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Minnesota’s new legislative leaders make a political ‘odd couple’

New House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk represent the major divide within the DFL, but both say they will work well together.

Incoming House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk represent the major divide within the DFL.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

The leaders of the new legislative majorities in the Minnesota House and Senate would seem to be a political odd couple.

Paul Thissen, who will be speaker of the House when the session begins Tuesday, is a city guy from socially liberal south Minneapolis. His resume shows Harvard for an undergraduate degree, the University of Chicago for his law degree. He’s reserved, often jotting down notes before he speaks with members of the Capitol press corps.

Tom Bakk, who will be the Senate majority leader, is an Iron Range guy from Virginia. He’s got an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and comes to politics out of the labor movement. Bakk wears his passions on his sleeve, sometimes causing Thissen to wince when he lets loose a blast on some Republican idea.

Given their roots, it’s not surprising that the two represent the major divide within the DFL.

Metro area vs. Greater Minnesota

Bakk, the 57-year-old union guy, represents a region of the state in which there’s resentment over the environmental piety of many metro-area DFLers. There’s a belief on the Range and across much of outstate Minnesota that metro-area DFLers put trees ahead of people.

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“I’m an old-fashioned jobs Democrat” is how Bakk describes himself.

He goes on to say that he believes there are substantial differences in attitudes toward jobs in the metro and outstate. In oustate regions, jobs are viewed as precious.

“When a small town loses a business,” Bakk said, “it may not be possible for the person who’s lost his job to just commute to another job. In the metro area, if you lose a job, you may be able to find another job a few miles away.”

Bakk can almost tear up when he talks about the woes of the unemployed, presumably because he’s been there. As a carpenter in the 1980s, he ran out of unemployment benefits before being able to find work again.

Thissen, 48, has a political style that is far less personal. He speaks constantly of working to help the middle class, but Minnesotan’s aren’t ever going to see Thissen cry or explode.

“I’m understated,” said Thissen, smiling. “I guess that makes me more Minnesotan, doesn’t it?”

But who is more Minnesotan when it comes to walleye fishing?

“OK,” Thissen said, “he gets me on the walleyes.”

(Recall, last year, it was Bakk who thought he’d played the ultimate Minnesota political card when he came up with “Mom’s Amendment,” a proposal that would have moved the fishing opener to the week before Mother’s Day weekend. “Not even Republicans can be against that,’’ he said. But alas, resort owners, among others, feared that the change would create a loss in business.)

They know each other well

For all their style and background differences, though, the two say they have no problem getting along.

One of their big advantages, Bakk said, is that they got to know each other well in 2010, when they were among the long list of DFLers campaigning for governor. The candidates — all nine of them — frequently were together for debates.

DFL candidates
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Thissen and Bakk, left, got to know each other among the many contenders for the DFL gubernatorial endorsement in 2010.

“We all traveled so much that [Sen.] John Marty [who was among the candidates] said we should just rent a van together to save money,” said Bakk.

The debates meant that the candidate’s got to know each other well.

“By the end, we all could give each other’s talking points,” said Thissen. “We ended up stealing ideas from each other.”

Bakk was among the first of the candidates to drop out of the race. And in the end, he gave the nominating speech for Thissen at the DFL endorsing convention. (Thissen ended up dropping out of the endorsement contest after five ballots, finishing behind Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and eventual endorsement winner Margaret Anderson Kelliher.)

Mark Dayton, who bypassed the endorsing convention, was a fellow traveler in that long campaign. That means, said Bakk, that the legislative leaders and the governor have a unique understanding of each other. The gubernatorial campaigns, he said, also give each of the three leaders a special understanding of issues across the state.

Two years ago, when giddy Republicans swept into control of both houses, the new House speaker, Kurt Zellers, and the new Senate majority leader, Amy Koch, vowed that the Senate and House would be unified in purpose. Committees were aligned, and messages from the two leaders were virtually identical.

Leaders and governor share priority

Thissen and Bakk both say the two bodies — and the governor — have the same priority, which is bringing balance and stability to the state budget.

But the two aren’t so naïve as their predecessors about being in lockstep.

“We’re not making any of those vows that we’ll always be together on everything,” Thissen said. “But we understand that in the end, Minnesotans are tired of the bickering.”

Both also have seen how quickly the public will reject a political party that moves out of the mainstream.

 Expect both Thissen and Bakk to work hard to moderate their respective caucuses. There are creative ways to moderate caucuses that represent a broad spectrum of ideas.

Take, example, the area that represents the greatest schism in the DFL, issues surrounding the environment.

Both the House and the Senate will have extremely green chairs on environmental policy committees, Rep. Jean Wagenius of Minneapolis and Sen. John Marty of Roseville. But in both chambers, there will be big counter-balances on the environmental finance committees: Sen. Dave Tomassoni of Chisholm and  Rep. Dave Dill of Crane Lake.

The shared goals of Thissen and Bakk at this point: Go slow, go moderate, keep focus on the budget and the economy and last longer in the majority than the GOP did.