Examining how legislative leaders dealt with Steve Smith and Amy Koch

Rep. Steve Smith
Rep. Steve Smith

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.

Sen. Amy Koch
MinnPost/James Nord
Sen. 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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/12/2012 - 02:09 pm.

    In my book, the 3 months from September to December that were allotted to cool the fires of romance counts as “coddling”, at the very least, “sensitivity”. (You may well ask, “sensitive” to what?)

    It seems that there were very few denials issued by Koch regarding her affair. Right now, there are denials and equivocations related to the Smith issue. Somewhat different, at least in my book.

    And, Senate Majority Leader is a position far more public and exposed than Committee Chair. The risks and potential damages are far greater.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/12/2012 - 03:06 pm.

    I see nothing “seriously insensitive” about confronting a legislative leader about an “inappropriate relationship” (these euphemisms are just wonderful) with a subordinate. What had me wondering, and still has me wondering, is why – according to what I’ve read – the situation was discovered/uncovered/brought to light/outed in September, but the ousting from position, and public knowledge of the situation, didn’t come about until… December? It took 4 *months* for Koch’s fellow legislative leaders to figure out what to do once they were aware of what was going on? These people are running the legislature?

    From here, Ms. Brucato, ‘twould appear that Senate leaders were sufficiently “sensitive” to Mrs. Koch’s position and privacy.

    I confess I wasn’t paying attention to Representative Smith last summer, so I’ll take your description of his departure from the chair of the House Judiciary Committee at face value, and given that, I’m not seeing a lot of difference between the two. A single allegation by a TV station doesn’t necessarily mean Smith was involved in an “inappropriate relationship.” If that relationship was the reason why he was asked/told to step down from his committee chairmanship, then his treatment by party leaders seems roughly equivalent to the party’s treatment of Mrs. Koch.

    What *is* different is the *media* treatment, and as someone who’s spent quite a bit of time involved in that world, you’re more qualified than I to speak to just why Mrs. Koch’s story was splashed across the front page of the ‘Strib while Mr. Smith’s was not, or at least not as prominently, since I don’t recall any ‘Strib stories suggesting he was involved in that sort of relationship.

    From this distance, I’m seeing far less discriminatory behavior from the party than I am from various media outlets.

  3. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 01/12/2012 - 08:41 pm.

    What ever happened to real hard news stories out of the Legislature? In all the years I’ve lived in this state, 2011 will rate as the best political soap opera I have ever watched.

    Doesn’t anyone realize that MN local and state politics are gravitating toward an inane style of soapy reality show? A show where the needs of the people and governments are running amok and off the tracks of responsible civil discourse or action.

    After 10 years of squabbling and heated, sometimes vitriolic, debate there is no new stadium venue built or in the groundbreaking stages. After nearly a decade of political ‘gridlock’ rigmarole in state government and misspent political focus the state is still showing a shortfall, public works projects are mostly at a standstill, and, the “peoples house”–the State Capitol Building”–is deteriorating due to neglect and procrastination. Now tell me this state isn’t a soap opera in real time! The title of this “state of ‘affairs'” should be called, “As Minnesota Churns”!!!

    Which us to why these comments are appearing in this MinnPost comment section. Why does a GOP male House member in charge of two[?] influential powerful committees barely get much ink or air-play for his unethical[?] extracurricular actions when compared to the media circus expounded on a female GOP Senator, a powerful majority leader who went astray with her extracurricular activities? Who makes this stuff up? Hollywood?

    It’s bad enough when childish gridlock and ignorant political divisiveness prevails in daily in St.Paul. It’s bad enough when state institutions are crumbling, physically and politically around us ignominiously with no cohesiveness or repair standard for the future.

    The business of any government at times must be accountable, stalwart, and responsible to the people who placed it power. Thus, when political or personal matters become a sickly gallimauphri and the elected representatives forget why their constituents voted them in office don’t we have the makings of a political ‘soap opera’?

    The same arguments apply to the House and Senate members who ethically and hypocritically[?] stray from their mandated duties. However, there seems to be a double standard when applied to gender equity issues. Guess the folks in St.Paul still keep to the soap opera script of inequality when dealing when job related extracurricular activities.

    So another chapter “As Minnesota Churns” goes to real life! LOL!

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/13/2012 - 08:18 am.

    So what would have been the “sensitive” way to handle this?

    An illicit affair by top leadership undermines party policies, party discipline, and leaves the leadership frankly open to “blackmail”, or, at the very least, raises questions of how decisions of the leadership were arrived at.

    (Why do you think that organizations like the NSA (Koch’s former employer) remove security clearances for extramarital affairs? It is exactly to prevent conflict of interests.)

    Add to that the disrepute of the financial status and administration of the party.

    Someone had to start clearing the weeds.

    Michel, as a corporate attorney, knows full well that the cover-up is often more damaging than the act. The effect of a cover-up is to drag more people into culpability, with those people most often quite innocently (and ignorant of all the facts)trying to protect the reputation of people and institutions.

    By the way, as long as we are “dragging people through the mud”, perhaps Brucato and Ferrell would be so kind as to provide us the full details of the Smith affair(s), after all 2 or maybe 3 wrongs should make a right somewhere. After all, Brucato has ties to KSTP which released the Smith story.

  5. Submitted by Dick Novack on 01/13/2012 - 08:38 am.

    It just seems odd.

    There are all kinds of inside stories of this kind of activity over the modern legislative history. It wasn’t so long ago there were stories of drinking and which leaders had bars in their offices. None of this is much different than in business offices here and there – except – that standards have changed. Standards that relate to superior and subordinate.

    I can see that rightfully both instances were “personnel” matters. In modern times personnel matters are considered private. But what do you do when the place is “public” affecting the public good (and where anything untoward is fodder for the political opposition)?

    Smith was a very visible figure who headed Judiciary (that’s about the practice of law, folks) and ethics (the man in charge being accused of what he polices) so I disagree with the Ray Schock point above that there is a difference between Koch and Smith.

    I noted elsewhere on the internet a lady commentator questioning why Sen Michel lost his leadership for not disclosing Koch’s relationship while Rep Zellers is not under the gun, or removed, for not disclosing Smith’s. She said same circumstances, male and female, both subordinates are gone. Yet other than that, the mainstream visible media has not highlighted the difference nor are they calling it a double standard, nor do women’s groups seem to be yelling as they usually do – so I don’t think the Francis Ferrell post above applies either.

    It simply is odd.

  6. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 01/13/2012 - 11:39 am.

    Unequal treatment? Perhaps, but the comments point out a lot of similarities in the timetables.

    I also see a couple differences not noted here. Koch & her alleged paramour are married and put a major GOP ballot initiative under a cloud. More substantive were complaints of a hostile work environment in the Koch/Brodkorb office.

    This Smith allegation doesn’t appear to be on the same level.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 01/14/2012 - 09:58 am.

    Sex and soul searching is now the order of the day? No more serious party issues?

    …so I ask, is it true the Party of Inappropriateness has set up a confessional in the janitor’s mop closet under the Dome where “forgive me father” echoes through the rotunda even with the door closed…plus similar confessions from the still-clean-hands crowd of fellow fundamentalist, conservatives…”Forgive me father for ‘they’ have sinned”

    All that does not suffer here as far as serious agenda issues under such trivial abstractions is the the stadium issue I suppose?

    At least they’re doing something:
    Mediocrity and abuse of power make bad bed bedfellows…we’ve come a long way, eh?

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