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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published November 10 2010

Life lessons steered Minnesota House speaker to GOP

ST. PAUL – A brew of cattails, oil and beer put Kurt Zellers at the doorway to becoming Minnesota House speaker.

Cattails: “I would drive around with my grandpa in his pickup.” Zellers recalled. “He said, ‘See those cattails over there? We can’t farm that anymore because the government said that that is wetlands. We can’t grow anything there to feed people anymore, and no one is going to pay us.’ ”

Oil: When Zeller’s father surveyed for new Exxon oil rigs, he once returned from a long road trip and found someone new in his office. He discovered that he was fired two months previously, but no one told him. “Don’t let anybody else decide for you,” Zeller’s father advised.

Beer: Zellers did a little work in politics while attending the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, but was not even sure what party he should support. At a different type of party, he took some cheap beer and urged party-goers to quiet down and be “respectful of our neighbors,” which prompted a friend to say that Zellers must be a Republican.

The Devils Lake, N.D., native did not grow up in a political family, but learned political lessons early from many of his relatives. Now Zellers is about to be the second most powerful Minnesota politician.

As Republican House speaker, he will control much of the legislation and will butt heads with Mark Dayton if the Democrat survives an expected recount and becomes governor next year.

Plugging a nearly $6 billion budget deficit will be his top priority.

Zellers, 41, brings a resume heavy on political work out of the spotlight. He never planned to be speaker.

Much of his Devils Lake High School experience centered on sports. UND recruited him as a football walk-on, and he played until being injured.

He began studying accounting at UND, and switched to political science after he did a little work for Republicans and was elected to the Student Senate.

At first, Zellers’ political attention was split between North Dakota and Minnesota. While he walked in a parade for then-U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota, his roommate was Jim Poolman, who in recent years was North Dakota insurance commissioner. Drew Wrigley, a former North Dakota U.S. attorney and the state’s next lieutenant governor, recruited him to his fraternity.

Zellers quickly concentrated on Minnesota, where he worked for Republican U.S. Sen. Rod Grams and Norm Coleman. He was Minnesota House Republican caucus communications director and when not in politics, he worked in public relations.

Living in the northwestern Twin Cities suburb of Maple Grove, Zellers was elected to the House in a 2003 special election and has served since, as minority leader since June 2009.

Among legislation he championed was tightening the state’s sex offender legislation, a mission he took on after a court found a convicted sex offender guilty of killing UND student Dru Sjodin.

Zellers said he does not plan to ram conservative legislation through the House if the governor recount keeps fellow Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty in office longer than expected.

“I was heartened to hear” Zellers say that, Democratic House leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis said. “We need to get every part of government working together.”

While Thissen said “there is a lot of unclarity what the election was about,” Zellers said that it is clear why voters put Minnesota Republicans in charge of the House and Senate: to help businesses so more jobs can be created.

A summer encounter summarizes why Zellers is involved in politics and how he sees his job as state representative and speaker:

“This lady asked me, ‘What part of politics do you like best?’ I said, ‘None of it.’ She asks, ‘Why do you do it?’ I told her: ‘Because I have seen what happens when government tries to help you.’ ”

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.