The Republican Senate caucus appeared to take a small step toward the middle Tuesday with the selection of Dave Senjem of Rochester as its majority leader.
Although Senjem can give a rip-roaring, red-meat conservative speech on the evils of government getting in the way of business, this is a man who doesn’t reflect the hard-right tone of so many in his caucus. He believes in process. He believes in working both sides of the aisle.
He believes in bonding and parks and, yes, he believes in racinos.
One of the first calls he apparently made this morning was to his old pal, former Sen. Dick Day, a longtime racino advocate who now is lobbying on behalf of Running Aces.
“I congratulated him,’’ said Day, “but I told him that it’s probably better news for me than it is for him.’’
A huge job ahead
Senjem does have a huge job ahead of him.
Given what looks to be a mini-purge of previous leaders, he’s got to train in a batch of new leaders. He’s got to try to hold rein on a caucus that includes a sizable block of members who want to veer hard right. He’s got to prepare for elections 10 months away. (It’s far from a given, that Republicans can hold onto their Senate majority.) He’s got the trim $2 million from the Senate’s operating budget. He’s got to deal with the messy Vikings stadium.
And, of course, as much as he wants to “look forward, not back,” he’s still got the Amy Koch matter to deal with.
In a letter this morning, Sen. Tom Bakk made it clear that DFLers aren’t just going to let the Koch matter fade away.
“We both know this is an extremely difficult time in the history of the Senate,’’ Bakk wrote. “The integrity and honor of the Minnesota Senate has been seriously called into question by recent events and right now our first priority must be restoring the public’s trust in our institution. I urge you as the new Majority Leader to take this responsibility very seriously and ensure that all ethical and legal questions surrounding the recent allegations concerning Senate members’ conduct are addressed in a transparent and expeditious manner.’’
Bakk could be accused of being a little over the top here. Really now, how much “trust’’ has the public had in any government institution?
But what’s interesting is Bakk’s use of the plural in reference to the behavior of “Senate members’ conduct.”
It’s obvious that Bakk is contemplating ethics questions surrounding members beyond Koch. Such senators as Geoff Michel had best be prepared to answer the old “What did you know, and when did you know it?’’ questions.
It’s unclear how the caucus ended up turning to the 69-year-old Senjem to try to pick up the pieces of a caucus in the wake of the downfall of Koch.
So far, at least, Republicans are staying fairly closed-mouth about the specifics of what went on for 11 hours behind the closed doors of the meeting room at the Radisson Hotel in Roseville.
Low-key Koch appearance
Koch was present in the meeting room, though she found a side door to enter and exit the hotel, thus avoiding reporters. Although she’s issued a couple of statements since her fall, she’s done no live interviews.
It is believed that some members of the caucus are suggesting she step down from her Senate seat, though to date Koch has only said she will not run again in November.
Senjem, by the way, says he has urged Koch to stay on.
By all accounts, she was treated warmly on Tuesday by her colleagues.
Yet, it had to be uncomfortable for all parties because it’s believed considerable time was spent at the caucus meeting clearing the air on what happened during the weeks that preceded Koch’s fall and why now-former leaders didn’t keep the caucus updated on such things as secret meetings.
The scandal will remain the stuff of front page coverage.
But the stadium issue also will be front and center.
Senjem’s very up-front position on racinos has most believing that this gambling proposal, which has been a part of legislative discussions for more than a decade, means that there’s a strong chance a racino bill could pass in the Senate.
But even Day admits that there are no sure bets regarding the issue.
“This is the best position we’ve ever been in,” said Day of racino possibilities. “But there are still anti-gaming factions and anti-stadium factions. The point we’ll be making is that there’s money out there. Take the money and spend it how you want.”
Racino status unclear in House
The status of racinos is harder to figure in the House.
“The House isn’t as strong as the Senate because of Zellers,’’ said Day of House Speaker Kurt Zellers. “You talk to other [House] leaders and they’re supportive, but the Speaker doesn’t even talk to me about it.”
But now, Day acknowledges, those favoring racinos have the support of the Senate majority leader and, presumably, the governor. By combining racino funds with a stadium and paying down the school shift, there may be a way to pull off majority support.
All of this was at play as members of the Republican caucus talked and talked. All the while, upward of 50 members of the media waited in the lobby of the Radisson Tuesday.
It was a strange scene.
Every couple of hours, the caucus meeting would break and the senators could be seen moving from their meeting room to the restrooms across a public hallway.
In this new age of instant media, there was little schmoozing between reporters and senators.
“The schmoozing” once was a valuable way for reporters to gain small insights into what was happening behind closed doors. But now, politicians have learned that anything said in what they thought was a “private, off the record’’ conversation might instantly be tweeted or end up on an Internet video.
For example, at one point Tuesday, Sen. Warren Limmer was having a friendly chat with a couple of reporters about nothing serious. He looked up and saw a camera being operated by a volunteer from The UpTake.
“Every time I turn around, I see that camera,” Limmer said. He excused himself and returned to the meeting room.
So mostly, reporters ambled about the lobby, munching cookies furnished by the genial hotel manager and trying to entertain themselves by watching the Little Caesar’s bowl game — Western Michigan versus Purdue— and reading tweets.
The most bizarre of those were being sent by the deposed Michael Brodkorb.
Only a few days ago, Brodkorb would have been a key player in all of this.
Certainly, if the shoe had been on the other foot — a DFL senator had fallen because of an inappropriate relationship — Brodkorb would have been firing off harsh comments.
But now, he’s on the outside. He was tweeting such things as what three movies would you want to have if you were stranded on an island.
Finally, the meeting broke and out of the room came Senjem. He was surrounded by the new team, Sens. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, Paul Gazelka of Brainerd, Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo and Claire Robling of Jordan. With the exception of Robling, this is not a well-known crew.
In the next week, Senjem will select two more leaders. The big question is whether David Hann, who wanted the top job, or Michel will be in the mix.