by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
Minnesota’s gubernatorial election of 2014 is 18 months away but already, some Republicans are flexing their muscles as announced candidates or as potential candidates for the GOP nomination. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has already indicated he will seek re-election.
Two Republican candidates have already emerged. Wayzata businessman Scott Honour was the first to announce three weeks ago. Current Hennepin County Commissioner and former state legislator Jeff Johnson made his grand announcement before family and friends May 12 at the Hamel Community Hall, near his residence in Plymouth.
With the Minnesota Legislature still in session, several potential candidates for governor are waiting until their lawmaking business is finished for this session.
The field of candidates was narrowed several weeks ago with the announcement by three potential candidates choosing not to seek the governor’s chair. Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, 2010 unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and U.S. Rep. John Kline, Second District, each has announced an intent not to run for governor in 2014. Third District Congressman Erik Paulsen recently announced that he would not be seeking the governor’s chair or a seat in the U.S. Senate currently held by Al Franken.
Former Speaker of the House, Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said he is “not ruling anything out” when asked about whether he is considering a run for governor in 2014. “I’m focusing on the session right now and will start thinking about future plans when the session is over,” he explained.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, answered the question of whether he will run for governor with three words: “Thinking about it.”
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, carried the Minnesota Vikings stadium legislation during the 2012 session. She has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. “I’m trying to get through the session but it’s out there and I will do something, yes or no,” Rosen said.
Often outspoken Sen. David Thompson, R-Lakeville, says he is considering a run for governor and hopes to announce his decision the first few days after the session ends. He said he owes it to his constituents and to “the good folks of Minnesota” to declare his intentions soon after the session is completed.
Thompson sounds like a candidate when he attacks the record of Gov. Mark Dayton. “He is taking us in the wrong direction,” Thompson said. Many states are doing what Dayton is doing, increasing taxes and increasing the cost of government, Thompson said. He used the states of Illinois and California as examples.
Speculating on major issues to come into focus during the 2014 campaign, Thompson said education is always an issue and should be an issue. “There is a gap between the higher performing districts and those not getting the job done for students,” Thompson said. A healthy economy and providing jobs and opportunity must also be addressed in the campaign for governor, Thompson said.
Thompson said he was “shocked” at the degree DFLers are going after low income and middle income folks with more taxes. He said the governor and the DFL Party talk about targeting the rich but instead, “they are taxing everybody.”
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a former legislator, has also been mentioned as a possible GOP gubernatorial candidate.
Candidate Honour, 44, is a native of Fridley. He and his wife Jamie and their three children currently reside in Wayzata.
His father was a pilot for Braniff and lost his job due to the company bankruptcy. Honour later worked for his father, who started a boatlift company. “I learned about hard work, overcoming obstacles, and persevering when things aren’t going well,” Honour is quoted as saying on his campaign website. Honour earned degrees in business and economics and pursued a career in the private sector. He helped grow a firm that focused on fixing troubled businesses.
Honour has been involved in starting many small businesses, one with his brother in the operation of natural gas filling stations. Honour said he drives a natural gas pickup truck that runs 90 percent lower emissions than gas at the refill pump. “We think there is a great opportunity to expand natural gas as a vehicle fuel source,” he said.
Job creation is a priority for Honour. He said he has created a lot of jobs and understands what it takes to create jobs. That’s why he wishes to bring the equation to the governor’s office, he said. Honour once bought a shutdown pulp mill in Cosmopolis, WA and built the business by adding 200 jobs.
Concerned about the direction of the state, Honour said an economic foundation is at the center of his priority lists. “I think we have to make some major changes to get ourselves back on track,” Honour said. He believes he has the leadership abilities to affect change and to create value.
Honour said the fact he is not a career politician resonates well with many state residents. “I’ve had experience in a combination of skills and can figure out what the problems are and then come up with a plan to solve the problems. That’s what I’ve been doing in business for 20-plus years.”
The fact that the state has the lowest minority graduation rates in the country worries Honour. He is also concerned about seeing jobs and taxpayers leave the state. “Our minority employment rates are also the highest in the country,” he said.
Honour said Minnesota does have many great incentives to attract businesses to the state. “They are not choosing Minnesota and that’s the game we want to get in,” he said.
Honour is buoyed by the leadership of the Republican Party, now chaired by Keith Downey. He also has added former party chairman Pat Shortridge to his consulting staff. “I’m really focusing on aligning the party on a message of how we create economic opportunity for everyone in the state, how we have a positive growth if we make the right choices and how we help improve education,” Honour said.
Honour said he wants to be a leader who listens and will be inclusive on the issues. “We have a big opportunity as Republicans to really drive forth the economic message of opportunity and we will see Republicans winning the next election,” Honour predicted.
Candidate Johnson, 46, is a veteran of seven years in the Minnesota House of Representatives. He is a native of Detroit Lakes and currently resides in Plymouth with his wife Sondi and two sons. Last fall, Johnson was elected to a second term as Hennepin County commissioner. He was unopposed.
Johnson, a graduate of Georgetown University Law School, is owner of Midwest Employment Resources of Plymouth. Employment law is his specialty.
During his years in the House, Johnson was in the Republican majority serving with a DFL Senate. “This opportunity helped me learn to work with people who don’t always agree with you,” Johnson said. As a House member, he said he was pleased to have recorded accomplishments in eminent domain, meth legislation, tort reform and identity theft prevention.
Johnson said it is still possible to get things done in politics even though there are disagreements. “I have been able to take conservative and free market principles and turn them into law,” he said.
Johnson promised his wife he would only serve six years in the Minnesota Legislature. He unsuccessfully sought the Minnesota attorney general’s office in 2006. “I knew it was a longshot but it was a great experience,” Johnson said.
Political challenges still appealed to Johnson and he decided to run for Hennepin County commissioner in 2008. “My objective is to help make county government more acceptable and more results based,” he said.
A run for governor even crossed Johnson’s mind when he was in the Legislature. He said the time is right now and his family is on board with his decision. Raising money for his campaign is an immediate goal. Johnson said he has faith in the strong Republican leadership led by chairman Downey.
Johnson said he cannot win the election with only Republican votes. “We need votes from independent voters and fiscal conservative Democrats,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he believes he is the best Republican candidate fitting the role of a fiscal conservative who can excite the base and get other people involved in government. He said he has a strong electoral base in Hennepin County.
Fiscal responsibility and education are two issues to be addressed during the gubernatorial campaign in 2014, He will focus on making sure government is spending money wisely and responsibly and in ways that produce results. Growing the economy is of utmost concern for Johnson. More jobs are needed in the private sector, he said.
Johnson is against any additional taxes and says he has never voted to raise any tax. Asked about signing a tax pledge, he said he has quit signing pledges.
Johnson has been closely watching the Legislature this session. Looking at the issues, Johnson does not support any of the proposed budgets; he does not favor restricting rights of gun owners; he believes traditional marriage should be law and he does not support an increase in the minimum wage.
Gov. Dayton has not shown much leadership, Johnson said. “He had a golden opportunity to fundamentally reform the tax code this past year with an all-DFL Legislature but he did not do it,” Johnson observed.
Johnson said he has talked to all potential Republican candidates and said one of the main objectives of any of the candidates will be to gain name recognition. “None of us are well known,” he said.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said the party’s internal polling shows Dayton with good marks. A KSTP poll recently showed him with a 45 percent approval rating, significantly higher than that of the Legislature.
The two announced Republican candidates represent the extremes in Minnesota politics, Martin said. He called Johnson a quintessential politician. “We don’t begrudge ambition but when you have blind ambition as he does, there’s something that’s wrong there,” Martin said. “Then, you have another guy, Scott Honour, a wealthy businessman who has done very well for himself but the reality is that it’s tough for guy who drives a Bentley and goes around Lake Minnetonka in his yacht, to relate to ordinary Minnesotans,” Martin said.
Martin believes Dayton is in a good position for re-election but since the election is a year and a half away, he said anything can happen and the DFL Party is not taking anything for granted.
Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College, said the 2014 race for governor could be competitive because Gov. Dayton’s polling numbers at this time are far from secure. He said he believes Dayton is potentially beatable with much depending on the state of the Minnesota economy in the fall of 2014.
Public reaction to hikes in taxes and spending likely to be agreed upon by the governor and Legislature will have a big impact on the election, Schirer said. Schirer predicts main issues of the 2014 campaign for governor will be the state economy and the actions of the DFL legislature and governor in 2013-14. Tax and spending increases, gay marriage, unionization of child care workers and increases in the minimum wage will likely be discussed during the election campaign, Schirer said.
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]