhassen resident a “strong leader” with a “fresh perspective.”
“If you actually meet Cindy, and that’s what the voter and the constituents she’ll serve will see — the Cindy that everybody knows,” DeJournett said in an interview.
“She is truly the proverbial soccer mom: sweet, positive and I think that really all the rest is … inside baseball, because the Cindy that I know that is the consummate volunteer, the consummate selfless individual.”
Pugh declined to comment specifically about the Facebook controversy.
“I am definitely going to stay on my message and I have to, and it’s really all I have time for,” she said.
“She’s in a different role” now as the party’s endorsed candidatd, DeJournett added, choosing her words carefully, in reference to the Facebook post. “I think that she’s working through the transition from private life to public life and that she will do a great job representing everybody in her district.”