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GOP’s four gubernatorial candidates agree on just about everything at first forum

The only exception? Whether to abide by the Republican Party’s endorsement. 

GOP gubernatorial candidates, left to right: Kurt Zellers, Jeff Johnson, Scott Honour and Dave Thompson. Moderator was Walter Hudson.
MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday

“I liked what they all said, but they all said pretty much the same thing — except the ones who said they wouldn’t abide by the endorsement.”

That observation from Republican activist Leslie Lawrence of Long Prairie came at the end of Thursday night’s hour-long forum in Mounds View featuring the four candidates seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Gov. Mark Dayton in 2014.

Opining on public employee pensions, taxes, education, and light rail transit,the four declared candidates revealed barely a shade of gray in their differences during their first joint meeting.

“We need to ultimately move our plan from defined benefit to defined contribution,” said businessman Scott Honour on the issue of how to handle  unfunded public pensions.

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His rivals — Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, state Sen. Dave Thompson and state Rep. Kurt Zellers — agreed.

“The achievement gap between white students and students of color … is the worst in the nation in Minnesota,” said Johnson. “We have to empower parents … where if your kids are failing in school, the parents actually get to vote, a vote of confidence or no confidence in that administration.”

Honour, Thompson and Zellers agreed on the concept of choice to improve failing schools.

On designing a state budget, Thompson said: “Principle No. 1 is: Always ask yourself is this a task something the private sector can do. If the answer is yes, don’t have the government do it.”

Agreed, said the other three.

Zellers pleased the crowd of 200 Republican activists with his criticism of the Metropolitan Council: “The Met Council is always wrong. First you defund it — you take away their money.”

Honour, Johnson and Thompson joined Zellers in putting the Met Council red meat on a skewer. 

The Met Council response, however, was the only forum moment when each of the four appeared to try to outflank the other on the right.  And it was the only exchange that drew audience hoots of approval.

When Tea Party activist and moderator Walter Hudson asked them about their views on bipartisanship, the four agreed again: Bipartisanship is a necessary part of governing.

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“We have to do a better job of conveying why our ideas really are the best ideas for everyone,” said Honour.

“You’ve got to figure out how to pick up enough Democrats to change the direction,” said Johnson. “I was able to do that when I was in the House with a DFL Senate.”

“You go get Democrat authors not only to sign onto your bill but to help pass it,” said Zellers.

Thompson summed up the subject:  “You’ve got to be willing to stand for your principles, but not everything’s a principle.”

Only the question of abiding by the endorsement of Republican delegates divided the group. Thompson and Johnson stated they would abide by the convention’s choice.

The other two demurred.

Honour said: “I’m seeking the endorsement [but] we’ll decide at a later date if we abide by the endorsement process.”  He added, though, he was preparing for a primary.

“The decision’s already been made for me,” Zellers said. “I do believe in my heart of hearts that I can be the endorsed candidate, but I also can win a primary election.”

The endorsement issue made a difference for some of the attendees.

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Not abiding by the endorsement, “that to me is not good,” said Long Prairie’s Lawrence.

Not everyone, though, was concerned about the endorsement issue.

“I’m inclined to go toward Scott,” said Maria Buchholz.  “He just seems like he came from humble beginnings and he made a name for himself.”

The Buchholz house, however, is split.  Said Wayne Buchholz: “I’m torn between Jeff and Dave, and then Zellers is a close third.”

Throughout the forum, the candidates remained close in their positions and in their general respect for one another.

At the end of the evening, the candidates exchanged friendly gestures, even talking in pairs as members of the audience approached them. That camaraderie may fade, however, as time and campaigning make their political differences more distinct.