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.