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Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s leadership style confounds some, frustrates others

It has become clear that even with a DFL governor and DFL control of the House that Bakk will take the Senate in its own, likely more moderate, direction.

It has become clear that even with a DFL governor and DFL control of the House that Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk will take the Senate in its own, likely more moderate, direction.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

Tom Bakk can get almost teary-eyed when he talks about leading the Minnesota Senate.

A year ago, when he was stepping into the role of majority leader,  he talked, emotionally, about being one of so few people in the history of the state to lead the Senate. Here he was, a union carpenter from Cook, stepping into a leadership role that has been held by so few.

He also can get misty-eyed when talking about his grandkids or when empathizing with those who are out of work.

But, as he enters his second session as the DFL Senate majority leader, it’s clear that these misty moments are only a small part of who the 59-year-old Bakk is.

It has become clear that even with a DFL governor and DFL control of the House that Bakk will take the Senate in its own, likely more moderate, direction.

Go his own way

That go-our-own-way attitude became evident right from the get-go of this session.

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On Tuesday, the House suspended its normal procedural rules and unanimously rushed  through a bill that puts $20 million into a Low Income Emergency Assistance program that was running low on funds because of the double whammy of extreme cold  and a sharp spike in propane prices this winter.

(There were only slight digressions in this action that showed that in an emergency, politicians from all points of view can come together. Rep. Steve Drazkowski did see fit to start the session with one of those remarkable Draz moments. Drazkowski, apparently a climate change denier,  talked about “global cooling’’ in Minnesota but then supported the bill.)

But Bakk was not about to be rushed by the House.  The Senate, he said, would follow its procedure and hold a hearing on just how much money was needed for the fund and likely will vote on the matter Monday. That’s plenty of time, he said, to make sure that the program that assists more than 23,000 Minnesotans doesn’t run out of money.

There is no doubt that the Senate will overwhelmingly approve the measure. After all, pols don’t like the idea of being responsible for turning their constituents into chunks of ice.

But Bakk won’t be pushed.

“Everybody will receive what they are due,’’ said Bakk of his insistence that process be followed.

 The fund — and propane tanks — will be filled. Still, Bakk’s refusal to suspend the rules and move quickly seemed like a missed opportunity to start the session off with a bipartisan bang.

Confounding ways

But Bakk often acts in confounding ways. He is almost certainly the reason a major minimum-wage increase didn’t pass last session and may end up getting delayed and diluted this session.

Recall, it was at Bakk’s urging that the Senate passed a tepid minimum ($7.75) wage bill last session, far lower than the House push for a $9.50 minimum.

His moves on minimum wage have perplexed his union supporters and a huge cross-section of the DFL base who wonder: This is a guy who has pushed hard to get a new Senate office building constructed — for $63 million — but he can’t push for a decent minimum wage for the state’s lowest-paid workers? What sort of a DFLer is that?

Most DFL insiders seem to believe that a unified push for a substantial increase is fundamental to rallying DFLers to get to the polls next November. And getting a big base turnout to the polls is of great importance if the DFL is to hold its majority in the House as well as  the governor’s office.

Bakk seems to shrug that off, saying that in the House, “There’s always an election around the corner. … The Senate takes a longer view.’’

But others believe Bakk simply is playing the role of strategist and negotiator.

“If he’s going to give something, he expects something back in return,’’ said one DFL legislator who asked not to be identified.

A number of GOP and DFL legislators, as well as labor leaders, were asked about Bakk for this article. Most spoke only on background. Few want to confront a leader they’re still trying to figure out.

Observers’ differing views

But what seems to be evident is that just about everyone has a different view of Bakk:

He’s smart.

He’s not as smart as he thinks he is.

He’s  a bully.

Nah, he’s just a big guy with a big voice — but a bigger heart.

He says what he thinks.

He tells you what you want to hear.

There’s no consensus on Bakk.

Sen. Dave Senjem, a former Republican Senate majority leader, thought carefully when asked about Bakk’s leadership — and his style.

“I think there’s sort of a rough, tough veneer he carries out of his union life,’’ Senjem said. “But below that veneer, there’s a regular guy you can go out for dinner with and have a nice time. He’s a negotiator. He doesn’t give anything without getting things in return. That may go back to his life as a union guy.’’

Bakk is quick to say he’s still a union guy. He wears a Brotherhood of Carpenters pin on his lapel. “My dues are paid in full.’’

In touch with state

His strongest supporters in his own caucus believe his dues are paid way past full. The simple fact that the DFL regained the majority in the Senate is proof that Bakk is far more in touch with the state than was his DFL predecessor, Larry Pogemiller.

Pogemiller was off-putting to many in his caucus, particularly those from Greater Minnesota and the Iron Range, including Bakk.

In 2007, Bakk pushed Pogemiller to six votes before losing in the caucus race to become majority leader.

In 2010, Bakk was among the large contingent of DFLers to run for governor. Although he had the support of the trade unions and was an able fundraiser, he dropped out of that race prior to the DFL convention.

But it was that election cycle that moved Bakk toward the political power he has today. That was the year Republicans stunned even themselves by winning not only the majority in the House but the Senate as well.

Many in the DFL Senate caucus pointed fingers at Pogemiller for the loss of power. He responded by saying he would not be a candidate for Senate minority leader and has since left the Senate and joined the Dayton administration.

Bakk stepped in. He became minority leader, and when the GOP Senate majority imploded and the DFL reclaimed majority status, Bakk was the clear choice of his caucus to lead.

Grumblers, but no challengers

To date, there may be some grumblers in the caucus, but no challengers ready to take on the leader.

The frustration to some is that Bakk, like longtime Majority Leader Roger Moe, doesn’t necessarily view the political world in terms of rights and wrongs. Rather, all issues are  negotiating tools.

MinnPost’s James Nord reported at the conclusion of last session on Bakk’s style in last-minute negotiations. Although Bakk denies it, many DFLers and Republicans believe that at the close of last session, Bakk/Senate leadership swapped action on minimum wage and an anti-bullying law in exchange for getting a bonding bill for Capitol repairs and minimal bickering on an omnibus tax bill.

There’s real concern among those pushing the minimum wage that Bakk again could negotiate away too much of any wage increase.

For a big man, he dances nimbly around the subject. The Bakk shuffle goes like this:

Step to the left: He wants a generous increase.

Step to the right: He needs to understand the full impact of a wage hike.

Step to the left: He supports low-paid workers.

Step to the right: he doesn’t want any Main Street businesses hurt — or good people losing their jobs.

Stalwart DFL defender

Frustrating as he can be for some in his own caucus, he also has the ability to stand up for what he believes the DFL has accomplished.

A week before the start of the session, Forum Communications hosted a media event featuring the four legislative leaders: Bakk, House Speaker Paul Thissen, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader David Hann.

Daudt and Hann were belting out old GOP tunes: The good-news economic forecasts show that DFLers were wrong to raise taxes in some areas last session; surpluses should be returned to the people, etc.

There was nothing surprising in what the two Republicans were saying. Nonetheless, Bakk started shifting in his seat.

Finally, he could take it no more as Daudt was going on and on. Bakk interupted.

“Can I take the bait?’’ he asked.

Daudt stopped. Bakk continued.

“It’s not as if we didn’t get something for the money we raised,’’ Bakk said. “To say we just squandered the money is just wrong.’’

He started listing places where the money went: investments in higher ed, investments in K-12.

“If our businesses are to succeed, we are going to have to have the best workforce,’’ he said. “We made important state investments.’’