Calling it alternately “a new day” and “a different day,” Republican leadership rushed to fill a void Monday, Feb. 3, following the weekend’s ouster of Minnesota state Sen. Tom Bakk as a Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislative party leader.
“The Democrats have turned their backs on you,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said in a Facebook video geared toward Iron Range voters. “I want you to know and I want it to be crystal clear that when they threw out Tom Bakk as minority leader ... for someone in the Cities, it's a different day. So I want you to know I have your back up on the Range.”
Bakk was ousted Saturday in favor of Twin Cities metro-area Sen. Susan Kent in a closed-door caucus vote. The political gambit ended 10 years as a Minnesota DFL Senate leader for the five-term legislator from Cook.
Bakk has yet to publicly address the maneuver, and a spokesperson said he would not be available Monday for comment.
The leadership change doesn't change the power structure in St. Paul, where Republicans control the Senate and Democrats lead the House of Representatives and hold the governor’s office. But it could change negotiations around a bonding bill and determination on how the state could spend a $1.3 billion budget surplus this year. Some said the move illustrated the Democratic Party’s shift in focus away from Greater Minnesota strongholds to the bigger cities and suburbs.
“The big thing that’s going to be lost is we won’t have a person from our area in that final negotiation when it comes down to Senate leadership, the governor and House leadership,” St. Louis County Commissioner Paul McDonald, representing Cook and the northernmost part of the county, said. “We lose a vital cog in the wheel for our area.”
Reactions from Senate legislators were sparse, but the news reverberated throughout the Range, where Republicans had already made headway in recent elections and blurred what had historically been a DFL stronghold.
Larry Cuffe Jr., mayor of Virginia, said he was disappointed and called it a sign of the times, describing a DFL moving further left as Iron Rangers strive for a middle ground. Losing a core leadership voice during a bonding year is a “huge disadvantage,” he said.
“I’m not going to say our projects aren’t going to be considered, but it’s a concern that we don’t have that voice of support for Iron Range projects,” he said.
Cuffe Jr. wondered aloud if it was time for Range legislators to form their own caucus in an effort to maintain a voice at the highest level of state influence.
Regarding the Republican courtship of Range voters, Cuffe Jr. called it a pendulum swing toward a party that has been unequivocal about its mining support. Iron Range Democrats have historically split with their peers on some social issues and legislation related to mining and pipeline projects that fuel the region's economy.
“To sacrifice one community’s way of life for another, that doesn’t bode well," said Cuffe Jr., who endorsed Republican Rep. Pete Stauber in the 2018 8th Congressional District race. “When you see support for your way of life start to erode, you look for someone else to represent you.”
House Speaker Melissa Hortman and House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler also represent suburban districts, though Winkler grew up in Bemidji. And Kent joins Assistant Minority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, in Senate minority leadership.
Hortman, a Democrat from Brooklyn Park, said the move to install Kent wasn’t geographically motivated and said the party would continue supporting policies that benefit all Minnesotans.
“My understanding is that the decision was not based on geography,” Hortman said. “What I know about the DFL party is that whether in the Senate or in the House or statewide offices, we’re the only party that represents Minnesotans from the Canadian border to Iowa and from the Dakotas to Wisconsin. Every single kind of Minnesotan can look to the state Capitol and see that there’s a state representative that represents their point of view.”
Gov. Tim Walz thanked Bakk for his eight years leading the Senate DFL caucus and welcomed Kent to the post, listing the priorities he said he hoped to accomplish with the Woodbury Democrat leading the minority.
“The Senate made their decision. They came out of executive (session) unified. We’re really excited about this. I think between our local jobs program, our bonding bill, so many initiatives around insulin, we’re just going to have a unified team. So as far as we’re concerned, this is getting us ready to win in the fall,” Walz told reporters at a campaign event for Amy Klobuchar in Iowa.
But for Range voices, Bakk’s ouster seemed like something other than support.
“It’s a loss for rural and Northeastern Minnesota,” McDonald said, while also citing Bakk’s clout as a fundraiser. “He was a seasoned negotiator and a true moderate that was willing to compromise. This is a sad day for rural Minnesota.”