New GOP Senate leader Senjem ready to go forward
ST. PAUL - It is back to the future for Minnesota Senate Republicans with Dave Senjem back in charge.
"The direction is nothing but forward," Senjem said, adding that despite his history as GOP leader, "it is a new day."
A 69-year-old senator from Rochester, Senjem moves into the majority leader's position a year after he ended four years of service as minority leader. In his last year in that job, he and Sen. Amy Koch led an election effort that put Republicans in control of the Senate for the first time in 38 years.
Senjem said he was "out of gas" and opted not to run for majority leader a year ago.
Koch, R-Buffalo, was the first woman majority leader for the year between the Senjem terms, resigning Dec. 15. Last week, she admitted to an improper relationship with a Senate employee.
Senjem beat Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, in the race for majority leader, receiving a majority of senators' votes on the only ballot they cast.
Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said there were no hard feelings with the results of the vote and the caucus is "unified and behind" Senjem.
Meanwhile, the top Senate Democrat said Senjem immediately needs to tackle ethics, legal and financial issues.
"The integrity and honor of the Minnesota Senate have been seriously called into questions by recent events, and right now our first priority must be restoring the public's trust in our institution," Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said in a letter to Senjem.
Bakk, while not naming Koch, urged Senjem to solve all ethical and legal questions. So far, no senator has filed paperwork charging Koch with an ethical violation.
On Minnesota Public Radio Wednesday, Senjem said that he does not expect an ethics complaint to be filed.
"What happened has happened," the new majority leader said. "It is over as far as I'm concerned. It is time to move on."
One of Senjem's early decisions must be how to deal with a $2 million cut in the Senate budget, part of a summer budget deal with the governor that ended a 20-day government shutdown.
Senjem won election during an 11-hour closed-door meeting in a Roseville hotel, emerging at 8 p.m. to announce he will continue Koch's focus on the jobs, economy and state government reform.
Many senators considered running for majority leader, but only Hann and Senjem were nominated.
Gimse was one of those who thought about running for the job, the third most powerful in state government, after initially rejecting the notion.
Prior to the vote for a new majority leader, Gimse said that Senate Republicans had a "long" and "lively" debate about the kind of person the caucus needed at the top.
The Willmar senator said Koch attended the session and was "welcomed warmly" by fellow Republican senators.
Gimse said Koch reiterated her apology and said she was "very sorry for the situation she put our caucus in."
He added: "We forgave her and we're moving on."
Senjem's majority leader term ends in a year, and Senate Republicans will again elect someone to that position after the November 2012 election.
The legislative election is Senjem's first job next year, with Republicans holding a narrow advantage with 37 of the 67 senators.
Senjem, a former Rochester City Council member, is known as friendly, but he has little experience negotiating with someone like Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. He may not be called upon for that in the next year, since the budget already is set.
Dayton agrees with legislative Republicans on the need to reform state government, which likely will be one of the major issues in 2012.
Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan, called Senjem a good collaborator and said he could work with all factions of the GOP caucus. He also is known to be able to work with Democrats, something that sometimes was difficult for Republican senators in the past year.
The next session begins Jan. 24 and legislative leaders plan to adjourn by April 30.
Carolyn Lange of the West Central Tribune contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.