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Bakk needs building skills in new state Senate

Sitting in his State Capitol office, Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook talks about his future and the future of Senate Democrats after they lost control of the body in the Nov. 2 election. In coming weeks, he must move to a much less ornate office across the street from the Capitol. Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- It is a good thing that Tom Bakk is a carpenter.

As new Senate minority leader, Bakk faces a major rebuilding task, beginning with morale and ending with the 2012 election when Democratic-Farmer-Laborites hope to craft a majority.

Senate Republicans took a 37-30 majority in the Nov. 2 election, kicking Democrats out of that position for the first time in three decades. More than a third of the Senate will be newly elected when the 2011 session convenes at noon Jan. 4.

Bakk's carpentry background could prove valuable with the new GOP majority and new governor, who even if a recount confirms will be fellow Democrat Mark Dayton always may not be on the same wavelength as other Democrats.

"This is going to be a significant challenge," the Cook senator said. "I'm a builder. I like challenges."

Even before he begins dealing with Republicans and the governor, however, Bakk must deal with his own Democratic senators.

Only a handful of DFL senators have been in the political minority, and that was in the House. Bakk is one of them, and he said his minority experience will help him in his new job.

For most DFL senators, the Nov. 2 election loss was a shock, one they still feel. Thirteen Democrats lost and three more did not seek re-election.

"I don't think anybody contemplated that," Bakk said.

Nearly three weeks after the election, Democrats still do not understand how their "role is going to be changed," Bakk said.

They will see fewer lobbyists at their doors, since Republicans will call most of the shots, and will serve on fewer committees. They also will find what Senate Republicans long have known, it is tough for a minority member to pass bills without working with majority senators.

Also, many staff members who long have worked for Democrats no longer will be around since the majority party gets the majority of staff members, often picked by political affiliation.

"That's what everybody is talking about," Bakk said.

Bakk could lose more senators. If Dayton becomes governor, it is possible that he will invite some experienced legislators to lead agencies in his administration.

Before the 2011 session begins, Democrats and Republicans swap offices. The majority party's offices are in the ornate Capitol building, while the minority is housed in the mundane State Office Building across the street. Boxes must be packed and moved before the real work begins in January.

Bakk thinks he can get along with Republicans and the incoming Senate majority leader, Amy Koch of Buffalo has high hopes that will happen.

"I think maybe that he is less partisan," Koch said, adding that she looks forward to working with Bakk.

So far, she has kept Bakk in the loop. She has asked for little advice, but has told Bakk about things like who she picked for committee chairmen before releasing information to the public.

For Bakk, the new position is not what he wanted. He was running for governor until earlier this year. However, months of campaigning across the state gave him a background few senators can claim. He talked to voters, mostly Democrats, and got their ideas about state government.

There is "an underlying assumption" that part of the minority leader's job is to regain the political majority, Bakk said. But, he added, politics will play second fiddle to policy in 2011.

Still, he counts on politics to help Democrats get what they want. If Dayton is governor, they will be able to work together even if they do not always agree, Bakk said.

"Don't underestimate the power of a governor," he added.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.