What impact will chaotic legislative session have on fall elections?

For all the tumult and shouting, many pols believe that most Minnesotans really don’t pay much attention to what the governor and state Legislature do.

Former House Speaker Bob Vanasek, who is now a lobbyist, talked about that reality early in the session.

“Other than the bonding bill, just about everything that happens here really is about things on the margins,” Vanasek said.

In the end, that’s why DFLers chose the pragmatic way out. Ignoring the pleas of Sen. John Marty and a handful of others, they chose to end the legislative session on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s terms, rather than stage some sort of dramatic showdown, which they probably would have lost, over their principles. The message they heard from most constituents was “Get your work done on time.”

What session portends
What follows is a mixed bag of observations gathered from insiders about the session and what it portends for the gubernatorial and legislative races that already have begun:

Rep. Tom Anzelc — who lives near International Falls and once served in the administration of the last DFL governor, Rudy Perpich — could end up as running mate for House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate. Anzelc only laughed when he was asked about that possibility. But, a hunter and fisherman and classic northern Minnesota DFLer, he would bring all sorts of balance to Kelliher’s ticket. He might also counter some of the populist strength Mark Dayton has in the 8th District.

Majority Leader Tony Sertich
Majority Leader Tony Sertich

Obviously, there will be a new House speaker, given that Kelliher will either be governor next January or an everyday citizen. Assuming DFLers maintain control of the House, Majority Leader Tony Sertich would seem to be the obvious choice to replace her. Sertich, from Chisholm, is a gifted pol, popular with his peers on both sides of the aisle, a wonderful speaker. But there are some DFLers who would hate to see him leave his current position as majority leader because of his oratorical skills and his ability to unite a caucus that is often difficult to pull together.

In the Senate, watch for Tom Bakk, head of the taxes committee, to make a bid to unseat Larry Pogemiller as majority leader, again assuming the DFL holds on to its majority. Although it’s assumed that Republicans will gain seats, most believe the DFL will maintain control. According to one retiring senator, Pogemiller may be vulnerable because “a few of his core supporters have drifted away.”

A member of the Republican House caucus said that Pawlenty rallied the group around the budget-balancing bill by saying that Republicans will be able to turn the governor’s race and state legislative races into a referendum on “ObamaCare.” A key part of the last-day negotiations with DFLers was to get them to drop their efforts to switch health care for the poor from a largely state supported program to federally backed Medical Assistance.

DFLers argued that the shift would have provided Minnesota with a windfall of more than $1 billion, created jobs and given rural hospitals much-needed revenue. Still, Pawlenty and Republicans fought it with all their might. DFLers will try to point out to voters that the Republican position is hypocritical because Republicans for years have complained that for every dollar Minnesota sends to the federal government, it receives only 72 cents back from Washington.

Rep. Tom Huntley
Rep. Tom Huntley

Rep. Tom Huntley, chairman of the House Health and Human Service Finance Committee, was bemused by the Republican position on shifting to federal support for medical care for Minnesota’s poorest. But he also said that the Republican position is only a short-term roadblock. In 2014, he said, federal law automatically will bring Minnesota under the federal health care umbrella.

But there are Republican legislators who truly believe their party will regain control in the House and Senate and in Washington and repeal “ObamaCare.”

The filing period for office in Minnesota is now open. That may generate a yawn from most Minnesotans, but it played a big role in this legislative session. Republican legislators who personally are relatively moderate, never strayed from their conservative caucus because such a move would almost assure that they would be punished by facing opposition from “a real conservative” in the August primary.

In a convoluted way, the House refusal to consider a watered-down education bill during the special session was supposed to be a slap at Pawlenty. According to DFLers, the governor’s office had given its blessing to bringing up the education bill in the session. But House Republicans, for a variety of personal and philosophic reasons, wanted to show the governor they were upset with him, thus they used procedural tactics to block efforts to consider the bill.

Why are Republicans upset with their governor? Specifics are hard to pin down, but the buzz has been that some Republican legislators were more disgusted than DFLers that “their” governor has spent so much time on national campaigning in the last several months. The true-believer conservative Republicans had hoped the governor would have used this session to come up with big reforms to cut the size of government, rather than simply push the deficit forward.

Anyway, the refusal to consider even a watered-down education bill probably dooms any effort to re-apply for federal Race to the Top funding, which is at least a small blow to urban school districts.

Republicans will blame, not surprisingly, Education Minnesota. Interestingly, the teachers union may have been the biggest loser in the session. More and more DFLers took positions for education reform that are opposed by the union.

For all of the rancor the public sees between Republicans and DFLers, most of these legislators like each other at a personal level. Never was that more clear than when Rep. Cy Thao gave his farewell address Sunday on the House floor.

Rep. Cy Thao
Rep. Cy Thao

He made legislators gasp when he talked of how when he was a child, his family fled Laos, where he had lived in a hut with a dirt floor, and eventually arrived in the United States. At the time, Thao said, “I had the clothes I was wearing … a dirty T-shirt, shorts and sandals.” But, after initially receiving help from social service programs, his parents, who are now retired in Florida, learned English and prospered and he became a state legislator.

“From a dirt floor to this beautiful place,” he said, as DFLers and Republicans listened, enraptured.

Then, Thao showed how Americanized he truly is. His mentors, especially Rep. Tom Rukavina, taught him the basics of how the Legislature works.

“I learned there’s no right or wrong — it’s how many votes you have,” Thao said to laughter. “I learned that if you’re defending an issue on the floor, you’ve already lost.”

He wrapped up his talk to applause with this: “I’m leaving this place to make a million dollars and pay more taxes.” He turned to Rukavina and promised, “I’ll always be a DFLer.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dave Thompson on 05/18/2010 - 02:35 pm.

    Doug — Thanks for an excellent article! I have been as bewildered as anyone by the so-called conclusion to the recent legislative session. This article sheds some light on those dark days and nights in St. Paul. Cy Thao’s wonderful story made my day.

  2. Submitted by don carter on 05/18/2010 - 04:18 pm.

    We Minnesotans are being sold out by these bankrupt politicians. They failed us big time. We will be facing 6-8 $Billion budget shortage. These bums all come up for re-election and should be DUMPED. Our Welfare, freebies to illegals and subsidy pay outs are totally out of control. The State cannot continue to steal from certain citizens and give it other citizens, plus the takers must have a attitude change that they have NO right to rip off and live off their neighbor.

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