Former Senate leader seeking GOP endorsement for governor

Sen. Paul Gazelka said he is the best candidate to unseat DFL Gov. Tim Walz

By: - September 8, 2021 10:59 am

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Sep. 8, 2021, announces his run for Minnesota governor. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Republican state Sen. Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake said Wednesday he is running to be his party’s nominee for governor, declaring himself the best GOP candidate to deny DFL Gov. Tim Walz a second term.

Gazelka, who announced his run at the State Capitol surrounded by supporters and his wife Maralee, is staking his political future on his gubernatorial run. He will not be returning to the Senate in 2023, and he said he would abide by the GOP convention endorsement and step aside if he isn’t successful in securing the nomination. 

Gazelka joins state Sen. Michelle Benson and former state Sen. Scott Jensen among major Republicans seeking to oust Walz, who was first elected in 2018.

He criticized Walz’s handling of the pandemic, saying his decisions to temporarily shutter businesses and shift public schools to online learning had devastated entrepreneurs and families. He also hit the governor’s response to the civil unrest and rioting that leveled hundreds of Twin Cities businesses in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police.

“Other states had their schools open,” Gazelka said, arguing that students have experienced learning loss that he intends to reverse. 

Gazelka came under fire after Republican senators were stricken with COVID-19 following a post-election victory party he threw. State Sen. Jerry Relph later died, and his daughter blamed Gazelka for his death.

“I am deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Relph, a personal friend,” he said Wednesday. “We followed all the guidelines that were required at that particular moment and he contracted the virus.”

At the time, the Minnesota Department of Health warned against large gatherings.  

Gazelka added that despite the experience, as well as contracting COVID-19 himself, he does not believe in a vaccine mandate.

Gazelka is a four-term senator, having previously served in the Minnesota House. He’s the most socially conservative GOP Senate leader in modern history, guided by his Christian faith. 

His Senate career began after he ousted the first openly gay GOP lawmaker, former state Sen. Paul Koering. He has a record of supporting legisation that would restrict access to abortion, but declined to say Wednesday whether he would sign a Texas-style abortion law.

“Every bill I have to see, so I don’t make commitments that directly, other than to say I am pro-life. My whole record shows that I am pro-life, so I would follow down that path,” he said.

The mild-mannered lawmaker, however, will have to work to win over GOP activists who have criticized him for brokering compromises with Walz and DFL legislative leaders over the past two state budgets.

DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin in a statement criticized Gazelka’s entrance into the race.

“While in office, Paul Gazelka attacked voting rights, worked to limit access to health care, blocked meaningful criminal justice reform, and refused to call for the resignation of Minnesota GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan after countless reports of her abusive leadership came to light,” Martin said in a statement. “The last thing Minnesotans need is someone who prioritizes their own political interests over the working people of this state.”

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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