State Rep. Steve Smith, Republican from Mound, may be considering switching parties, the result of increasingly tense relations and suspicions between him and members of his caucus.
Smith left his post as chair of the House Judiciary Committee last summer. He said he was forced out by leadership after he fell out of step with the Republican majority by voting no on a bill to define marriage through a constitutional amendment.
Smith’s colleagues have stressed the move was not the result of a single vote but rather mounting personal issues and have taken pains to protect his privacy.
Now, KSTP-TV is reporting that Smith was removed as chair in part because of an alleged relationship with a subordinate staffer who then was re-assigned. Smith did not return a call for comment but told KSTP he did not have an inappropriate relationship.
The protective way in which House leaders handled the friction contrasts sharply with the Senate’s handling of the case involving former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.
Based on interviews with Capitol insiders familiar with the timeline in both cases, House Republican leaders took a far different approach in dealing with the Smith situation than GOP Senate leaders did in demoting Koch.
Via a news conference and a subsequent blast of media attention, Senate leadership accused Koch of having personal relationship with a subordinate, which she later acknowledged. The news conference included indirect reference to the identity of the staff member and was followed by reports detailing the confrontation that led to Koch stepping down as majority leader.
House action regarding Smith has been confined to a carefully worded news release on his leaving the Judiciary Committee chairmanship with Speaker Kurt Zellers announcing that Smith would no longer chair the committee due to “personal reasons.” No staffer was publicly fired and House leaders have had no public comment because of data privacy concerns.
The same rules about conduct between legislators and staff apply in both chambers, renewing questions about the motives behind the Koch discipline and the subsequent firing of Michael Brodkrob, the Senate communications director.
Before losing her position as majority leader, Koch was rising like a bullet to the top of the political charts, even mentioned as a candidate for governor. The drama that surrounded her demotion could certainly be taken at face-value — a reflection of disappointment in a falling star. Koch acknowledged as much in her only public statement on the controversy:
I want to express my deep regret and apologies to my constituents, the Republican Party, my fellow legislators, friends and most importantly, my family. I regret more than words can express the hurt that I have caused to the people that I love, and to those who have worked and served with me over the past years.
But for many of Koch’s female colleagues — and probably Koch herself — that disappointment was expressed with what they describe as “serious insensitivity” on the part of legislative leaders.
Politically, Koch was a target as well. She had competition for the leadership post when the Republicans took over the Senate a year ago. One of those competitors, David Hann of Eden Prairie, was a candidate to be her replacement. She was seen as a triangulator in a caucus divided between those who consider themselves true conservatives and those who consider themselves pragmatists. These kind of leaders often count as their closest allies not their peers but loyal staff members. Just such a staff member, Brodkorb, was a polarizing figure in the Senate, and was a target in the coup.
While Smith may be considering a party switch, expect Koch to continue to be major a player in the Senate Republican caucus. She plans to be there at the end of the month when the Legislature convenes, and although she has said she will not seek re-election, after that there will come decisions about her future.