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Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Why nice guy House Speaker Kurt Daudt wants outstate Minnesota to loathe us

Last time Minnesota voted in a general election, Kurt Daudt had one hell of a week.

Republicans in the Minnesota House won back control of the chamber in a stunning upset. They did it using his playbook.

While dazed Democrats tried to figure out how they got their asses kicked, Daudt was voted Speaker of the House, arguably the second most powerful position in the state.

The 41-year-old accepted the post during a morning press conference on November 7, 2014. He looked like a handsome high school senior who’d just won a debate trophy. The newly pressed suit, the crisp white shirt and conservative tie, the blushing grin. You couldn’t help but like the guy.

That Daudt was being publicly acknowledged by his conservative peers had to be especially gratifying. A year earlier, a roomful of Republicans wondered out loud whether he was fit to lead at all.

The lack of confidence had little to do with Daudt’s political bona fides. After all, he was a wunderkind from the one-street town of Crown who, after completing his first term in 2012, was dubbed “A Legislator to Watch” by Politics in Minnesota. Then, after being fast-tracked to minority leader in 2013, he made his bones thwarting a hike in the state minimum wage and blocked a DFL-sponsored, $800 million capital investment bill.

Glen Stubbe

Glen Stubbe

But a few months after the session ended, he got arrested in Montana — and decided not to tell anyone about it until a TV station unearthed the story.

It was a clown show tailor-made for TMZ. Daudt and a 24-year-old “buddy,” Daniel Benjamin Weinzetl, drove to Big Sky Country to buy a vintage Ford Bronco from a guy named Brock Roy. Apparently, the gents disagreed on the condition of the vehicle and got in a shouting match; at some point, Weinzetl went back to Daudt’s car to retrieve the representative’s loaded handgun. (Daudt carries an A+ rating from the NRA.)

Weinzetl pointed the gun at Roy and his family, then he and Daudt left the scene. Montana cops caught up with them, pinned three felonies on Weinzetl, but eventually let Daudt go without charges.

“I don’t know that necessarily it was that big of a deal,” Daudt told the press after the story broke. “But I don’t always get to decide that, I guess.”

Big deal or not, Daudt’s failure to come clean from the outset motivated GOP activists to gather for a no confidence vote. Daudt, having found out about the meeting in the nick of time, showed up unannounced. Hat in hand, he convinced the group to not pass judgment.

A St. Paul lobbyist isn’t surprised the former car salesman managed to talk his way out of trouble.

“He really is a talented, charismatic character. He’s articulate. He’s energetic. And, best of all, when he talks to you — whether you agree or disagree with what he’s saying — he makes you feel like you’re the youngest, prettiest person in the room.”

As with George W. Bush, friends and foes agree Daudt is one of those characters with whom they can see themselves sharing a beer. He knows it. When chatting up voters, he focuses not on his ambitions, but on their wants and needs, challenges and fears. In press appearances he reliably talks about the need for common sense and open-mindedness. And, like Bush, he faithfully serves a party that demands unwavering fealty.

“Look, the guy is very, very conservative. And he serves at the pleasure of his caucus,” says a GOP strategist who works closely with House Republicans. “But we didn’t choose him to be a firebrand. We brought him on board to deliver a message that will resonate with a blue-collar guy in Anoka or a mom in the suburbs. One that will make them think, ‘Oh, he’s one of us. He’s a reasonable guy.’”

Daudt’s first year wielding the speaker’s gavel started out with a bang. His partisan peers came to value him as a tenacious negotiator. He exhibited a natural sense of when to give in, when to stand his ground, and how to unpack his positions on MPR and Almanac.

At one point early in the session, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton told a roomful of media jackals that he trusted Daudt more than Tom Bakk, his own party’s Senate majority leader.

The 2015 session officially came to a disorganized, uninspired end for both parties when they put off crucial decisions for a special session. During that brief negotiation in June, Daudt took full advantage of the lingering uneasiness between Dayton and Bakk, managing to get more tax cuts than Senate Democrats would’ve liked, and ensuring lawmakers would go home to their districts without a sustainable transportation plan or a commitment to universal preschool, both priorities for the governor.

A tactical pattern began to emerge. When talking to the press, the speaker emphasized cooperation and common sense. On the House floor and behind closed doors, however, he and his caucus — dedicated to cutting taxes and slashing budgets — would play disciplined defense, targeting “liberal” legislation designed to help children, families, and communities in need.

Daudt’s playbook was little more than a remedial recipe for gridlock, but Republicans were pleased to simply thwart the DFL, even if they could show no real triumphs of their own.

“He just did very well with the constraints he’s had to deal with,” says former House Republican David FitzSimmons, now chief of staff to Congressman Tom Emmer. “I just think he’s very deliberative. I think that’s a lot of his strength.”

Daudt’s done his best to paint Dayton and his cronies as tax-and-spend liberals who care only for the metro.

Daudt’s done his best to paint Dayton and his cronies as tax-and-spend liberals who care only for the metro.

Yet on the first day of the 2016 session, Daudt’s personal behavior again made for embarrassing headlines. Reporters learned that Daudt had been sued three times by credit card companies for over $13,000 in unpaid bills.

He quickly settled the debts, which involved at least one creditor curiously dismissing its request for payment. Daudt held a press conference, claiming the experience gave him a “real appreciation for the [financial] struggles Minnesotans have gone through.”

The common-man shtick came off more as disingenuous spin than empathetic contrition. Democrats gleefully noted that the self-righteous fiscal conservative, whose caucus loved to wag fingers at financial imprudence, couldn’t balance his own checkbook.

The speaker’s reputation took another hit at the end of the 2016 legislative session when, for the second year running, lawmakers pushed essential negotiations off until the last minute. They failed to approve $1 billion in funding for bridges, roads, and transit. It was a colossal failure, even though both parties had previously said that passing a transportation-bonding bill was an election year goal.

Negotiations ultimately collapsed when Republicans refused to approve money for metro light rail, jeopardizing $900 million in federal funds that would only be released if the state ponied up as well.

Leadership in both parties got hammered for bad time management. A few outstate columnists derided Dayton for his stubborn commitment to metro trains. But Daudt and his party also exposed the fundamental philosophy underlying their every block and tackle.

They were very good at bringing government to a halt, but had few ideas of their own.

Daudt’s playbook was little more than a remedial recipe for gridlock, but Republicans were pleased.

Daudt’s playbook was little more than a remedial recipe for gridlock, but Republicans were pleased.

“Daudt is very good at negotiating things to a standstill. But he’s yet to find common ground on anything that moves things ahead for Minnesota,” says Dan McGrath of the advocacy group TakeAction Minnesota, which concentrates on economic issues that affect health, wealth, and race.

“In Minnesota, we like our Republicans reasonable-sounding. But the Republican base is anything but. They’re just happy to make sure the government doesn’t work.”

It was a risky gambit. If conservatives lose the House next month, Daudt’s highlight reel will be picked over for culpability. If they win, the victorious speaker will be a frontrunner for governor.

It’s lunchtime and the speaker, along with a trio of young white male staffers, is waiting on the ripped-up fourth floor of the recently flooded State Office Building. Daudt stares ruminatively out a window overlooking the Capitol grounds.

It’s a tad awkward, but not unfriendly. I can think of a dozen reasons the man in pressed jeans, blue blazer, tasseled shoes, and buffalo check dress shirt isn’t feeling especially gregarious.

He’s already spent a long morning fundraising and talking with media. After we’re done, he’ll leave for an afternoon of outstate campaigning and another fundraiser. Somehow, he got roped into talking with a metropolitan weekly that’s never been in the business of lionizing legislators.

Still, the scene’s taciturn tone surprises me a bit, if only because I’ve looked forward to feeling like the prettiest person in the room.

I was told I would have an hour, but Daudt suggests 20 minutes. I decide to table the standard profile BS and cut to the quick.

Can Republicans hold the House?

Daudt won’t get cocky. The House has flipped in four of the last five elections. But he feels like Republicans’ central message — essentially, that Dayton is an out-of-touch elitist who needs a robust counterweight — is resonating.

While he’s not sure how Donald Trump might play for the home team, Trump’s candidacy suggests people are angry, which usually augers against the party “in control.”

“Trump is doing incredibly well out in greater Minnesota. Now is that because he’s ‘doing well’ or is it just that Hillary Clinton is so unpopular? I don’t know. But we shouldn’t ignore that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump did incredibly well in the state. And they’re outsiders, they’re incredibly unconventional, and they’re seen as anti-establishment. That says a lot about the mood of the country.”

Minnesota’s Grand Old Party was desperate for a different brand of outsider after the 2012 election. After pushing unpopular amendments to ban same-sex marriage and require voter I.D., they lost their House majority and faced a unified DFL government for the first time in 22 years.

Burdened with a shallow talent pool and bleeding money, party leaders wisely decided that Daudt, a man of low profile and little baggage, could help while they regrouped.

Daudt self-marketed as a small-town pragmatist who would fight to keep taxes low and subvert DFL shopping sprees.

Democrats achieved a fair share of their goals over the next two years, including an anti-bullying law and the legalization of same-sex marriage and medical marijuana. They were so successful, in fact, that they convinced themselves of their own invincibility.

Republicans began to forge a counterstrike to win back the House. They recruited talented candidates in 10 winnable out-state races. Their mission: to convince farmers, small-town business owners, and beleaguered laborers that economic recovery had yet to crawl their way because Dayton and his tax-and-spend cronies cared only for the metro.

One ubiquitous attack ad focused on the construction of a new, $90 million Minnesota Senate Office Building (it actually came in under budget at $76 million).

Despite the dire need for additional space in St. Paul, Daudt reveled in pointing out that the sticker price and frivolous amenities — three-story glass facade! Meeting rooms with theater seating! – were proof that cosmopolitan extravagance had again trumped the real needs of rural folk.

After taking back the House, Daudt and his cohorts spent the early part of 2015 using the imagery as a catapult, promising that St. Paul was finally going to pay attention to outstate Minnesota. (Never mind that Senate Majority Leader Bakk hails from Cook, pop. 574.)

Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) says it amounted to a “regional war,” which had little to do with economic realities or her party’s priorities.

Of Minnesota’s 87 counties, the seven forming the metro area generate 63 percent of the state’s revenues. Moreover, the DFL’s principal policies — health care, education, job training, and broadband access — don’t discriminate by address.

When I mention to Daudt that I’d just seen a Republican ad featuring a picture of the Senate Office Building, he waves me off. “That’s not getting much traction anymore,” he says. “The number-one issue out there now is health care and the costs of health insurance.”

Last month, the Minnesota Department of Commerce announced that about 5 percent of the citizenry — who shop for individual health insurance policies through MNsure, the state’s insurance exchange — will have a much shorter list of coverage options, and pay hikes of between 55 to 77 percent for the privilege.

“It’s a real crisis,” Daudt says. “There are people who are really being hurt by this.”

A self-insured freelancer, I nod and ask whether this will finally get Democrats and Republicans to sing Kumbaya.

“We can work together, we absolutely can,” Daudt assures me. “But here’s what needs to happen: Democrats have to admit that there’s a problem. No Democrat yet, that I know of, has admitted that there’s a problem. I can’t believe that. I can’t believe that nobody is writing about that.”

It’s a confounding argument. The morning we spoke, both parties were already on full alert over the problem. Yet Daudt seems more interested in scoring political points than discussing solutions. He also conveniently omits the fact that Republicans have spent the past six years trying to sabotage the Affordable Care Act (better known as ObamaCare), while offering nary an alternative.

I ask what Daudt would do to solve the problem. He’s not sure — maybe shift people to a federal exchange — but points out that Minnesota had the best insurance in the country before the president mucked things up. If he were king for a day, he’d have us go back to the “way it was.”

This, of course, ignores the fact that when Obama was running against John McCain, both parties agreed the health care system was untenable. Premiums were skyrocketing at double-digit rates, and many of the working poor didn’t have insurance at all.

No matter. That was then. This is a different election.

A few days later, Republicans will propose eliminating MNsure and shifting people to a federal exchange. They also propose saving $22 million by cutting taxes currently used for MNsure.

None of these fixes address the fundamental issue of rising health care costs. They’re also tinted with an “I told you so” tone that’s unhelpful and inaccurate.

It was the Democrats, after all, who convened a task force to fix MNsure last January. Republicans summarily rejected its proposals, ignoring the pending emergency. Daudt believes reconvening that group will only “smooth over” the problem, which is that health insurance reform is a failure.

As we go back and forth, Daudt is unerringly collegial. He clearly believes, as one DFL lobbyist notes, that he’s the smartest guy in the room.

But he works hard not to condescend. He tends to try out various lines of argument, which comes across as unconsciously halting and purposefully evasive. He has yet to get his mojo working the way I’ve heard him do before a hot microphone.

Take economic development in the Minnesota countryside.

“To me, this stuff is really simple,” he explains. “If Minnesotans make more money, the state is going to benefit from that. We’re going to have more revenue coming in. So it’s kind of a ‘raise the level of the water and all boats float higher.’ That’s our philosophy.”

And how will this be accomplished?

“Well, that’s where it becomes a little bit more difficult, because the philosophy of the governor and the progressives — kind of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Democrats — is different than ours. They think that raising the wage to $15 an hour is somehow going to help everybody. But what you’re doing is eliminating jobs that are below $15 an hour. You’re not necessarily moving everybody up to $15. For instance, grocery stores aren’t going to have high school students stocking their shelves anymore.”

What I’m looking for, of course, are specifics — a program, an initiative, an actual idea. This is not the stuff Daudt will provide. Within the art of contemporary Republicanism, his job is to tell you what won’t work, then pivot to criticism of how the other side isn’t making progress.

Daudt pontificates about red tape and needless bureaucracy, stuff that makes for great bumper stickers and 20-second sound bites. Who hasn’t wanted to start a revolution while standing in line to get a license or a building permit? Still, it’s not entirely clear how reducing paperwork will lead to an economic boon for Brainerd.

One of my goals was to discover what makes Daudt tick. While general consensus says the speaker is hard-working, amicable, and talented, there’s less agreement on what he actually stands for. 

As the clock winds down on our time together, Daudt is unwilling or unable to go down that road. So I shift to transportation. Specifically, Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT), which, if Republicans retain control of the House, promises to once again be a contentious, potentially crippling issue next year.

Given Daudt’s rural strategy of divide and conquer, Republicans’ objection to SWLRT makes sense, if only as a naked political tactic. The basic argument: While rural roads and bridges fall apart, and small towns suffer, Dayton plays with fantastic toys that no one will ride.

Most egregiously, outstate Minnesotans get stuck with the tab.

This too is a few shades short of the truth. Earlier this year, Dayton and the Senate proposed a metro-only sales tax to pay for light rail expansion. Another part of the plan provided long-term funding for roads, bridges, and greater Minnesota transit.

Writing in the Star Tribune, Dave Van Hattum, a lobbyist for Transit for Livable Communities, unmasked the hollowness of Daudt’s play.

“How much state money was at stake in the debate over Southwest light-rail funding?” Van Hattum asked. “Essentially zero.”

Groups like Hattum’s speak for residents and businesspeople already losing time and money on the metro’s maddeningly inefficient highway system.

When a city lacks 21st-century amenities, it’s simply harder to recruit forward-thinking companies and employees to the state. Lower-income residents in second- and third-ring suburbs can’t get to jobs across town. Suburban companies struggle to lure young professionals who live in the city.

It’s soon to get worse. In the coming decade, another 10,000 people will share these roads.

The quest for relief is bipartisan, stretching from the employee breakroom to the executive suite. 

Yet metro business leaders were vexed during the last legislative session. Faced with overwhelming data supporting rail, Daudt’s caucus insisted on turning it into a purely partisan issue.

“Sadly, the Republicans’ objection to light rail is about politics, not the future economic prosperity of the state,” says Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. “This doesn’t boil down to a huge partisan issue in other states — Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City. But here Daudt and the Republicans are using it to pit metro voters against rural voters.”

Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens, whose suburb sits on the planned Southwest line, is befuddled by the gamesmanship.

“We do a community survey every year. And the percentage of residents that are favoring light rail is hovering around 80 percent. Daudt has said that the communities along the Southwest rail line don’t really support it. That’s what he hears from his political supporters, I guess. But it’s just not true. He’s just not paying attention to the facts.”

Daudt is unmoved, even when I note that Eden Prairie isn’t exactly a haven for big-government liberals. His objections, frankly, are a little hard to follow — a combination of incoherent data points and denial.

Asked if he thinks rail could be economically beneficial, he says yes, but then complains about Dayton sneaking rail into the transportation bill at the 11th hour. He says the routes don’t make sense, the trains won’t reach those most in need.

When asked about the rising use of mass transit — the system had record ridership in 2015 — he invites me to look out the window.

“I can sit right here and watch that train go by and I can see that it’s empty. Every day. Every day. It’s kind of a joke around here. People will say, ‘Oh, yeah, I was sitting at the stoplight watching the train go by, and there were 7 people on the train.’ And it holds 280 people.”

What he doesn’t note is it’s the middle of a workday and the legislature isn’t in session.

“I want to see a comprehensive plan. And I don’t want the tail wagging the dog. I want it to be driven by us looking at every option.”

Mayor Tyra-Lukens is nonplussed: “The Met Council has exhaustively studied this issue. For any legislator to say they don’t have enough information is disingenuous. Either they’re saying that because you don’t want to make a decision, or they’re not doing their job.”

After talking for nearly 25 minutes, the speaker wants to wrap it up. I ask what attracted him to public service in the first place.

“If you want to talk a little bit more about me, we can push things five minutes or something,” he says with a congenial chuckle, easing back into his chair.

The mood shifts. Daudt becomes noticeably calmer, less combative, more in command of his material. His answers have just the right mixture of spontaneity, reflection, and polish, which makes sense. I’ve read most of them in one form or another in profiles written over the past six years.

“I’m just the kind of person and personality that when I get into something, I just throw myself into it — whether it be at my church [Missouri Synod Lutheran], my jobs, anything,” he says.

We talk about the responsibility of being speaker and chat about his relationship with Dayton, which has gotten a bit “volatile” as of late.

“The governor too often gets into the mudslinging and name-calling. My style is, I don’t like that. I don’t think Minnesotans like that. I don’t think people like it. So I stay away from that as much as I can.”

I ask him what he loves most about the job.

“I always describe legislating like golf. You go out on the golf course and you hit terrible shots, and you dribble it down the fairway and into the water and onto the sand most of the day,” he says.

“And then a constituent comes in and they want you to do something or fix something, and you get to help somebody. You get to make a real difference in someone’s life. It doesn’t happen often enough, but when it does happen it’s the fuel that keeps you going. It’s that one good shot. It’s what gets you coming back for more.”

It’s true, I find myself thinking. If you don’t get to know him well, it’s hard not to like the guy.