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How Senate DFLers are becoming like Republicans

The urban-rural, moderate-conservative rift is old hat for Republicans, but this year it has beset Senate DFLers.

Sen. Dave Thompson
State Sen. Dave Thompson

Republican state Sen. Dave Thompson had been noticing it throughout the Legislative session: a growing fissure between urban and Greater Minnesota legislators in the Senate DFL caucus.

The urban-rural, moderate-conservative rift is old hat for Republicans, but this year it has beset Senate DFLers.

“One of the early signs that some of the urban core Democrats were not getting their way was the judiciary bill,” Thompson said.  

He was referring to public safety legislation, signed by Gov. Dayton, that legalized the use of gun silencers, referred to in the bill as “suppressors.”

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“It demonstrated that the person running the caucus [Tom Bakk] is the more traditional conservative Democrat,” Thompson said.

But now, majority leader Bakk is facing something of a revolt from those urban Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass major budget bills in a special legislative session. Reports indicate that key DFlers such as John Marty, Sandy Pappas, and Scott Dibble plan on voting against the environment bill because of objections to policy changes, including elimination of the Citizens Board of the Pollution Control Agency.

The bill has even provoked an online petition asking Bakk to resign his leadership post

DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff, chair of the senate’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, finds the disgruntlement with Bakk puzzling. As majority leader, she says, Bakk is doing his job finding consensus. “He does a very good job of accommodating views and opinions,” she said. “I think he puts the interests of Minnesota first.”

Bonoff, by the way, represents Minnetonka, and is not a natural ally for Bakk. “You have to remember, he did not want me to be an assistant leader,” she said.

But Bonoff, like Bakk, is a pragmatist. She often refers to herself as a “caucus of one,” and has advocated a spectrum of policy and spending reforms that often run contrary to DFL special interest groups.  

Sen Terri BonoffState Sen. Terri Bonoff

The standoff between Bakk and urban DFLers, she believes, stems from a refusal by some in the party to accept that Democrats no longer control all three branches of government.

“In my opinion, when you have divided government you must compromise to the middle,” she said. “When we had two years of Democrats in control, policies leaned far left. They didn’t have the reality check it takes to come to an agreement.”

Bakk stayed in the background during the negotiations over a special session. Bonoff said the bills in contention were already a negotiated product between Senate Republicans and Democrats. “Why negotiate against bills we all passed?” she asked.

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Bakk may stay in the background on Friday. He’s already told reporters that he was not going to “twist arms” to get votes.

And no matter how much dissension he faces in his caucus, its unlikely that Bakk faces any serious threat to his leadership position.