Former Speaker Zellers is in no hurry to make decisions about his future

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Rep. Kurt Zellers is taking his own advice.

One of the more prominent Republican casualties of last election, the second most powerful post in state government, speaker of the House, slipped away from Zellers in the Democratic romp that recaptured control of the Legislature last fall.

Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers outside of the Governor's Office during budget negotiations with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton last session. Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch stands to one side. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers outside of the Governor’s Office during budget negotiations with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton last session. Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch stands to one side. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Once on virtually any list of potential candidates for higher office, Zellers, 43, is left to ponder the unexpected and chart his future political course.

He’s is no hurry to make up his mind.

“I’ve been lucky,” Zellers said, speaking in the clattering Capitol cafeteria, of his more than two decades in politics.

“And I’ve learned in this business you never, ever make a decision — ‘I’m not going to do this, or ‘I’m going to do that’ — after something pretty dramatic,” he said.

“It was a big loss with both (House and Senate) bodies swinging in our favor, and then out of our favor two years later,” Zellers said of the historic 2010 Republican surge and subsequent loss.

“That’s a pretty big, traumatic swing in one’s career,” Zellers said.

ZellersSo he’s taking his time.

“As far as what the future holds, every day is a gift,” Zellers said.

“If the time comes and an opportunity presents itself, I’ll absolutely consider it,” he said of future political endeavors.

A native of North Dakota, Zellers earned a bachelors degree in political science from the University of North Dakota, where he played defensive back on the football team.

Zellers worked as communications director for former Republican U.S. Senator Rod Grams, and also for the Minnesota House before successfully running office.

He had no interest in seeking office, Zellers said, until his father urged him to run and focus on helping small business — the guys who can’t afford a lobbyist.

Things take their course, Zellers explained.

He once wondered if he would meet the right woman to marry.

He spoke to his minister about it, and was counseled to be patient.

Zellers and wife Kimberly, a teacher, have two children, Reagan and William, and the children are active.

Their father was running late one recent day because Reagan, roughhousing with her brother, hurt her ankle and Zellers was checking for an orthopedist.

Imprinted on the mind of Capitol watchers is the image of the children peering out from beneath the folds of their father’s jacket on the speaker’s podium on the House floor.

“That was one of the best things (former House Speaker Steve) Sviggum said to me. Sviggum said, ‘Be sure to involve kids whenever you can,’” he said.

“Every time we did it, it was always a positive. It was always a great time,” Zellers said.

One good aspect of leaving the speakership is the extra time it provides for the family.

Zellers, unlike other years, recently spent an entire youth hockey event with his son.

“As a dad I have not been able to do that since he started in hockey. And he’s six years old,” Zellers said.

“I haven’t been able to do that — to go out on the ice with him to watch him practice. Not just come in and catch 10 minutes at the end or watch the beginning and leave half way through,” he said.

“I got to be out on the ice with him the whole two hours. And after it was over, he and I skated around and passed the puck,” he said.

Family has been a respite.

“At the end of the day, I go home, my two kids yell out with smiles on their faces, ‘Daddy!’ No matter what happened during the day I’m absolutely complete — no problem,” he said.

“And (I have) a wife that loves me as well,” he said.

Everyone knows that there are people who like them and people who don’t like them.

“Politicians are the only ones with an exact count,” Zellers said, laughing.

Zellers does not relive rulings he made on the House floor, or wish that he had done this instead of that.

“A lot of that stuff comes so fast,” Zellers said of House floor action, “it happens at such at rapid pace — it’s in slow motion — but it comes so fast, a lot of those things you don’t think back on,” he said.

But losing control of the House was painful.

“It’s very disappointing. We still had a lot of things we wanted to accomplish,” Zellers said.

The hardest thing, said Zellers, was the loss of caucus members and Republican House staff.

“I feel a sense of responsibility, whether it was in or out of my hands,” Zellers said.

“I feel a sense of responsibility, that some of those folks who were really good, that worked so hard for us, that were great members or great staff members, that they had to move on to different career or causes,” he said.

Zellers did not see the Republican shellacking coming.

It wasn’t like in 2006, he explained, when there was a sense things were souring.

Talking to a reporter just a few days before the election, Zellers seemed confident.

“It wasn’t just me,” Zellers said.

Republicans House colleagues felt confident, he explained.

Republicans in other states felt confident, too.

“I did not, in the back of your mind, in the pit of your stomach, I did not have that (bad) feeling,” he said.

“I really felt that we could hold out,” Zellers said.

Looking at the Republican Party, Zellers sees a national party in transition.

New leaders, such as Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, are emerging to replace the Vietnam War or Baby Boomer era leadership.

The Republican Parth isn’t the party of the rich, Zellers argued.

“I drive a 10-year-old car with 231,000 miles on it,” said Zellers.

“Kim and I are smack dab in the middle class,” he said.

Democrats, from President Barack Obama down, talk about helping the middle class.

“I haven’t seen it yet,” he said.

Although failed budget talks between Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, Zellers and other Republican leaders led the longest state government shutdown in state history, Zellers said his relationship with the governor was always cordial.

“I hope that was one thing people really got from us,” Zellers said.

Republicans leaders and Dayton disagreed, but it wasn’t personal.

“He (Dayton) and I were friends. We remain friends today,” Zellers said.

The former Speaker received praise from two long-serving House Republicans.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, doesn’t know how anyone can hold an individual like Zellers responsible for the Republican reverses in a wave election.

“He’s a great mind that Minnesota needs,” Davids said.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said Zellers is still on the list of potential gubernatorial candidates as far as she is concerned.

He has a wealth of experience — Washington, the House, House Minority Leader, Speaker.

“He was an excellent speaker,” Erickson said.

“I think that choice is up to Kurt,” Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said of Zellers’ future.

But Carleton College Political Science Professor Steven Schier views Zellers as linked to the debacle Republicans suffered last election.

“Zellers will be tarred by the public rebuke of the 2011-12 GOP controlled state Legislature,” Schier said in an email.

“That marks him as a controversial figure who has some explaining to do if he has a political future.  And when you have to explain, you are at a big disadvantage.  So his political future beyond his (House) district is not bright,” Schier said.

Zellers offered House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, a few words of advice when Thissen formally took the reins of the House.

“The only advice I gave to Paul on the first day of session is, ‘This is your day. You’re the speaker. And don’t let anybody forget that,’” Zellers said.

If Thissen ever wishes to ask him a question, he hopes the speaker feels free, Zellers said.

“Even if he asked, it’s his to learn. And to grow,” he said.

“And I’m happy I’ve got that opportunity,” Zellers said.

Zellers “absolutely” intends to serve out his current term as representative of House District 34B.

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]

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