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2010 elections results prompting exodus of key DFL legislators

Although there are lots of reasons why they’re leaving, many point to the DFL’s new minority-party status and the possibility of job appointments from Dayton.

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.