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Human moments dominate Minnesota Senate's first day

Sen. Gary Kubly
Sen. Gary Kubly

The Senate chamber, typically a place filled with the buzz of dozens of conversations, was totally quiet Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, was speaking, and the other 66 senators were trying hard to understand the words he was saying. There were sounds filled with passion coming from Kubly's lips, but the words were unintelligible.

Kubly was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) 18 months ago. The awful progress of the disease was painfully obvious for all to see and hear. Only a few months ago, Kubly was much easier to understand, and he could move around with the aid of a walker.

Now at the start of this new session — which will be Kubly's last — his colleagues strained to hear.

After he had uttered a few sentences, he pushed a button on an iPad. He had typed what he had spoken, and now the machine was doing the talking for him.

"I'd like to thank all the members and the staff for all they have done for me," the automated voice said.

He uttered/typed a few more phrases of appreciation, hit the button, and the automated voice flatly repeated them. There was a moment of silence — then, a long, sincere standing ovation.

It was one of those movingly human moments that brought everyone together. Of course, it won't last. Soon, members of the Minnesota Senate, many of whom are filled with large amounts of self-importance, will be bickering over issues large and small.

Unity moments didn't last
In fact, shortly after the session, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee got in a partisan fight when the GOP committee majority decided to help solve its Senate budget deficit by cutting DFL staff funding by $444,400.

At least briefly, though, Kubly's efforts to speak served as a reminder that there are fundamentals more important than the GOP's "Reform 2.0" plan or the size of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's proposed bonding bill.

There were other human moments on this first day of the session as well.

Sen. Gen Olson, who faced less-threatening health issues, also thanked her colleagues for their thoughtfulness. Olson had heart-related and other problems. Laughing, she told her colleagues: "I got to keep my heart but lost my spleen. … I'm glad to be back with you all."

And then there was the arrival of Sen. Amy Koch into the chamber. She was greeted by hugs from members of both parties. People in quasi-public positions know how hard it is to fall publicly.

She took her seat, only a few feet away where her successor, Majority Leader Dave Senjem, now sits.

After the short session was over, members of the media rushed onto the floor toward Koch. She smiled gamely as she rose from her desk, gently moved through the maze of cameras, recorders and reporters and headed to a room where Senjem was serving welcome-back cake to the senators.

The ethics issues surrounding Koch were not brought up on this first day, not at least on the Senate floor.

Interestingly, her fall from power seems to be causing more friction within the Republican caucus than among DFLers.

At least one Republican senator, David Hann, was disgusted when he read an Koch interview in the Star Tribune late last week in which she was quoted as saying she felt as if she "had been punched in the face."

This seemed to be a reference to the way in which Koch was confronted by a handful of GOP senators about her admitted "inappropriate relationship."

In an interview with the Pioneer Press, Hann said it was the GOP caucus that was "punched in the face," not Koch. Hann, who had been among those who had confronted Koch, is smarting from the fact that those who confronted Koch have received considerable public criticism.

"We had a positive duty and obligation to do those things," Hann said of the confrontation.

Hann had wanted to succeed Koch as majority leader but lost to Senjem in a day-long Dec. 27 meeting of the Senate GOP caucus. Obviously, internal caucus wounds have not yet healed.

Sen. Warren Limmer shrugged off the divisions within the caucus.

"A common enemy [DFL policies] will bring us together," he said.

On this first day of the session, Senjem did his best to bring everybody together.

After hearing Kubly and Olson speak so appreciately of their colleagues, Senjem compared the Senate to "a family" but noted, "Even families have their differences."

There are legislators who have grown weary of how petty those differences often are.

GOP Sen. Howe trying to start 'bipartisan caucus'
Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, is attempting to start a "bipartisan caucus."

Howe is a first-term senator but a veteran elected official. (He served as mayor of Red Wing before winning the Senate seat.) He was appalled at how party labels stymied all efforts last session at fashioning creative solutions to state problems.

And he was also upbraided by the party — in particular, Michael Brodkorb — when he sometimes stepped away from GOP orthodoxy last session.

That Howe even was talking about something like a "bipartisan caucus" shows that this may be a vastly different majority caucus from its predecessor.

One of the differences, by the way, was striking Tuesday. While Brodkorb, who also was a party official, was a constant, looming figure on the Senate floor, his successor, Steve Sviggum, was not seen on Opening Day.

Senjem talked appreciatively of Sviggum's "understanding" of the process.

"It just makes sense," said Howe of his desire to see more collaboration. "There are some issues that really shouldn't be partisan."

How big is his caucus so far?

Howe laughed.

"It's just the first day of the session," he said.

On the first day, everything seems possible.

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