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New Senate leader Amy Koch determined to keep GOP caucus ‘on task’ on budget and job priorities

My colleagues “ran on the budget, the economy and jobs,” says the newly chosen majority leader. “We talked about how this is not the time to be messing around [with social issues]. We’re going to be unified on that.”

“Give us the gavels,” Republican legislators were fond of saying when they were in the minority.

By early morning on Nov. 3, they got ’em. In the House, there were no big surprises as the caucus moved to make their minority leader, Kurt Zellers, the speaker.

Senate Republicans, however, moved in a different direction, selecting Amy Koch of Buffalo as the majority leader, sidestepping Minority Leader Dave Senjem. The move was made with no apparent rancor.

Koch, the first woman ever to serve as Senate majority leader, has both the fiscal and social conservative bona-fides that represents the new majority. There always was some suspicion among some in the caucus that Senjem held some moderate views.

Even by the eclectic standards of the Minnesota Legislature, she has a unique background. After attending Concordia College in Moorhead, she enlisted in the Air Force (in 1991) with the understanding she’d end up in linguistics. Her language specialty became Russian. (Her husband, whom she met in the service, specialized in Arabic.)

Koch, 40, has a 14-year-old daughter and runs (with her husband, Christopher) a family-owned utilities services company. She first was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2005.

She took a break from what quickly has become a hectic schedule to speak with MinnPost.

MinnPost: When did it dawn on you that you might be the Senate majority leader?

State Sen. Amy Koch
State Sen. Amy Koch

Amy Koch: I decided on Wednesday morning. I thought about it. Considered it and decided to go for it while I was still in the clouds from the night before.

MP: How did you deal with Senjem?

AK:
That was the first call I made. We talked and just kept talking. Dave was amazing about it. He’s a class act. We need him to head two or three different, very important, things.

MP: Did Senjem want the job of leader?

AK:
That’s something you’d need to ask him.

MP: When will you move into the office currently occupied by Larry Pogemiller. (The majority party in the Senate has offices in the Capitol; the minority has offices in the State Office Building.)

AK:
That is part of the transition, but lower on the list. It’s something we’re working on. We have chairs to pick out, committees to form, staff to hire. The move itself is something like 70th on our list of priorities.

MP: Have you spoken with Pogemiller since the election?

AK:
We spoke yesterday [Monday]. He was very accommodating. He said he’ll be ready to move anytime we’re ready.

MP: Speaker Zellers has talked of the desire to mesh House and Senate committees. Has that process begun? He talks about how a table of organization should not look like “a plate of spaghetti” Do you agree with his assessment?

AK:
We met with House folks yesterday [Monday] morning. We’ll be finalizing some plans soon. We want to lay out some of the noodles in straight lines — that’s what he says. There’ll be fewer committees, that sort of thing. Aligning (House and Senate committees) is so important to save time, to help staff. It will also be fantastic for the public. It will be much easier to follow the process. People are going to be pleased.

MP: Zellers also has talked of social issues being a low priority this session. Do you agree with that?

Speaker Kurt Zellers
Speaker Kurt Zellers

AK: I think our goals are similar. I am a social conservative, but we’ve had a conversation with the caucus. They ran on the budget, the economy and jobs. We talked about how this is not the time to be messing around [with social issues]. We’re going to be unified on that.

MP: Who was your political hero?

AK:
I’m a child of the ’80s and ’90s, and that means Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were very important to me. … I come from a very political family. We argue around the table. We’re a big, loud Catholic family. It’s part of the meal for us. Salad, entrees and a political fight. They’re all conservative, but I have a brother who will counterpoint my mother, just for the sake of the argument. I have found myself taking positions that just amaze me, just so we can have the argument.”

MP: You mean, you sometimes argue as if you’re John Marty?

AK:
I don’t go that far.

MP: Where do racinos fit in the GOP plans?

AK:
I’m not certain. They are mixed views on that in both of the caucuses. But that’s an issue on the revenue side. Right now, we’re focusing on the spending side.

MP: After being in the minority and watching the DFL majority, what differences will we see in the operation of the Senate?

AK:
We’ve learned a healthy respect for the minority. We’re going to be mindful of that. There’s no appetite for payback in our caucus. We’ve talk about that. We want transparency. We expect to follow the rules. We will respect the minority. Scheduling may be different. Last session, my schedule was so packed that I only had time to meet with my constituents from 12 to 12:30. We’d like to improve that. I think you’ll see our priorities in the first five to 10 bills we put out. Our goal is to get in, get out. Let’s deal with the budget, reforms, redistricting and go home.

MP: The budget, government reform, redistricting and go home? That sounds like a very heavy load.

AK:
Allow us our moment of naiveté.

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