The rapid political rise of Amy Koch came to a quick and surprising end — for now anyway — when she announced Thursday (PDF) that she was stepping down as Senate majority leader and would not seek re-election next fall.
Her decision seemed to catch virtually all of her colleagues by surprise.
“Not a hint that this was coming,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, a longtime member of the Republican caucus and a Koch booster. “I saw her not long ago and she was excited about the [state budget] surplus. She believed it vindicated our positions and would be something we could run on in November.”
It was Koch’s work in attracting and working with candidates that set the stage for the Republican takeover of the state Senate last November.
And it was that work that led her caucus to electing her as majority leader before the start of last session. She replaced the man who had been Senate minority leader, Dave Senjem of Rochester, who was seen as too moderate by many in the new majority.
She was first woman to hold top Senate post
Koch became the first woman to hold the position, one of the most powerful in state government.
That it was conservative Republicans who put a woman in a position of power caused much glee among GOP activists across the state, for it always had been DFLers who made a big issue of gender equity.
The career of Koch, 40, seemed to be limitless. There were many in the party who believed that she could have been the Republican candidate for Congress, assuming that Rep. Michele Bachmann decides not to run again.
But in a letter to her Senate colleagues Thursday, Koch indicated that politics are not going to be part of her plans — at least in the next few years.
The letter was short on detail on what led to this decision and how long she’s been contemplating the decision to step away.
She wrote that “after thoughtful conversations with my family and friends,” she decided not to run. Koch is married and has a daughter.
She wrote that she decided to step down as majority leader before the upcoming session to avoid the caucus being headed by “a lame duck.”
Though her politics were deeply conservative, Koch, from Buffalo, seemed to have the ability to get along with most of her colleagues on both sides of the aisle. She could brighten a room with her smile. And though she had been in the Senate since only 2005, she seemed comfortable with “the game.”
A statement from Gov. Mark Dayton seemed to ring sincere, which is not always the case in political statements:
“I personally regret Senator Koch’s decision to step down as Majority Leader of the Minnesota Senate and not seek re-election.
“I have developed great respect for her during the past year of working together. She has been an excellent leader of her caucus and, while we often disagree, a strong advocate for her beliefs. I wish Sen. Koch my very best for her continued success in future endeavors.”
Of course, in politics, there is little time spent on sentiment.
Sen. Michel ‘interim leader‘ as caucus regroups
No sooner had Koch caught most by surprise than questions were being asked about who would succeed her.
Republican senate leaders have named Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina as “interim leader.” Under caucus rules, a new leader will be elected within two weeks.
Although Michel has been the colleague most often seen at Koch’s shoulder at news events, he would not necessarily be the caucus choice to replace her. The huge Republican rookie class is very conservative and has a lot of clout.
Recall, there were 21 Republican freshman elected in 2010, meaning that group makes up the majority of the 37-member Republican majority.
Michel may not pass the true-believer test with that group.
Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie, on the other hand, would seem to have both the conservative bona-fides and the ambition to take a stab at the post.
Sen. Julianne Ortman also has considerable influence in the caucus. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the rookies might put up one of their own for the task. Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville typically has been seen as leader of the freshmen class.
Whoever steps in as the new leader will not have an easy task.
Even without budget, tough issues await lawmakers
Although the state budget will not be on the table this session, there are several dicey issues awaiting legislators, the highest profile among them the Vikings’ stadium.
Beyond that, there was considerable grousing among many Republican senators that “the party agenda” was playing too big a role in the caucus.
The party’s direct line to the Republican Senate caucus was clear last session. Michael Brodkorb was both the Senate communications person, meaning he was working daily with the caucus, and the party’s deputy chairman, under Tony Sutton.
But Brodkorb stepped down as deputy chair earlier this fall, and now Sutton is gone, too. At this point, it’s unclear who will end up at as party chairman. But the new party leader will be taking over an organization deeply in debt and likely will have little time — or interest — in the day-to-day dealings of the Legislature.
As a result, Republican senators may feel they have more breathing room to step away from both the party line and the will of the caucus majority in the future.
Finally, there is the simple fact that by most accounts, Koch was good at what she did, particularly in keeping her caucus together.
“One of the best leaders I’ve worked with,” said Limmer. “She just had the ability to work well with people. I’ve had numerous leaders over the years. I thought she was among the best.”
Others shared that view, including House Speaker Kurt Zellers, who worked well with Koch as the two kept Republican majorities in the House and Senate in sync. (Good working relationships between the House and Senate were not always the case when DFLer Larry Pogemiller was the Senate majority leader and Margaret Anderson Kelliher, also a DFLer, was House speaker.)
“Senator Koch made history this year and it was truly an honor and a privilege to work with her during her time as Majority Leader,” Zellers said in a statement. “Amy is a dear friend and I will truly miss working with her. … She’s a role model and a natural leader. I wish nothing but the best for her and her family.”
Many, including Limmer, wonder if the workload Koch took on, going back to when she worked so hard on the 2010 campaign, simply was overwhelming.
“She put in an unbelievable amount of work,” Limmer said. “She did a great job.”
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.