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Mills sees run for U.S. House seat as a call to serve

Stewart Mills (right) talks with a local resident during a campaign event in Duluth. Republicans have endorsed Mills to challenge U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan for Minnesota’s 8th District U.S. House seat in November. (Steve Kuchera / 1 / 2
Stewart Mills talks with an area resident during Thursday’s campaign event in Duluth. (Steve Kuchera / / 2

Stewart Mills III said he considers himself an accidental candidate who feels called to serve in Washington to deal with political issues that have grated on him.

His mother was heavily involved in politics, he said. He met President Ronald Reagan as a child. He saw firsthand the machinations his mother went through with campaigns.

“It’s something I swore I would never do myself,” he said in an interview last week with the News Tribune. “I never had any interest in it until it became an opportunity for service.”

And now it’s official. After nearly a year of having his name out there as a candidate for the 8th District’s congressional seat, Mills was formerly endorsed by district Republicans earlier this month. He wants U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s job.

It started with a video.

In January 2013, Mills felt compelled to respond to Nolan and the gun control legislation being pitched in Washington after the school shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn. He was especially irked by Nolan’s comment that he didn’t need an assault weapon to shoot a duck.

In an “open video letter” posted on YouTube, Mills said Nolan’s comparison was out of line, and the automatic sporting rifle sold at Mills Fleet Farm, which his family owns, was more accurate and thus safer than a traditional rifle.

Nolan called the video misleading and said assault rifles were made for one thing only — killing people.

The 42-year-old Mills is undaunted, and preventing gun control is a key issue in his campaign.

“It’s not just the Second Amendment,” Mills said. “It’s the entire Constitution.”

Mills also has advocated for armed guards at schools, saying that “turning our schools into gun-free zones makes our children that much more vulnerable.”

He is a competitive shooter and has made videos showing the finer points of the sport. They usually received a few hundred views. Mills’ gun control video has had 300,000 hits and counting.

“I had no idea it was going to go viral,” he said. He’s happy to have his message out there.

“I know exactly how guns work and the Democrat gun control agenda is something I can easily debunk with my expertise. It is something I feel passionately.”

Making it official

He was persuaded to make a run at Nolan in the voting booth. By November, he officially declared his candidacy, having spoken over the summer and fall in many of the 18 counties that make up the 8th District. On April 12, he was endorsed at the district convention in Park Rapids, Minn.

“This is the starting point,” he said of the days after the endorsement. “We came into the office on Monday and announced, ‘This is the beginning.’ So we have even more hard work to do.”

“I knew I was speaking to the choir,” he said of the small groups of Republicans and Tea Party enthusiasts with whom he has talked. “It was time that the choir went out and found the congregation.”

That congregation is singing a repeated refrain, he said. There is little distinction in what he’s heard in all corners of the vast district that stretches from the northern Twin Cities area to Duluth, International Falls and western cities such as Park Rapids.

“There are people that are very passionate,” he said. “The issues are slightly different. I mean, nobody wants to turn in their guns. Nobody wants to sign up for Obamacare, and no one wants to turn their paycheck in for an unemployment check. It’s universal.”

When asked about issues specific to the Duluth region, he repeated the mantra.

“It’s universal whether you’re in Duluth or over in Brainerd or down in North Branch. People are talking about the same things.”

Mills plans to talk about “four pillars” in his campaign. One is gun control; the others are health care, the federal debt, and tax burdens on small businesses. He talked about each one last week. Here is the rundown:

Gun control

“Our Second Amendment is very much under attack,” Mills said. “There’s definitely real threats both on the state level and the national level. If I can be part of the dialogue statewide, that’s fine.”

He said Nolan “believes that the Second Amendment is a privilege to hunt granted by the government, not a basic human right enshrined in our Constitution.”

The Nolan camp disputes Mills portrayal. Kendal Killian, Nolan’s campaign manager, said he thinks Nolan and Mills actually aren’t far off on their gun control stance, saying the Mills description of Nolan is a “real fabrication” and both men support the Second Amendment.

Mills said guns should be off the table in Washington. “Stop playing politics with our God-given constitutional rights.”

Health care

Mills wants the Affordable Care Act repealed and says he has a sketch of a plan on what to replace it with.

“Something that’s free-market based and actually works,” he said.

He ran the employee health care program at Mills Fleet Farm for 14 years, he said, and he found there are three essential parts to keep in control and keep costs down: Supply, demand and delivery.

Cutting costs and increasing quality of care is the goal of the current effort, he said, but “Obamacare is bringing us in the exact opposite direction. It’s driving up costs and bringing down quality.”

Mills said he would open the insurance market across state lines and would increase the flexibility of health savings accounts.

“Allow people to contribute more and then, when it gets to a certain point, they can put that money into their retirement accounts or into college savings plans.”

He said there also needs to be better transparency on nonemergency medical procedures. “You should know what the prices are.”

He said he also would advocate tort reform to limit claims made against practitioners.

Many of Mills’ points were covered in the Republican’s 2010 “Pledge to America” and Mitt Romney’s plan to replace the health care act as he ran for president in 2012.

Mills Fleet Farm is a self-insurer, meaning it runs its insurance in-house. More than half of workers in the country fall under similar plans and most were exempted from requirements under the Affordable Care Act.

Mills said his company of more than 6,000 employees is still taking a hit as insurance costs have risen and the company is subject to “fees that our employees have not received the benefit of. Our plan has been taxed to subsidize Obamacare.”

Business taxes

Mills said “main street” businesses in the 8th District, the creators and sustainers of jobs, have been “targeted by the Democrats” when it comes to their tax burden.

“They’ve had a bull’s-eye on their back,” he said. “There’s no such thing” as a recovery in jobs here, he said. “Just because Wall Street is doing well doesn’t mean main street is doing well. We have disproportionally high unemployment. That is the hallmark of what this economy has done.”

Unemployment in Northeastern Minnesota has stabilized at 6-7 percent recently, down from a recession-high 10 percent. The state average in March was 4.8 percent. The state historically has had a lower jobless rate than the nation, which sits at 6.7 percent today.

“What I would do is rather that the sugar-high fiscal policy the Democrats have been promoting for five years, I would look to our last best place of success, during the Reagan administration,” Mills said. “Within 10 years we were able to double the amount of money coming into the treasury and usher in the largest peacetime expansion in U.S. history.”

Nolan’s campaign manager bristled at the thought of turning the economic clock back.

“I’m from Duluth,” Killian said. “In 1982, I remember the billboard on (Interstate) 35 near Spirit Mountain that said the last person to leave should turn out the lights. If Mills wants to go back to that economy, he needs to go back to school in Florida and relearn history.”

He said Mills is a millionaire who wants to continue to offer tax breaks for the rich while eroding the middle class.

“He would tip the scale,” Killian said.

The state DFL party also reacted to the Reagan-era comparisons made by Mills.

“He wants to go back to a time when hardworking Minnesotans in Northeastern Minnesota suffered greatly,” DFL chairman Ken Martin said. “Through higher taxes, high unemployment, plant closures and union busting.”

Mills reacted by saying Democrats are “waffling” when it comes to their support of mining and have “more to explain” when it comes to creating jobs in the 8th District.

“Republicans are unified in getting our mining back up to where it should be, including PolyMet.”

Controlling the deficit

Getting the federal budget out of the red is “a math problem. It’s just pure math,” Mills said.

He says the U.S. will look more like Greece or Cyprus if it doesn’t take measures to cut debt and debt service. How he would get that done, Mills didn’t say.

He said he doesn’t support the recent budget proposed by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, something that surprised the Nolan camp.

Mills said he can’t support a budget that doesn’t offer a way to fix the health care economy in line with the rest of the economy.

He said President Obama has refused to work with Congress, and the House and Senate need to start putting bills on his desk.

Killian said Mills’ stance on the Ryan budget was “news to me” and any repeal of the health care act would make drugs and coverage more expensive.

The campaign road

Mills said he’s willing to debate Nolan, a topic that has bubbled in the past two election cycles for the House seat.

“I’m very open to debate,” he said, with the “right time, the right place, the right moderator.”

He thinks he can win election by pulling Democrats and others who are leaning conservative.

“I want to have a big tent and fill it up with people from the business community, the Second Amendment rights community, Constitutionalists, Libertarians, Republicans, the larger conservative movement. That’s how I see myself.”

Is he prepared for the rigors of the campaign road and what have been some heated campaigns as Chip Cravaack upset Jim Oberstar in 2010 and Nolan ousted Cravaack in 2012?

He will certainly be well-funded. Mills is worth between $46 million and $150 million through the family business, and his connections have helped him outpace Nolan in early fundraising.

Mills said whatever slings and arrows come his way, “We don’t have much of a choice.” He said he will make the “sacrifice” for the sake of his principles.

“I’m ready for things to speed up,” Mills said. “I’m going to tell the truth a lot, and if they think it’s nasty, well, I’m going to tell the truth.”

Stewart Mills III Age: 42.

Residence: Brainerd.

Occupation: Vice president for Mills Fleet Farm, a family chain of outdoor and home variety stores that started in 1922 with his grandfather Stewart Mills Sr.’s automobile dealership in Brainerd and today has 34 stores in four states.

Education: Business administration degrees from Northwood University, West Palm Beach, Fla.

Family: Wife, Heather, and five children.

Ambition: To unseat 8th District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in this fall’s election.

Issues: Has a “four pillars” approach: Repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, reduce tax burden on small businesses, defend gun rights and create fiscal policy to deal with federal debt

Connections: The Mills and Nolan families are acquainted with each other in business circles in Brainerd. “I know Rick,” Mills said. “He’s a nice guy. Our families go way back. I know his kids. I just disagree with him politically and philosophically. He and I see this country from completely different viewpoints.”

Did you know? Mills makes no excuses for being a Green Bay Packers fan. A large part of the family business has roots in Wisconsin, and his father and uncle became Packers fans before there was an NFL team in Minnesota. It didn’t hurt that the Packers once drafted, in the 1940s, a Mills family cousin. Stewart Mills III grew up in Appleton, Wis., and Brainerd as a child, shuttling with his father between centers of the family business. He said his father knows legendary Vikings coach Bud Grant, further mixing allegiances. At home, his wife and kids are solid Vikings fans, he said. “We’ve had some interesting afternoons on Sunday.”