WASHINGTON, D.C. — On the surface, North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan’s recent announcement that he won’t seek re-election might not seem like it will affect the careers of Minnesota’s senators that much. Their seniority won’t change that much, they certainly aren’t up for any chairmanships because of it.
However, dig a little deeper and you’ll see that his retirement will actually make life much more difficult for Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. Dorgan, Jacobs said, has been the go-to senior senator for Minnesota’s relatively junior delegation — a critical mind to bounce ideas off and to guide for the relatively new members through the maze of arcane rules and regulations of the most deliberative of deliberative bodies
“It’s a big loss for Minnesota, and for our two senators,” Jacobs said. “The Senate is a club, and you need a sponsor to get in the club, and Dorgan has been a good sponsor for Minnesota.”
As senators from neighboring states, Dorgan, Klobuchar and Franken have often found themselves working on similar issues. They’re literally neighbors in Washington as well — all three of their offices are on the same floor of the same Senate office building. That proximity has helped one of the nation’s most junior Senate delegations — Klobuchar and Franken have just three years, six months of service between them — to frequently find a senior senator willing to back legislation important to them.
Dorgan joined Klobuchar and Franken in introducing a bill that would ban personal laptops in airline cockpits, a response to a Northwest Airlines overflight of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in October. He backed Klobuchar’s efforts to reform the wireless communications industry. And Dorgan was key in securing federal funds to help clean up the damage caused by the Red River floods earlier this year.
“Byron and I work together a lot for many reasons, first because we’re from border states, and secondly because we’re both on the Commerce committee,” Klobuchar said. “It’s always helpful to have someone with your same perspective.”
Franken said: “I’m sure that whoever replaces him, Republican or Democrat, will actually share some of the same interests, but they obviously won’t be as senior.”
As far as seniority goes, Klobuchar and Franken are well enough down the seniority ladders in their respective committees that neither is expected to pull a chairmanship if Democrats hold the Senate in the 112th Congress, despite Dorgan and other Democrats’ impending departures. There are at least four Democrats who don’t have other chairmanships between Franken and the top job at Indian Affairs, which Dorgan currently chairs, and no Minnesotan is on the Banking Committee, currently led by the also-retiring Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
Campaigned for Franken
On a personal level, Franken and Dorgan go way back — Franken says he’s known Dorgan since “I don’t know when.” Dorgan came to Minnesota to campaign for him in 2008, and Franken said Dorgan became a friend before he entered the Senate.
“He came in [to campaign] when I needed it, as a good friend would do. I was surprised to hear, and not a little disappointed, that he won’t be here anymore,” Franken said
As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Dorgan leads an outpost of the Senate often assigned to junior members that many consider a place to bide one’s time until a more choice assignment comes along. Not Franken — it was one of only two committees he requested to be assigned to (the other was the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which he also got).
Since arriving in mid-year, Franken has thrown himself into the committee’s minutia, spicing up hearings with pointed questions about what he calls unacceptably high rates of sexual assaults and relative lack of basic dental care on reservations. He’s found a willing partner in Dorgan, who has taken on a kind of mentoring relationship with Minnesota’s junior senator, Franken staffers said.
“Byron’s certainly someone that I went to, certainly on Indian Affairs, and someone that I’ve gone to for advice more than most others,” Franken said, though he used the word “friend” rather than “mentor”.
Now, with Dorgan leaving, Jacobs said that process will have to start anew.
“When you think about the power of a delegation, it’s not just the two senators, but their abilities to build coalitions with neighboring states,” Jacobs said. “It’s kind of like a courting ritual in the Senate. With Dorgan leaving, it sort of puts Klobuchar and Franken back into the flock of seeking another sponsor.”