2010 elections results prompting exodus of key DFL legislators

The results of Minnesota’s 2010 elections keep pouring in.

The announcement last week that longtime powerbroker Larry Pogemiller is leaving the Minnesota Senate means that the entire DFL legislative leadership team from a year ago is gone.

Sen. Larry Pogemiller
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Sen. Larry Pogemiller

Pogemiller was the Senate majority leader. Margaret Anderson Kelliher was House speaker, and Tony Sertich was the House majority leader.

Kelliher left her position to run for governor, narrowly losing in the primary to Mark Dayton, who after taking office, appointed Sertich, a rising DFL star, to head the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. Now Pogemiller is headed out the door, appointed last week by Dayton to head the office of Higher Education.

Previously, Sen. Linda Berglin, the major advocate for health care for the poor in the Legislature, left office to become manager of health policy for Hennepin County. Shortly before that, Ellen Anderson left the Senate after Dayton appointed her chair of the Public Utilities Commission.

More DFL retirements likely
More announcements of retirements are expected in coming days.

There are two major reasons — and a host of smaller factors — for the sweeping DFL post-election changes, especially in the Senate.

The big reason: as a result of the 2010 elections, the DFL for the first time in more than four decades, is in the minority in the Senate. The Republicans also took control of the House.

“All of these DFL departures reveals how unsatisfying it is to be in the legislative minority, particularly after serving many years in leadership positions in the majority power,” said Steve Schier, a Carleton College political science professor. “A similar turnover happened in the late 1990s in Congress, as many senior House Democrats realized minority status might be long lasting.”

But Schier and DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin point to another reason for the dramatic changes.

DFL Chairman Ken Martin
DFL Chairman Ken Martin

Dayton’s victory meant that for the first time in a quarter century, there was a DFLer in the governor’s office.

“We hadn’t had a DFL governor, so there hadn’t been an opportunity [for political appointments],” Martin said.

Martin, it should be pointed out, succeeded Brian Melendez as the DFL chairman following those 2010 losses.

In interviews with other DFL state senators, who appear to be on the verge of announcing retirements, there were other reasons given for why the changes are coming so quickly.

Redistricting and pay are factors, too
The once-a-decade redistricting process means changed districts for incumbents and last-minute chaos leading up to the elections of 2012.

Many of the legislators who have left, or will be leaving, are at a point in life where making more money is important: Kids are going off to college, and retirement is around the corner.

“I think there has been one raise in the time I have been in the Senate,” said one senator who likely will be announcing retirement soon but asked not to be identified at this time. “Years ago, $31,000 [a senator’s salary] was enough to get by. Now it’s very difficult.”

Still, the big reason for the rapid turnover likely is the sense of powerlessness DFLers have felt since suddenly finding themselves in the minority.

Tony Sutton, the Republican Party’s state chairman, admits he’s surprised by the changes, especially by Pogemiller’s departure from the Senate.

“I didn’t anticipate that at all,” Sutton said. “But maybe the last election was sort of like a canary in the coal mine for some [of the DFLers]. They got a look at the future, and they weren’t pleased. Or maybe they just didn’t like their new offices in the State Office Building.” 

GOP Chairman Tony Sutton
GOP Chairman Tony Sutton

(Senators in the majority have offices in the state Capitol, while minority party senators have much less impressive digs across the street in the State Office Building.)

Martin and others say the great loss is “in the institutional memory” of the legislative bodies. Again, the Senate is hugely affected by those veterans who have already left. Pogemiller has been in the Senate since 1982; Berglin was in the Senate dating to 1980.

Others who are thought to be contemplating leaving also have years of experience.

Among those deciding whether to stay or go is Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.

Pappas said that being in the minority is a factor in her decision-making process.

“You feel a little superfluous,” said Pappas, who first was elected to the House in 1984 before winning election to the Senate in 1990. “Some of the younger members can get enjoyment from serving as part of the loyal opposition, but that’s a difficult role for some who have had roles in shaping policy.”

To date, the DFLers who have left have represented safe Twin Cities area party seats. But outstate senators also are rumored to be contemplating leaving. Those seats might be more difficult for the DFL to hang onto.

Sutton downplays loss of institutional memory
This loss of institutional memory may be important to senators’ colleagues, said Sutton, but he suspects it doesn’t matter much to voters.

“Voters are interested in results,” Sutton said.

In his mind, voters are more interested in cutting taxes and the size of government than they are in “institutional memory,” which conjures up a time when legislators were less partisan and more interested in getting along and making deals.

Those friendlier times, Sutton said, led to huge debt at the national level and economic woes at the state level.  

Sutton is empathetic with longtime state legislators who feel squeezed by the economics of the job.

Although being a state legislator is supposed to be a part-time job, Sutton acknowledged that for members of both parties, the work is demanding and makes holding a job outside of the Legislature extremely difficult.

 The departure of so many DFL heavyweights doesn’t change one reality, Sutton said.

“If we [the new Republican majority] don’t get the job done, voters will let us know,” Sutton said.

Although change is difficult, Martin said that the departure of so many old leaders does have a positive side.

“There’s new blood, new energy in the mix,” he said. “We will have a new wave of leaders.”

And one thing has never been clearer.

“In politics, you don’t have a job for life,” said Martin.

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 (11)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/01/2011 - 10:07 am.

    My own sense is that the problem isn’t that too many legislators are leaving now so much as it is that too few left in 2010. In some specific cases, we were running people who quite simply should not have been running. Some of those folks, for various reasons, were unable to run the tight, effective campaigns they need to fend off some very energetic and capable Republican challengers.

  2. Submitted by Sandy Ahlstrom on 11/01/2011 - 11:52 am.

    Thank you to Doug Grow for an insightful article about leadership at the state capitol. . . it would be helpful to look back and see how the 2010 election actually totaled out. The numbers of eligible voters who turned out actually went down from 2008 in MN. For a myriad of reasons, DFL and progressive voters didn’t turn out. . . so we see what the results are in legislation that is mostly about social issues (gay-marriage; voter id’s; women’s choice. . . not job creation; no help with foreclosed homes or education funding.

    So I have a question for Mr. Foster, first commentor, where are the highly capable Republicans that we supposedly gained?? Why can’t they compromise with the govenor to get the “real-work” done for the citizens of this state. Remember, government is of the people, for the people and by the people!

  3. Submitted by craig furguson on 11/01/2011 - 12:15 pm.

    It’s a confluence of factors. Berglin and Pogemiller were major players and now don’t have those opportunities to do power plays anymore. The $31k is paltry, but there is the pension. Both of them are smart enough to know if they can pull a good high 5 in a Govt gig, they have the potential to get better than $31k per year pension plus single retiree health care by gaming the pension system.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/01/2011 - 01:54 pm.

    I’m loathe to agree with Tony Sutton about anything, but he’s right on the money about “institutional memory” and voter priorities. Voters don’t care about institutional memory, and are not generally sentimental about elected officials.

    I think he’s dead wrong in the next paragraph – cutting taxes and the size of government is a right-wing shibboleth, not necessarily at the top of a voter’s list of priorities – but “institutional memory” as a kind of collegial means of getting along is not valued by ordinary citizens nearly as much as getting the results they want from the legislature.

    There’s also an aroma of sour grapes about the departures. “If I can’t make up the rules, then I’m going home.” I’d suggest that that is not a very democratic (small “D”) approach to the job, and people who feel that way probably SHOULD find something else to do, and it ought to be something outside the mutually-dependent realms of politics and public policy. All it really proves is that small-mindedness shows up everywhere on the political spectrum.

    Mr. Martin is quite correct in asserting that “In politics, you don’t have a job for life.” I’d argue, in fact, that there shouldn’t be anything remotely remarkable about his statement. You’re serving the public: WE employ YOU, not the other way ’round, and legislators and other elected officials – of both parties – ought to keep that in mind. Republicans will have plenty of opportunities over the next decade or two to revert to minority party status.

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 11/01/2011 - 02:29 pm.

    I hope Democrats will let their senators and representatives know that this is NO TIME to be abandoning us, the real Minnesota majority, their constituents who count on them to fight back against very damaging right-wing ideas and proposed legislation.

    Grover Norquist — Mr.Anti-Tax — said one of his goals was to make state legislatures “meaner.” We have seen his wish come true here and elsewhere, and also his and the Koch Brothers/National Chamber of Commerce/ALEC desires to write and get passed legislation that benefits the rich while further impoverishing the poor, that seeks to eliminate the regulation that protects workers and the environment and our bank accounts, to enshrine in law and the courts a particular religious belief, and that REALLY wants to get its agenda enacted no matter what.

    Don’t leave, guys!!

  6. Submitted by Madeline Anderson on 11/01/2011 - 02:57 pm.

    What’s striking about the exodus of DFL leadership is that none of them worked outside government (or if they did, it was small pay for small jobs).

    That has driven a “tax more” agenda and perspective that has screwed up the state.

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 11/01/2011 - 05:18 pm.

    #6 Madeline, do you think they got elected right out of high school? Did you check any biographies before making that statement? Or is this another case where facts are optional as long as you believe the right thing?

    Sutton showed rather well why it’s so hard to compromise with Republicans. They think compromise was the problem. They carry a refusal to split differences beyond mere strategy, and clearly it’s in their bones to get everything their own way. The best interest of the state is a distant second behind service to ideology.

  8. Submitted by Eric Larson on 11/01/2011 - 06:56 pm.

    So much to say.

    #2 Sandy- less people voted in 2010 then 2008. Political science 101. Presidential years do that. Pogey never compromised. He either broke your shell or you broke his. Compromise with the Gov? Come on. See what the Hamline Professor was brave enough to say about Pogey on the Fox 9 story about this subject. He had harsh words for Pogey’s term as Majority leader.

    #6 Kudos. They are going to govt policy jobs for retirement without really ever working in the real world.

    #7 Not quite high-school. Just weeks after his 30th birthday he was elected. Take a look at former DFL Speaker Bob Vanasak. He got elected when he was not of legal age. He turned 21 just before he was sworn in.

    This position must not need a Senate confirmation. He couldn’t get half of the DFL’ers to vote for confirmation.

    What amazes me is what his DFL and GOP colleagues, professors, and media will say about him in on the record. He was true to his constituients but he was nothing but trouble for everyone else.

  9. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 11/01/2011 - 07:18 pm.

    A “tax more” agenda? Well, that certainly worked out well, didn’t it?
    I think one reason so many are leaving (and please don’t; we can’t spare any more legislators like Pogemiller, Berglin, and others) is that they are probably sick and tired of trying to deal with republicans who are stuck in the NO muck.

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/01/2011 - 09:13 pm.

    It’s time for new ideas and younger legislators on the DFL bench. “The times they are a changing” and the DFL needs to as well if it wants to stay relevant.

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