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After winning back Legislature, triumphant DFL takes care not to ‘overstep’

From events during the past two years, DFL legislators say they learned a great lesson from Republicans of actions to avoid.

Sen. Tom Bakk: "731 days ago, Republicans took control of the Senate. Let me say they didn't lose because they are Republicans. They lost because they're wrong."
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

It was shortly after 1 a.m. and joyful DFLers wanted to keep the party rolling.

So several party leaders were pushing Rep. Paul Thissen to step to the podium and proclaim that the DFL had taken back control of the Minnesota House of Representatives.

Thissen, who for two years has been House minority leader, was reluctant to make any proclamations, even though House Speaker Kurt Zellers had called him to concede that the DFL was going to make a clean sweep of things.

But in the last two years, DFL legislators learned a great lesson from Republicans. There’s a huge danger in overstepping.

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Thissen said the last thing he wanted to do was “overstep” by declaring victory before he was absolutely sure victory was in DFL hands.

But after much urging, Thissen stepped to the podium and ever-so-cautiously said it looked as if the DFL was going to be in the majority in the House, which almost certainly means that Thissen will become the new House speaker.

As Thissen spoke to the dwindling and exhausted crowd at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul Riverfront Hotel, those  who still had voices left after a night of so many victories and cheers, cheered one more time.

Oh, what a night it was for the DFL.

Just two years after enduring one of the longest nights in party history, DFLers roared back to take over control of the Senate and the House. That means for the first time since 1990 — when Rudy Perpich was governor — there’s a DFL governor and DFL control of both legislative chambers.

It is hard to overstate the height of the DFL legislative triumphs and the depth of Republican defeats. By the time the counting’s done, it appears DFLers will have moved from minority status to a 39-28 majority in the Senate and a 73-61 majority in the House.

Legislative election results

MinnPost’s ‘key’ races
All races

DFLers cruised in many of the races that MinnPost analysts had said would be the “key races” in determining legislative majorities. DFLers won 9 of those 12 “key” Senate races and 14 of the 16 designated house races.

A whole bunch of GOPers who were first-time winners two years ago were first-time losers this go-around.

Reps. Diane Anderson, King Banaian, Dave Hancock, Carolyn McElfatrick, Rich Murray, Kirk Stensrud, Bruce Vogel and Doug Wardlow were among those who didn’t collect seniority.  Old moderate Larry Howes, a seven-termer who ended up paired against DFL incumbent John Persell, also went down.

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In the Senate, the first term turned out to be the last term for John Carlson, Ted Daley, John Howe, Ben Kruse, Ted Lillie and Pam Wolf.

The DFL won 39 Senate seats to the GOP’s 28.
Full legislative results

Nowhere was the return of the DFL more clear than in Eagan. Two years ago, GOP candidates won the three Eagan seats (two House, one Senate). Now, all three of those winners are losers. DFLer Jim Carlson knocked incumbent Ted Daley out of the Senate. In the House, DFLer Sandra Masin sent Republican Diane Anderson packing, and DFLer Laurie Halverson defeated Tea Party poster boy Doug Wardlow.

Much has been made of how the hard-right Republican class of 2010 wasn’t like the GOP of the past.

But it should be noted that this new class of DFLers is not your father’s DFL, either.

This new model of the DFL is represented by such people as Edina’s Melisa Franzen, who dispatched Keith Downey, a hard-right conservative who was attempting to move from the House to the Senate.

Franzen said that what she found when she was pounding the pavement in search of votes were Minnesotans “thirsty for moderation.”

A Target Corp. attorney, Franzen said her profile fits her Senate district.

“I’m in the middle of the road,” she said. “I do support business, I do support compromise.”

Most of the new class of DFLers fit that profile, which means that Gov. Mark Dayton likely will have a difficult time finding huge amounts of support for some of his most progressive ideas.

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“What will happen with a DFL governor and a DFL Legislature?” Dayton asked the jubilant crowd. “I say, ‘Progress.’ ”

He turned then to his “tax the rich’’ mantras.

Later, though, Dayton admitted that these will remain “lean times” for state government.

The DFL won 73 House seats to the GOP’s 61.
Full legislative results

Spending the last two years in the minority has been a sobering experience for DFLers. But it’s also been educational. They’ve seen what happens when a majority party jams things like marriage and voting amendments onto the ballot without bipartisan support.

DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler said watching how Minnesotans approached this election “made me proud of our state. … Minnesota voters are so good. As soon as they saw what Voter ID was really about they said, ‘we don’t need that.’ Minnesotans don’t like it when you overstep. That’s what Republicans did, and it’s something we have to remember, too.’’

That doesn’t mean that DFLers will be inactive. They can’t just show up at the Capitol. They will have to work with the governor to come to grips with the state’s budget problems, which include continuing but smaller deficits but difficult issues nonetheless.

Additionally, DFLers will feel compelled to do something to roll back property taxes and somehow bring back the homestead credit, which the GOP Legislature erased.

Beyond dollars and cents, look for Dayton and his new allies in the Legislature to put together another bonding package and move things like transit back to the front burner.

“We have a chance to reboot” is how Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, sees the political scene ahead.

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On Tuesday night, they also had a chance to celebrate like they haven’t celebrated for a long time.  And gloat a little, too.

“731 days ago, Republicans took control of the Senate,” Sen. Tom Bakk, who likely will be the new Senate majority leader, told the crowd. “Let me say they didn’t lose because they are Republicans. They lost because they’re wrong.”

(An aside here:  The first big decision Bakk has to make is whether to shave his goatee. He and his spouse were discussing that issue before arriving at the DFL’s celebration.)

When the night began, with the exception of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s race, there was no certainty that there would be much for DFLers to celebrate. Angst filled the ballroom, until 10:15, when the networks called the presidential race. Anxiety turned to bedlam.

But not everyone could start celebrating with news of President Obama’s triumph.

Results from legislative races trickled in slowly, meaning such candidates as the DFLer Yvonne Selcer could only smile bravely while all around her people were screaming and hugging and toasting and screaming some more.

Selcer, a one-time Hopkins school board member, was making her first bid for the Legislature (House seat 48A) against incumbent Rep. Kirk Stensrud.

“In school board races, nobody purchased $70,000 in TV ads to use against me,” Selcer said.

The evening wore on. The party around her grew louder. Results from her race were nowhere to be found.  It wasn’t until around 1 a.m. that she learned that she’d won by 202 votes.

She hugged her supporters and they hugged her. But they all appeared too tired to join the party that had been going on all around them all night long.