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Republican gubernatorial primary: With rural roots, Seifert says he hears message from farmers, small towns

By Bill Salisbury

St. Paul Pioneer Press

In the dairy barn at the Dodge County Fair in Kasson last week, farmer Mary Buck told Republican gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert that a torrent of local, state and federal regulations triggered her family’s decision to sell off their dairy herd in 2009.

“Too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Buck, of West Concord.

“I get it,” responded Seifert, who grew up on a farm near Morgan in southwestern Minnesota.

As a farm kid and lifelong resident of rural Minnesota, Seifert says he understands better than his political rivals the feeling on farms and small towns across the state that folks out there are being left behind by the Twin Cities metro area.

The former House minority leader told Buck that he is hearing similar messages from farmers and small-business owners across Minnesota: “Government is suffocating the private sector with regulations.” And he wants government off their backs.

After the candidate moved on, Buck said she hasn’t decided which gubernatorial candidate she’ll vote for, but Seifert impressed her.

“Our state needs a governor who understands the ag economy and ag issues,” she said. “I think he does get it.”

Seifert, 42, of Marshall, is the only Republican candidate for governor from what is euphemistically called “Greater Minnesota.” His three rivals in the Aug. 12 GOP primary — Orono businessman Scott Honour, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson of Plymouth and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove — are all suburbanites. The winner will challenge DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in November.

Seifert says he doesn’t want to be labeled the “rural candidate.”

“My calendar is 50 percent metro and 50 percent rural,” he said. “I’ve spoken at five metro Rotary Clubs in the last three weeks.”

His most important distinguishing trait, he said, is bringing “the most diverse experience to the table.”

Since graduating from Southwest Minnesota State University, Seifert has been a public school teacher, college admissions counselor, 14-year legislator, real estate agent, small-business owner and hospital foundation administrator. He and his wife, Traci, live in Marshall with their two children.

“I’m the only lifer in the group,” he said, noting that the other candidates have spent a portion of their lives outside Minnesota.

Tall and thin with a shaved head and easy smile, Seifert acknowledged that he even sounds like a character out of the book “How to Speak Minnesotan,” by fellow Marshall resident Howard Mohr.

“Like he wrote, we only cleaned our garage when someone graduated from high school,” Seifert said. “And nobody would take the first bar or the last bar out of the pan. The same with the first scoop of hot dish.”

While his rural roots are “not my No. 1 issue by any means,” Seifert said studies over the past 20 years have shown that a majority of the votes in the state’s Republican primaries are cast in rural Minnesota.

“That’s the only election where rural Minnesota is in the majority,” he said.

And he thinks those voters would be proud to elect the first fellow rural Minnesotan as governor since Rudy Perpich in 1986.

Seifert calls himself a “mainstream conservative … not extreme.” Like the other GOP contenders, he calls for cutting taxes, shrinking government and strengthening schools.

He’s running a campaign heavy on retail politics. He’s the first and only candidate to visit all 87 counties — and challenges his rivals to “Please give us a list of the counties that are not important enough to warrant your attention.”

His favorite stops are parades, county fairs, church picnics, American Legion clubs, civic club meetings, radio and television stations and newspaper offices.

During his two terms as Minnesota House minority leader and his failed campaign for the 2010 Republican gubernatorial endorsement, he attracted a network of volunteers who already have put up about 3,000 campaign signs — more, he contends, than any of his rivals.

His frugal, grass-roots operation lacks a high-priced staff of political strategists. “The consultant-industrial empire in politics has not made its way into the Seifert campaign,” he said.

For the second time in four years, Seifert sought and failed to win the Republican endorsement at the party’s state convention in Rochester in May.

He angered many delegates there when, after the third ballot, he withdrew from the race and announced he would challenge their endorsed candidate in the primary. Delegates chose to back Johnson.

While his actions rankled party activists, Seifert asserted rank-and-file Republican voters don’t care about it. He said he lost the endorsement in part because many of his supporters couldn’t afford to spend two days and about $1,000 on food and lodging in Rochester.

“If it’s expensive, far away, time-consuming and dominated by a very tiny group of people, then I don’t do well,” he said.

“Now, we’re going to let people vote for free, close to home and in private. When they do that, I do very well,” he said, noting that he won the straw poll at the GOP’s February precinct caucuses.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.