MARSHALL - The fact that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton currently has his highest approval rating since taking office isn't lost on state Republican Rep. Kurt Zellers. But it doesn't phase him, either.
Zellers, who on Sunday afternoon announced his candidacy for governor, said Monday during a stop in Marshall that he's ready to take on the challenge of not only unseating an incumbent, but a popular one at that, one with a hard-to-ignore 57 percent approval rating.
"Especially at the end of a session, governors always get a little bump out of that because the Legislature's always fighting amongst themselves and the governor kind of rises above all that," Zellers said. "I'm not one who puts a lot of stock in polls like that. I'm very confident that whatever poll is taken today won't mean much when it comes to next fall's election. But it is definitely a challenge."
The last time an incumbent governor lost a gubernatorial race in Minnesota was in 1990 when Rudy Perpich was defeated by Arne Carlson.
Zellers is pitching himself as a champion for the middle class and said his decision to run is something that has been building for a number of years. He said Democrats have taken the state off course from where it was prior to the 2012 election.
"A lot of it started two, three years ago when I was Speaker; we were handed a $5 billion deficit when we took over in the majority, we cut spending, we reformed government and were able to balance that deficit and turn it into a $2.5 billion surplus in two years," Zellers said. "After the election and the Democrats took majority in the House, Senate and governorship, they've taken us in a completely different direction."
Zellers said Democrats in St. Paul are spending more than they need to, something that will eventually make it more difficult for Minnesota to compete in the business world against the border states.
"We're becoming - either regulatory- or tax-wise - uncompetitive," he said. "We're going to either lose jobs to those states or we're going to lose the ability to bring jobs here. If we're five or six percent more expensive, or if it's the warehousing tax now, if it's more expensive to stay here than it is in North or South Dakota, we'll lose those jobs."
Zellers, who was Speaker of the House for the 2011-12 legislative session, said most of what he has seen from the current leadership in St. Paul isn't reflective of the middle class. He said the state needs a leader that can relate to the middle class, whether in rural or suburban Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton, he said, doesn't have the life experiences to be able to relate to the middle class.
"I don't fault him for not having those experiences," he said. "I think I have connections to Minnesotans in a way that many other candidates don't have."
Zellers also said he wants rural Minnesota to get the attention it needs when it comes to where dollars are spent in Minnesota, whether it's with roads and bridges or in the schools.
"We need construction done on our rural roads," he said. "Rather than build a trolley for downtown Minneapolis, we should be building roads out in rural Minnesota, because the commodities that come to market, people who work out here needs just as good of a transportation system for their needs as we do for trains and trolleys in downtown Minneapolis. Asphalt is always better than trains as far as I'm concerned."
He said funding for education has also been slanted toward the metro area and that needs to change.
"Educating a kid is still the same, whether you're in Marshall or Windom or Ely or Moorhead," he said. "When we were in charge we tried to equalize that funding. What we saw in this last session is that it's completely slanted back toward Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Zellers said Republicans and Democrats in St. Paul need to pick and choose times when they put partisan politics aside and come together to at least give compromise a fighting chance.
"I think you've got to know, whoever is on the other side, where they can go and where they can't go," he said. "I knew Mark Dayton couldn't cut taxes, but he needed to understand from our standpoint we couldn't raise taxes. The secret to my success in my time in the Legislature is I always go out and ask Democrats to be part of my legislation."
Zellers said if he's elected governor he will work toward repealing new taxes that were passed this session and are going into effect this year. He said new taxes - the warehousing tax, the Internet tax that begins next week, the cigarette tax, to name a few - will affect a lot of middle- and low-income Minnesotans.
"I would encourage everyone who could be affected by this warehouse tax to call the governor and your legislator and tell them this is a bad idea," he said. "It will cost us lots of jobs. All I can do is ask Minnesotans to hang on for another year, elect me your next governor and we will repeal and roll back some of these regressive taxes, but also the taxes that leave us uncompetitive."
The field to win the Republican nomination has already started to become a crowded one. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson and Wayzata businessman Scott Honour have also announced their bid to represent the Republican Party in next year's election. Republican State Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville said he will announce his run for governor this week.
Former Republican state Rep. Marty Seifert said Monday he won't rule out a possible run for the Republican nomination, but as the executive director for the Avera Marshall Foundation, his immediate focus is on fundraising for the hospital's new cancer center.
"It's still possible I could run," he said. "Whether I'm in it or not, it will be a crowded field, and we're almost guaranteed to have a primary. But I'm focusing on building the cancer center."