One head finally rolls

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau

The notion that politics is blood sport is, of course, not literal. But Minnesota Senate Republicans, as they tried in vain today to get their Democratic colleagues to “vote green” in confirming Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau as transportation commissioner for a second time, must have set some sort of world record for metaphors.

“This is a political assassination,” Sen. David Hann, the assistant minority leader from Eden Prairie, said early on of the majority DFL. “We’re going to take somebody out because we can do that.”

“This is slash-and-burn politics,” Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen said more than once.

“A character assassination,” said Sen. Michael Jungbauer of East Bethel.

“A political execution,” said Minority Leader David Senjem, a senator from Rochester.

“This is to take a political scalp,” Hann concluded.

Whew. Bloody indeed.

Perhaps the most accurate metaphor of the day, however, belonged to Ray Vandeveer, a senator from Forest Lake. “This is a train heading out of the station,” Vandeveer said of Molnau’s sixth year in the commissioner’s post, “and we’re not gonna stop it.”

Boy was he ever right on that one. Even before the 35W bridge collapse, Molnau was rejected by a Senate committee in 2004, during Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s first term, when he first introduced the notion that he could save the state some money by making his running mate actually do some work. She was eventually approved by the full Senate in May that year.

But there were signs that not all lawmakers were comfortable with Molnau playing transportation czar; last year in the last legislative session Molnau was never confirmed for Pawlenty’s second term. Sure, she was allowed to linger on, but certainly the ambivalence about her hung in the Capitol air.

Then the bridge collapsed, and Molnau was AWOL for the first days afterward. More than that, Molnau’s director of homeland security and emergency management stayed away from the scene for over a week. (Molnau eventually fired her.) If there was ever going to be finger-pointing, Molnau sure acted as though she had something to hide – her many protests to the contrary notwithstanding. In other words, someone had to take the political fallout, and Molnau targeted herself as dead meat.

Of course, none of this was explicitly said on the Senate floor today. A somber and silent mood pervaded the chambers, and no one relished the task at hand, which was eventually accurately described as the “firing” of Carol Molnau.

“No one has ever blamed her for the tragedy on Aug.1,” said DFL Sen. Steve Murphy, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and the most vocal proponent of Molnau’s ouster. “To do so would be reckless and irresponsible.”

Still, Murphy concluded: “Do we have the right person in the right place at the right time? I believe we do not.”

The legislative audit proves fatal
Molnau was the right person at the right time for the blame game, and it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for her. After all, Pawlenty insisted on keeping her in a post she was clearly not qualified for out of sheer political stubbornness. But Pawlenty himself has remained Teflon Tim through all the post-collapse sniping, as he has for pretty much every low point of his political career. Minnesotans still like the guv.

And who could really blame the geeky bureaucrats at MnDOT? They did their inspections, filed their reports, sounded the warning bells and … well, some of them probably couldn’t sleep even before the bridge fell.

So eyes fell to Molnau, and she did herself no favors with the public or with legislators by contending that she would never step down or resign from her post. More than that, she proved unable to admit wrongdoing, that perhaps things were not going so smoothly with MnDOT, and perhaps, in retrospect, more should have been done about the bridge. Even the slightest contrition would have helped around the Capitol, but instead she basically dared the Senate to vote her down.

Still, Murphy acknowledged during the Senate debate that “we all share some of the blame.” And on the GOP side, Sen. Dick Day, the Owatonna lawmaker not known for moments of self-reflection, admitted, “We gotta all look in the mirror, including myself.”

But Murphy also pointed to the legislative auditor’s report unveiled early in the session, which DFLers have treated like some sacred text over the last week. The nonpartisan report is haunting enough: “When adjusted for inflation, tax revenues directed to the State Trunk Highway Fund have decreased since 2003, and MnDOT staffing has declined as well” … “overall condition of trunk highway pavements has deteriorated” … and “MnDOT does not adequately document its follow-up on inspectors’ maintenance recommendations.”

But in reading it, it’s clear that while MnDOT and transportation have been underfunded in Minnesota for three decades, much of the current issues have come under Pawlenty/Molnau.

The House used the report to pass a transportation bill, then override the governor’s veto; the Senate essentially used the same report to get rid of Molnau.

“The legislative audit report gave us the final indication that we had to take a step,” Scott Dibble, a DFLer from Minneapolis, said after the 44-22 party-line vote against the commissioner.

Working together from now on
As histrionic as some GOPers were on the Senate floor, you could bet that at least some of their words rang true: This vote means war. Or at least to the degree that any party that is outnumbered nearly two-to-one in both legislative bodies can actually fight.

“This is a quiet chambers, you can feel the tension,” Sen. Chris Gerlach, a Republican from Apple Valley, said at one point. “It didn’t take long for this session to denigrate into partisanship.”

Vandeveer spoke of a “super-arrogant, super-majority,” and Molnau supporter Sen. Claire Robling, a Republican from Jordan, said that “I believe the political views she holds are doing her in.”

Politically speaking, much of the spin on the transportation bill override has been wrong. There’s no political loss for Pawlenty – he can say he never raised taxes while getting the money desperately need for transportation funding. One could guess that behind closed doors, the governor is relieved the bill passed, even after his veto.

But the vote against Molnau can’t be read any other way: The DFLers are unhappy with the way Pawlenty has governed, and now they have some power to fight back. In that, the Molnau vote is a clear rebuke to the governor, and one that likely makes him pretty ticked.

“This is a chance for Democrats to stick it to the governor,” Gerlach taunted before the vote. “Pull the trigger.”

It is, in fact, early in the session, with much work to be done. But if the Republicans can’t win with majorities, they certainly aren’t going to go quietly: Nearly every Republican who spoke in the Senate chambers today noted that this would put a brief era of good will firmly in the past.

“This is another huge blunder by the majority party in the Senate,” Sen. Paul Koering, a Republican from Fort Ripley, said after the vote, noting the transportation bill passage and the override. “This really sets a nasty tone.”

Both sides of the aisle are going to have to come together with today’s announcement of a budget forecast that puts the state some $1 billion in the hole. “It’s going to have a huge effect on how we deal with that,” Koering continued. “It behooves us to work together, but things have gotten off on a very sorry note. It’s going to be difficult.”

G.R. Anderson Jr., a former reporter and senior editor for City Pages, covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Nesseth Nesseth on 02/29/2008 - 10:57 am.

    John, as much as I’d hate to agree with you, you’re probably right. But by the same token, if the situation was reversed, we wouldn’t be looking at a $935 million budget deficit, we wouldn’t see the largest tax increase in the state’s history, and we’d be taking productive steps to getting fiscal responsibility back on track in this state…so, I guess we get what we pay for…or vote for.

  2. Submitted by John Olson on 02/28/2008 - 05:20 pm.

    If the parties had been reversed (Democratic administration/MnDOT Commissioner-Lt. Gov. combo and a Republican majority in the Senate) under a similar set of circumstances, the Republicans would have done exactly the same thing the DFL did today and removed that person. In a heartbeat.

  3. Submitted by Darren Heydanek on 02/29/2008 - 12:43 pm.

    @ Jim

    I’m not sure I follow your suggestion. Are you implying that we would not have a nearly billion dollar deficit if it were the parties were reversed? Or that it would be bigger? Smaller? I’m confused.

    As the economy struggles and tax receipts decrease in growth (or even shrink) and costs for government soar due to energy, health coverage and security costs alone, I don’t see how anyone could avoid a large deficit at this point, no matter the party, short of raising taxes.

    So if you’re implying that we may have no deficit had a DFL across-the-board government would have raised enough tax dollars to cover a downturn in the economy, then I understand. Otherwise I am very confused.

    And it’s not as if the Republicans nationally have been good about controlling spending lately.

  4. Submitted by John Olson on 03/01/2008 - 07:26 am.

    Jim, my point of reference was more along the lines of a hypothetical Senate with a majority of Republicans and a Lt. Gov./MnDOT commissioner combo. There is no way a Republican majority would show an ounce of compassion–in fact, I would argue this hypothetical person would have been sent packing at the first available opportunity. In other words, last year.

    Our economy is now so intertwined on a global basis that I would argue that now more than ever, most state legislatures are reduced to trying to ride whatever wave is coming at them and avoid crashing.

  5. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 03/01/2008 - 05:37 pm.

    Don’t forget that Commissioner Molnau, going along with Pawlenty’s MAC appointees, granted an exception to the State safety zones for the new MSP Runway, R17-35.

    Pawlenty made many appointments with obvious connections to his campaign supporters, including more or less giving $100 millions to Northwest Airlines through MAC. This allowed Northwest and affiliates (SkyTeam) to enlarge their airliner banks and increase peak-hour traffic at MSP, which in turn increased the need for safety zones significantly.

    No telling how the merger with Delta, if it is unfortunately cleared of restraint of trade rules, will affect Minnesota.

    My view is that a merger is a min-max problem:
    –If the hub is kept at MSP, there will be less safety and less airline competition;
    — If Delta moves connections mostly to Detroit or Atlanta, there will be excess gate and runway capacity at MSPO, and MAC’s ability to service their $ 2.5 billion expansion debt will be in serious doubt.

  6. Submitted by S Olson on 03/01/2008 - 03:14 pm.

    I think that if you look across the country you see that it doesn’t really matter which party is in control of a statehouse. The economy sucks, the Federal deficit is huge, the cost of the Iraq/Afghan adventure is enormous.

    Things that you could reasonably say are:
    1) The last time there was no federal deficit was in the Kennedy presidency.
    2) The last time the deficit went down was during the Clinton presidency.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/02/2008 - 05:02 pm.

    Bear in mind I’m not a Democrat. I have to say however that while watching the Molnau debate I found the Republican accusation of partisanship quite amusing. I’d say it is the Republican’s pushed partisanship to new heights in the last few years. Pawlenty set the “tone” years ago when shortly after getting elected he responded to Democratic complaints that they were being steam – rolled. His response? If you don’t like it start winning elections. Last year Republican’s openly bragged about “screwing” people who had elected Democrats. Now their gonna whine about partisanship?

    I hope the Democrats have figured out that for now, until the ideological blindness that has a strangle hold on the Republican Party is released, there is no give to be gotten. You’re not going to get any cooperation out of these guys, you just going to have to defeat them. In other words, the Molnau vote didn’t change anything as far as Republican good will is concerned.

    As far as feeling any sympathy for Molnau, I have to pass on that. The Republicans have produced six straight years of budget crises with their magic plan economic theory (cut taxes and wait for the magic to happen). We have had deficits in five of the last six years (if you want to insist that we really had a surplus last year). Republicans have used these deficits as an excuse to launch an unprecedented assault on the people of Minnesota. The weakest and most defenseless amongst us have bee the primary targets, the old, the sick, the poor. Molnau has been a poster child for this “movement”. I hate to say it, but statistically speaking, when you toss 35,000 out of the state health care plan, you kill a few people. People die when they don’t have access to health care. The victims of the bridge collapse not the first fatalities of the Pawlenty/Molnau dream of “small government”. Call me crazy, but when your killing the people your supposed to representing, at the very least you should lose your job.

    I remember last summer before the collapse, I watched Molnau and her staff try to lie to the transportation committee about the quality of road conditions. Of course they got caught lying because one of the committee members noticed that actual data in the road condition report contradicted what Molnau was saying. Molnau testified that the report stated that the road conditions had improved. Of course the report didn’t say that, and subsequent reports have confirmed a steady deterioration of our roads for years. I would remind everyone that those gussets on the 35W bridge were identified as a problem, and the recommendation was that they be reinforced. Even if they had been under-designed 40 years ago, had the recommendations been heeded, the collapse may have been prevented. At the very least, if your as worried about a bridge as MNDOT says they were, you reduce load on the bridge, you don’t increase it. Clearly no one was driving the boat.

    Sympathy for Molnau? I don’t think so.

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