ROCHESTER, Minn. — If politics is about boiling a political message down to its essence, GOP Sen. Paul Gazelka has reduced his campaign message for governor to this: public safety.

The race is still more than a year away, but GOP gubernatorial candidates have begun making the trek to Rochester.

Gazelka, who recently resigned as Senate majority leader to run for governor, said he would seek to reform the state's peacetime emergency powers and do more to shore up law enforcement and "make sure the streets are safe."

"I think we're way off track," Gazelka said Tuesday, Sept. 28, during an interview at Rochester Community and Technical College. "Gov. Tim Walz ran on 'One Minnesota.' I've never seen Minnesota more divided, more angry or more afraid."

Gazelka, a small business owner from East Gull Lake, Minnesota, is among a half-dozen Republicans to declare a run for governor. He is one of three, including Sen. Michelle Benson and former Sen. Dr. Scott Jensen, considered favorites to win the Republican Party's endorsement.

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The interview with Gazelka ranged over education and critical race theory, abortion and Roe v. Wade, the country's immigration challenges and the party's long-running drought in winning statewide races. (The GOP has lost 26 of the last 27 statewide contests since 2006.)

The interview has been edited for length.

What makes you wake up in the morning and want to be governor?

I feel like we've really gotten off track, particularly with the decisions the governor made related to COVID. I truly believe that no person should have emergency powers for more than a year and half. So I would reform the state's emergency powers. But the biggest one, without a doubt, is recognizing public safety and that people want to feel safe.

And the main way we do that is to make sure we have a well-trained police force that can be involved in communities and make sure the streets are safe. None of those are true right now.

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, is a candidate for governor. Gazelka is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, is a candidate for governor. Gazelka is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

And what policies would you pursue to emphasize public safety?

I would provide more resources to have more police on the streets. If Minneapolis doesn't do it, I would put more money into Hennepin County, if they would be willing to. That was something that we worked on. I would work with the Highway Patrol to use them in whatever way they thought was best to provide safety, because the governor can do that. And there are places that maybe the National Guard needs to help as well.

But more resources is what we have to have right now.

There's something like 650,000 people in the U.S. who have died of COVID. Would you have used any of the governor's powers, emergency or otherwise, to try to inhibit the disease if you were governor?

I would have encouraged mask wearing, but I would not have forced the mask mandate. I would not have closed the schools because kids were not at risk in the schools. I would not have made the decisions where bars can have 50 people and at the same time, churches can only have 10. They were all these arbitrary decisions.

But I would have also said — and always said — that the virus is real and very serious, and people need to take it seriously. I would not have sheltered in place everyone. I probably, in the beginning, would have sheltered in place people over 70, because that's where the vast number of deaths were happening.

Why only big businesses could function and little businesses closed down, in my opinion, was a huge mistake.

If you've been driving through Rochester today, there's a lot of "Hiring Now" signs. Employers are starved for workers. What would a Gov. Gazelka economic program look like?

We already know that there's this workforce shortage that has been coming. But it's clear the only thing that has changed that made this dramatic shift is COVID, how we've responded to it, the unemployment benefits and all that. And so we need to relook at how we do welfare. Anybody that can work needs to be working in some fashion, not just for their own livelihood but for the good of the entire state.

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, is a candidate for governor. Gazelka is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, is a candidate for governor. Gazelka is photographed Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Rochester. Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Would you sign legislation banning critical race theory?

I don't know about banning it, but I want curriculum to talk about everything: The flaws but also the triumphs. I've seen too many kids graduate, and they're not proud to be citizens of the greatest country in the world. I've had people tell me that the flag is a racist symbol. Then you don't know America. I'm not so concerned about critical race theory. It's teaching American's triumphs alongside of our flaws?

Do you expect Roe vs. Wade to be overturned? And if it is, how would that impact the race for the GOP endorsement for governor?

I don't think it will be overturned. I think (the U.S. Supreme Court) will look at issues case by case. The most recent one was the Texas legislation (which bans abortion after a heart beat is detected).

What people don't know is Minnesota has Doe vs. Gomez, which is our own state's abortion law. So I'm pro-life. I've always been been pro-life. I think protecting the unborn all the way to natural death — thinking about everything in between like sure they get a good education, have an opportunity for a job and good health care. That to me is pro-life.

Republican candidates for statewide office have lost 26 out of 27 races since 2006. How do you expect to change that?

The No. 1 issue is public safety right now, without a doubt. So between public safety and education, I think those will be issues that people are looking for a change. I've been working with blue collar unions for the last seven, eight years. Democrats have chosen an environmental agenda over those blue collar union jobs.

Was the election stolen from former President Trump in 2020?

So the only state that I focused on is Minnesota. And I have said that I do not think Trump won Minnesota.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent Minnesota National Guard troops to shore up the border with Mexico when he led the state. Would you as governor?

Absolutely. We should be supporting all the legal immigration that we can handle. But if you reward illegal immigration and let people just run through the border, that's a huge mistake.