Most University of Minnesota students spend their days studying or working part-time jobs — not running for political office.
Neuroscience senior Kody Zalewski is juggling all three.
Zalewski, a Republican candidate, is challenging Rep. Phyllis Kahn for seat 60B in the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Kahn has represented the University area for almost 40 years and has won her seat with an average of about 70 percent of the vote in the past five elections.
Although he’s running as a Republican, Zalewski isn’t a typical conservative.
“I’d probably classify myself as a Libertarian first and a Republican second,” he said.
His Libertarian leanings show in his staunch opposition to the upcoming marriage and voter ID amendments that Minnesotans will vote on in November.
Zalewski said he would be Minnesota’s first openly bisexual representative and that he supports LGBT rights.
“I want to let the LGBT community know I’m there to support them,” he said. “I’m not just another Republican trying to support marriage inequality.”
Interspersed between all of this, Zalewski took a shot at American Idol. He didn’t make the cut, but he said a memorable outtake of him singing Lady Gaga while doing taekwondo made it to TV.
“Honestly, it was just something to cross off my bucket list,” he said.
His disdain for the climate of state politics initially pushed Zalewski to run for office.
“I have become so frustrated with what I’ve been seeing in government right now, and I felt like I had to do something about it,” he said.
Zalewski, a Wisconsin native, was a Minnesota Ron Paul delegate at the Republican precinct caucus in February and an alternate for the district and state conventions. From there he was encouraged to run for Minnesota House against Kahn.
Zalewski said his blending of Libertarian and Republican ideals can appeal to fellow college students.
“There’s a lot of support out there for people who are willing to go outside the party mainstream,” he said.
Zalewski said he thinks Democrats like Kahn too often try to micromanage people’s lives.
“Coming from a more Libertarian standpoint, I believe people can make smart choices for themselves,” he said.
As a student, Zalewski said he feels he can connect with the young people in the district better than his opponent.
“I understand where many college students are coming from, what concerns them, such as tuition costs and the economy,” he said.
David P. Pascoe, Zalewski’s campaign treasurer, said, “The fact he’s a student at the U right now and the U is most of 60B is kind of helpful. It gives him a way to relate to a lot of his fellow students.”
Pascoe, also the treasurer for Republican state House candidate Brent Millsop, said he offered his services after Zalewski entered the race.
The first things Zalewski said he’d like to work on if elected are marriage equality, legalization of marijuana and a relaxation of restrictions on nuclear power.
School and work make campaigning extra hard, Zalewski said. He works as a researcher at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
“Sometimes it can be a schedule crunch,” he said.
Zalewski’s plan is to attend medical school after graduating, but he said if elected, he would drop out to commit to the Legislature.
Zalewski’s dad, Kevin Zalewski, said he had a feeling his son might get into politics from a young age.
“Since he was about 14 or so I’ve noticed he’s been very interested in politics.” he said.
Though they live in Wisconsin and cannot vote for their son, Zalewski’s family supports his campaign.
“I don’t know how much [money] everyone is giving, but I know we can only give so much, so that’s what we did,” Kevin Zalewski said.
Regardless of the outcome, Kevin Zalewski said he’s proud of the initiative his son took in running for office.
“His mother and I are both very proud of him. He’s very strong on his convictions,” he said. “I think he would do a very good job. To me, it’s a great experience.”
An uphill race
Despite his optimism, Zalewski is running for a seat held by one of the longest-serving legislators in the state’s history. Kahn was first elected to represent the district in 1972, and hasn’t left since.
Kahn said she hasn’t heard much from Zalewski so far and thinks it will be tough for him to get his name out.
“Legislative campaigns aren’t heavy financial burdens, but unless you have some money, it’s very hard to inform people about who you are,” Kahn said.
Zalewski said having an “R” next to his name might hold him back at times, but he thinks voters will be drawn to his message once they learn more about him.
“I think once the word starts getting out to college students where I stand, and that I am not a George Bush, Mitt Romney Republican … [they] will be more receptive to my message,” he said.
Win or lose, Zalewski said he’ll earn valuable experience along the way and might try running for office again later in life.
“If for some reason this effort fails and another need arises in the future,” he said, “I would really like to become involved again.”