Republican Neil Shah makes his pitch for Minnesota governor as antidote to ‘career politicians’

Neil Shah is banking on outsider appeal to land him inside the State Capitol.

“Right now in St. Paul we have a giant swamp that takes more of your tax dollars and gives you less and less every year,” the dermatologist and GOP gubernatorial hopeful told voters at a candidate forum last week. “We don’t even have safe streets. We have failing public schools. We have economic prospects that are driving people out because of the tax and regulatory environment in this state. We need an outsider to fix that.”

It is a message that has resonated with some voters over Shah’s nearly nine months on the campaign trail, making him the only Republican in the crowded field to garner substantial fundraising without any previous experience running for office.

But he remains in a difficult position to rise above opponents who have deeper connections, higher profiles and more money for the final push. Only a few weeks remain for candidates to appeal to the select group of GOP delegates who will endorse someone in mid-May to run against Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.

Shah said he will drop out if he doesn’t get the endorsement. And if he does make it all the way to the governor’s mansion, he said it would be a brief foray into politics.

“If we want our state and our country to improve, we’re going to have to get closer to what the founders intended, which is citizen servants, serving for a limited period of time and then going back to their day job,” Shah said. “And that’s what I hope to do, is serve as governor for four years, then get back to cutting out skin cancer, which is what I do best.”

The 42-year-old has a dermatology practice with various clinics in Minnesota. His campaign fliers feature a photo of him, in medical scrubs and arms crossed, next to the message, “Save Minnesota from career politicians.”

He lives in North Oaks with his three kids and wife Sara, a North Oaks City Council member who is about to have their fourth child. The son of Indian immigrants, Shah said his parents came to the United States 50 years ago seeking the American dream. He also described his decision to run for office as a “typical American story.”

He was not happy with elected officials’ decisions, and said he decided to throw his hat in the ring rather than sit back and complain.

Other candidates such as long-time state Sens. Paul Gazelka and Michelle Benson have jabbed at him and others who lack experience getting things done in St. Paul.

“You don’t get to be a king. You don’t get to be a dictator. That’s what Jesse Ventura thought. He had great ideas but he couldn’t move the House and Senate. You got to bring them with you, ” Gazelka said at a recent event. “We don’t have time for on-the-job training.”

Shah said he would hire knowledgeable staff to advise him on the key players and roadblocks, and would also lean on some longtime conservative legislators.

While the experience and backgrounds of the GOP candidates differ, their talking points — recited at a multitude of local conventions, forums and meet-and-greets in recent months — sound similar. They would be tough on crime. They opposed government pandemic mandates. They are concerned about elections and what is being taught in schools.

But during the candidate forum last week, Shah took a slightly different approach when asked about election security. He took the microphone after fellow candidate Mike Murphy told the clapping audience that he believed the 2020 election was stolen, that Democrats are busing in undocumented immigrants to vote and that the state should return to paper ballots.

Shah instead pitched the need for election reform as a bipartisan concern, pointing to various European countries that have some form of voter ID requirements and noting complaints among Democrats, such as Stacey Abrams’ allegations of election mismanagement in the Georgia governor’s race.

“The majority of people on either side of the aisle are losing faith in their electoral system, and for good reason,” he said.

When asked in an interview how his stances diverge from the other Republican candidates, Shah brought up public safety, saying law enforcement alone isn’t the solution. The country needs to improve mental health and drug addiction treatment, he said, adding, “We’re letting our fellow citizens down.” He pointed to Michael Shellenberger, the controversial author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities,” as someone offering the right approach.

While GOP candidates’ campaign messaging can seem similar, Shah said his ability to explain small government constitutional conservatism is bringing in people “who may have never looked at a Republican.”

Unlike fellow doctor Scott Jensen, widely considered one of the front-runners for the GOP endorsement, Shah said he did get the COVID-19 vaccine. He stressed that the vaccine should be a personal choice, not mandated. When he got COVID last fall, Shah posted a video saying he also took the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin, an unproven treatment championed by COVID-19 vaccine opponents.

In that video, he referred to Minnesota as the “Republic of Walzistan,” and throughout the campaign, Shah has condemned Walz’s approach to the pandemic. He signed the “Never Again Petition,” which some other candidates have not. The petition supports a bill by Republican state Rep. Erik Mortensen—an outspoken figure who has clashed with other GOP House members—that would end any Minnesota governors’ ability to declare a state of emergency.

Walz’s campaign manager Nichole Johnson dismissed Shah’s candidacy, along with the bids of some other GOP hopefuls. “Shah is running on a platform as unhinged as Scott Jensen while being as irrelevant as Michelle Benson and Mike Murphy,” she said in a statement.

But Shah’s opposition to executive orders appealed to many GOP delegates, including Patricia Schammel of Red Wing, who said one of Shah’s campaign staff recently visited her house.

“I had never even heard Neil’s name before,” said Schammel, who said she was impressed with the campaign worker. And after watching him in a debate last week, she thought he was well-versed on her top issue: “Crime, crime and crime.” She said he is among the top contenders as she weighs who will get her backing in May.

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “We have some really good people to choose from.”

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