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DFL senators divided over Bakk's leadership in wake of special session

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk listening as the roll of Senate members
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk listening as the roll of Senate members is called to open last Friday's special session.

Around 3 a.m. on Saturday, June 13, after both the Minnesota House and Senate adjourned their one-day special session and most lawmakers had gone home, Democrats in the Senate were just getting started.

Three-dozen or so senators — most of the DFL’s 39-member caucus — gathered in a hearing room in an office building down the street from the state Capitol to let members vent their frustration. Their irritation wasn’t directed at Republicans, though. It was focused on their own leadership.

An increasingly vocal group of mostly metro-area senators felt Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk had hatched deals with a Republican-controlled House in the final days of session and proceeded to ram massive budget bills through the process. Many senators were upset that they had mere minutes to read certain budget bills, and that other measures contained provisions that had never been seen before in committees. 

One bill in particular had become the spectacle of the Friday special session: A $780 million budget bill funding agricultural and environmental programs. Gov. Mark Dayton initially vetoed the bill after session, but the final deal negotiated between his administration and Republicans still contained controversial changes, including one that eliminated the nearly 50-year-old Citizens' Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency; another that moved landfill cleanup reserves to the general fund; and yet another exempting sulfide mining projects from solid-waste disposal rules. 

The agriculture and environment budget failed by a single vote in the Senate, a dramatic move that threatened to upend the fragile deal that was holding the special session together. After amending and slinging the budget bill back-and-forth between the House and Senate chambers for 10 hours, the bill finally passed in the early hours Saturday morning, with all of the controversial provisions still attached. Bleary-eyed and frustrated after session, some senators considered taking Bakk up on something he had offered the night before session: Let the caucus take an up-or-down vote of no confidence in him as the Senate majority leader.

“There was a lot of conversation going around. People were talking fairly upfront about it,” said Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, who, like all senators contacted for this story, did not break a Senate DFL rule by revealing specific discussions held in the private caucus meeting. “He knew there was a lot of unrest.”

The vote was never taken, but senators stayed in the hearing room until 4:30 a.m., some demanding a change in style from leadership. In the wake of the 2015 session, the caucus remains divided along two significant fault lines: on what part of the state they represent, and how they feel (and vote) on environmental issues.

The more dissatisfied members have put Bakk — who did not respond to multiple requests for comment — on review in the interim. Others, who support Bakk and his leadership style, are hoping time will repair wounds in the caucus before 2016, when the Senate will kick off a critical session and an election year. 

A ‘performance review’ 

“I’d say a little over half of our caucus is quite concerned about the leadership right now and what we are going to do about it and how we are going to make some changes,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights. “We are doing a performance review, let’s call it.” 

Goodwin said her problems with Bakk started in the final weeks of session, when the majority leader announced a budget deal with House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt three days before adjournment. What followed were around-the-clock committee hearings and last-minute dealings before most budget bills were taken up on the floor for votes the last day of session. 

Goodwin said leadership, from Bakk down to the elected and appointed assistant leaders, did not communicate with rank-and-file members about what was in some of the major bills. Senate President Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said chairs of Senate committees were surprised by provisions in their own final budget bills.

“It was a lot of: ‘How did that provision get in that bill?’ and ‘I'm the chair and it wasn’t approved by me,’ and ‘I wasn’t aware of that,’ ” Pappas said. “That happened with a number of our chairs.”

Some say the problems started earlier in session, in February, when Dayton held a press conference to call out Bakk for moving to nix a handful of pay raises the governor granted his commissioners. At the time, Dayton said Bakk didn’t tell him he was going to take the vote and called the majority leader a backstabber. Dayton met with a handful of senators after the vote, some of whom were concerned about their ability to work with the governor, their biggest DFL ally, for the rest of the session.

Other senators are looking beyond the session to an election year in which all 67 seats in the Senate are up for grabs. “Right now our leader isn’t just unpopular with us, he’s unpopular around the state,” Goodwin said.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is worried about disenchanted young voters sitting out the 2016 elections.

“Some people are looking at what we are doing as leaders, and they are already completely disgusted with us and our failures to protect our environment,” Dibble said. “They are just going to be confirmed in their perception that it just makes no difference anymore who you vote for. The system isn’t working for them. It’s not that young people don't want to come to the polls, but their level of cynicism is so high because of the failure of our system to look toward our future.”

‘A caucus is like a family’

In the end, Bakk maintained the support of a majority of his members, a group that includes those who were concerned that it would be worse to head into 2016 as a divided caucus. “[Bakk] wanted to feel like the caucus was behind him for him to go out and do the kind of fundraising he needed to do for elections,” Pappas said. “I think that was a major concern for a lot of the freshman. They depend on him to raise money for our elections because elections are incredibly expensive these days.”

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said Bakk did what he could to reach a compromise with Republicans, who wouldn’t budge on a lot of their budget positions. “The fact that they, in essence, actually came to an agreement on every single bill and would have passed them, I thought was a win for leadership,” Bonoff said. “As a division chair, I can tell you it’s very, very very difficult to reach consensus. We were just worlds apart.”

There are plenty of members who appreciate Bakk’s personality and style of leadership. A towering Iron Ranger from Cook with a booming voice, Bakk spent years as a business agent for the Carpenter’s union — where he honed his skills as a negotiator — before coming to the Capitol in 1994, first as a member of the state House. An avid sportsman, he increasingly leaves the Capitol behind him during long breaks to go on fishing and hunting trips.

Still, this is not the first time Bakk has irked members of his own party. In 2013 and 2014, when the DFL controlled both chambers of the Legislature, Bakk butted heads with other Democrats over everything from a minimum wage increase to tax relief to the Senate office building, which will house members during and after a massive restoration project in the Capitol.

Yet Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said Bakk’s years with the union and decades in politics make him particularly effective at positioning his members for the best possible outcome in negotiations. “I do believe he brings some valuable skills to bear that are very important for a leader,” Eken said. “He’s a strong voice for the caucus, and I think he communicates well with the media.”

“A caucus is like a family, and like in any family, communication is important and there was a breakdown in communication,” Eken continued. “You go through difficult times in every party. [Environmental issues] have always been more divisive within our caucus, but the things that unify us are much stronger.” 

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Comments (28)

The senate

I am the sort of person who prefers to think of sausage that comes in a wrapper acquired from Byerly's, as opposed to focusing on how it's made. I make a positive effort, not always successful to avoid this kind of inside info especially from senators who are observing the rule not to publicly discuss internal matters while discussing internal matters publicly. But, as the article suggests, the problems go much deeper, and are more complex, then can be understood from an emotional meeting of exhausted senators. And there is a lot of blame to go around.

Pappas hits the nail on the head

The freshmen depend on Bakk. Bakk has a massive lobbying and fundraising machine on his side, detailed here:

http://minnesotabrown.com/2015/06/the-lobbying-cycle-that-limits-iron-ra...

The Iron Range has successfully built an insular, self-reinforcing and self-funding machine that's holding the Range and the rest of the state in its thrall.

"The Iron Range,,, built an

"The Iron Range,,, built an insular, self-reinforcing, and self-funding machine that's holding the Range and the rest of the state in its thrall." The state money that is poured into the IRRRB is appalling.

The power from the Range is holding the rest of the state hostage to its insular agenda where preservation/creation of " jobs" trumps environment. And Mr Bakk is the point man and again stabbed the governor in the back.

Bakk - a breath of fresh air.

Although I disagree with Senator Bakk on a variety of issues, he seemed reasonable in negotiations. I cannot image the extreme left wing of the DFL Senate along with the increasingly irrational Dayton trying to compromise with the "mainstream" views of Minnesotans.

Do you mean

the same "mainstream" Minnesotans that reelected them?

you ought to be thankful for Bakk

Bakk rescued the DFL from the extreme and radical Dayton agenda. Please remind the voters of MN next election and insist that "your candidates" run for election on the huge gas tax increase on the poor and middle class along with the privatization of k4. Please...

Yes balancing the budget

and having the best economy in the midwest is "extreme."

Extreme left wing

Compared to Senate moderates like Julianne Ortman, Roger Chamberlain, Michelle Benson, Torrey Westrom, Mary Kiffmeyer, Dave Thompson, Dan Hall, Sean Neinow, Gary Dahmes, and David Hann?

Basically, Bakk "negotiated"

Basically, Bakk "negotiated" a complete capitulation on some very important environmental issues (to name just one area). He seems way too comfortable leaving his DFL colleagues in the dark about what he has agreed to with Republicans (who never bend at all, and demand capitulation). He doesn't seem to understand that Minnesotans simply will not accept our legislators being forced by a guy who sounds, to this female, pretty much like a bully (big guy, booming voice, hunter/fisher/union boss, a bad listener, etc.), to approve bills they knew nothing about and hadn't read.

That's dictator-style "leadership," and I'm glad the DFL legislators in our Senate have come to realize his style for what it is. Bad leadership in a democracy.

And, I think it's time for DFLers to question the wisdom of Sen Bonoff, too. She plays along with Bakk's methods, but at what cost to Minnesota?

Bakk and Bonoff

Both must go!!

The real issue is

The horrible things that were done under Bakk's leadership. Massive environmental rollbacks in concert with the Republicans, etc.

I don't care about Bakk's personality, etc, I want him out because his values are not my values, and his actions are harmful to my interests. I don't think his values are those of most DFLers.

Bakk is a disgrace

I agree with your assessment of DINO Bakk. He needs to be removed from DFL leadership ASAP.

Exactly

You summed it up more succinctly than I could have. Have you signed the petition demanding that he step down from his Senate leadership position?

Bakk

I agree!

Mr Bakk and his agenda

My observations in the work place and now in the state senate arena is that the more obnoxious and consistent scheming the character, the greater opportunities for success.In this, Mr. Bakk has excelled.It is with equal disgust and dismay that concerned Minnesotan's had to witness the dishonorable actions of this self serving politician. With projected millions of dollars from just little Poly-Met's tabulations to keep toxic run off from sulfide mining each year for hundreds of years, how could any sane person justify the sacrifice . So, drink deeply from those clean waters and air now Mr. Bakk and friends now for the next generation won't have the same opportunity, but then that's not your concern is it?

DFL caucus, leadership and Bakk

It is appalling, disgusting, unconscionable! What happened this session. Back room deals, dark of night language showing up on bills with no time to even read it, language being inserted that never even had a public hearing! absolutely no transparency or accountability to the citizens of the state. The DFL leadership is to blame, but so is the whole caucus! Individual members votes don’t matter any longer – we’ve just gone backwards decades on environment and energy. For anyone who cares about our clean air, clean water, natural areas and outdoor recreation we have no one to vote for anymore. We need a new “party”!

I have a hard time trusting Bakk

When the DFL was in power he dialed back on the initiatives that could have secured the next election cycle for the democrats. Instead of bragging about success they were left trying to explain why they didn't "over-reach" and that didn't sell. Guys like Bakk don't seem to understand that success sells and republican voters aren't his "base". So they dial back their initiatives out fear of alienating voters and then they lose anyways. So 4-6-8 years go by and we won't a stable source of transportation funding because the democrats were too afraid to create one.

Meanwhile, Bakk has this weird relationship with a technically democratic governor who ends up looking more like an independent. I think part of what Bakk was doing here was putting the special session and potential shut down off on Dayton, thinking that Dayton would get the blame. It looks to me like Bakk was willing to sign off on almost any budget and just drop it in Dayton's lap, which is what he did. That was a poor calculation on Bakk's part because it looks like this is going to blow back on Bakk the democratic legislature more than anyone else. Which brings us to the question: is Bakk a political asset or a liability for the Democrats? I don't think I'm the only one who's not impressed with Bakk's negotiating skills. So far he's 0 for 2 as far as I'm concerned.

I think Bakk looks at

I think Bakk looks at everything as transactional and views everything as an opportunity to exert his leverage. This served his party and his caucus well when the DFL was in the minority. He and Thissen were often able to take the initiative away from Zellers and Senjem in 2011-12.

But go back to last session and his handling of the state office building and the minimum wage issue shows that when you do that as part of majority coalition you risk alienating and weakening your partners -- a trend which only continued this session.

Baak

I am disgusted in the part he played with the Auditors office...I hope the court overturns it..

Democrats

"Meanwhile, Bakk has this weird relationship with a technically democratic governor who ends up looking more like an independent."

From where I sit, as a rank and file DFL activist, the relationship between the party and the governor has always been stressed. In general, over his long political career, I have often found Dayton to be irritating. He isn't a particularly effective communicator, and he often seems indifferent to the political impact of what he does, on others. While he seems to have mastered the forms of noblesse oblige, he has never seemed to grasp the substance. I don't really expect him to go out for beers with Senator Bakk, but I do expect them to put personal differences aside or at least keep them out of the media and work together.

Yeah but...

Dayton wins elections. I think it's time for the DFL who couldn't muster a candidate capable of defeating the most mediocre governor in MN history (Pawlenty) to get over itself. I don't know why a highly cultivated skill for shooting itself in the foot repeatedly is considered political "wisdom" by the MNDFL but I wish they'd get over it because I'd like to have an electable candidate I can vote for once and while. I find Dayton irritating as well, but he's only around for 8 years at most. The DFL has been failing me for decades.

The DFL has become Cities Centric

If you look at who is making the most noise against Bakk, it's those in the Twin Cities. Dayton has also centralized almost all of his appointments of special favors to those in the Twin Cities. The DFL has moved to the left so when you have someone that has been pragmatic as Bakk has been, he is at 'odds' with his party. It is no coincidence much of outstate Minnesota is going to the Republicans. Bakk was good in working with Daudt in what most Minnesotans want in their government, working together.
Bakk was in the mix until Dayton decided to act as a petulant child when they are supposed to be on the same team. How could he go along with that when everyone knows that Dayton, as governor, was taking things way too far that everyone knew, including many DFLers.
If anything, the caucus should be ticked at Dayton for hamstringing their senate leader because even if Bakk is removed, Dayton will keep doing what he has been doing because he wants to be 'unbound.'

Most Minnesotans ARE in the Cities

So, be careful what you assume about what most Minnesotans want. It's probably not what Bakk and Daudt want.

Given the agenda

What is the difference between having the DFL or the GOP in power on the range. I get that currently the DFL needs the seats, but population trends point towards a decline in importance for all of outstate Minnesota. Perhaps if this ruination of NE MN was a strictly GOP affair, the Governor might see it in his best interest to push back a little harder. As a good number of Rangers are Democrats only in so much as they know the GOP is looking to gut their union rights, its not like there's really much support to lose. Their narrow self interest is better suited to the GOP anyway.

No Confidence! Take Bakk to the Woodshed!

A pragmatic nature has nothing to do with Tom Bakk's unscrupulous behavior. He made a cunning decision to bypass and override DFL colleagues' hard work in special session, while collaborating with Republicans to eviscerate bills in the dark. This is definitely not what Minnesotans want! We want honorable legislators to act in the interest of our people, not self-centered, career politicians courting big business and a disastrous future for Minnesota.

Amen

Well said...

Everything, but this in particular struck me as the crux:

"He made a cunning decision to bypass and override DFL colleagues' hard work in special session, while collaborating with Republicans to eviscerate bills in the dark."

He really HAS "broken the trust" which really is "too bad." He pulled a huge "fast one" on those who have trusted his leadership for years, and as much as they may want to, it seems impossible that any of his DFL colleagues will ever be able to trust him again as their leader.

The "twist of the knife" was when he threw them (and all their hard work) under the bus after their "veto" of the mining "solid waste exemption" and Citizens' Board abolishment and turned to the Republicans. Can't imagine a DFL Senate Majority Leader making a worse move.

The one "shining example" was Tony Lourey's, and the DFL's, handling of the Matt Dean's onslaught on the Health and Human Services budget. That was the model of how the entire session should have worked out. No idea how it was done, but Matt Dean was stopped in his idiotic tracks and flattened, just like he should have been.

And that's the way it ALL should and could have worked with every crazy and destructive bill that came out of the House. But Mr. Bakk and the rest of the "Range Delegation" and seven or eight ag area DFL Senators had priorities that made the regrettable (and now in need of undoing) "compromises" possible.

Or so it seems.

I remember thinking, "It's a good thing nothing in the HHS bill did anything to mess with mining, or MinnesotaCare probably would've been gone too."

Through the woodshed window

It sounds like the Governor agrees with you, Judith:

"On the eve of the special legislative session this month, long-simmering tensions among DFL senators exploded after an urgent visit by Gov. Mark Dayton.

"As the potential for a state government shutdown grew, Dayton had come to them to make his case on a controversial environment bill.

"Behind closed doors, according to several senators who were present but who asked not to be named, Dayton launched into a diatribe against Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a powerful political figure who has spent 20 years in the Legislature, the last five of them leading his Senate caucus.

"Dayton said Bakk had undermined him at every turn during negotiations with Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt. He accused Bakk of 'profound betrayal' by negotiating against Senate DFL positions and coordinating with Republicans on their policy initiatives.

"At one point, an incensed Dayton turned to Bakk, seated in a chair behind him, and said, 'I can’t trust you,' two senators who were at the meeting told the Star Tribune.

"One senator said Dayton then told the group they would have to make their own decision about leadership, 'but that if we want anything to be different, something would have to change.' ”

http://www.startribune.com/despite-dissent-bakk-retains-post-as-dfl-sena...

"Profound betrayal," and "I can't trust you." To his face... In a private, yet public meeting. Talk about transparency. Republicans may be loving it, cheering it on and high-fiving each other, but I say hats off to Mark Dayton.

It's "messy," but it's honest as it gets, and so far beyond anything Republicans are capable of saying or doing about anything they say or do that, to me, it's a great indicator of how much healthier the general DFL perspective and effort is when it comes to protecting and furthering the best interests of all Minnesotans. Way more so than the perspective and efforts of those who are constantly weaseling around on behalf of those who believe working for the common good is a sucker's game.

An immense pile of filth

"Pope Francis has written the first papal encyclical focused solely on the environment, attempting to reframe care of the earth as a moral and spiritual concern, and not just a matter of politics, science and economics. In the document, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” he argues that the environment is in crisis – cities to oceans, forests to farmland. He emphasizes that the poor are most affected by damage from what he describes as economic systems that favor the wealthy, and political systems that lack the courage to look beyond short-term rewards. But the encyclical is addressed to everyone on the planet."

Everyone on the planet... Hmmm... I guess that means me. I'm not Catholic, but since the Pope is supposed to have some kind of extra-close relationship with God, does that mean I should pay attention and think about what he's saying, just in case?

"He describes relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment and says apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness are to blame."

Hmmm... Relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment... Would that include using things like boatloads of dynamite or C-4, steam shovels the size of apartment buildings and dump trucks the size of houses to "move mountains" of rock to grinders the size of submarines to make gravel and dust that turns into poison that runs downhill into aquifers, streams, rivers and lakes and fish and frogs and wild rice when it's rained on?

Excessive faith in technology... He's doesn't mean smart phones and other computers does he? And is he talking about things like the power grid, its "control/SCADA systems," nuclear power plants and (not-yet-existent) nuclear waste storage facilities, or "reverse osmosis," or "pit liners" under millions of tons of that poison-when-wet gravel and dust, televisions and in-sink garbage disposal units?

And "reckless pursuit of profits"? Well... As any True Conservative will tell you (just wait), that PROVES he's hallucinating and need not be paid attention to because, as every Freedom Loving American knows, there is no such thing! Talk about blasphemy!

Apathy and political shortsightedness... He's not talking about US, "the people," is he? And he's not talking about OUR political people, is he? Our legislators?

If so, is he saying legislators like Tom Bakk (and the rest of the Range delegation - Tom Anzelc, David Dill, Carly Melin, Jason Metsa, Tom Saxhaug, Dave Tomassoni, and one other Republican guy whose name I can't remember), and every single House and Senate Republican, are being shortsighted when they create bills and amendments that place a higher priority on profits and a handful of jobs than the majority of Minnesotans and the environment, and then vote them into law?

Is he saying we, the people, are being apathetic when we let them get away it because "they're all the same," or "there's nothing we can do about it"?

Well... I don't know... Like I say, I'm not Catholic, so I'm not sure I need to think about whatever it is the Pope is saying or, worse, feel obligated to try to do anything about it. But I imagine it could create a little bit of a quandary for the people in Minnesota (especially up there on the Iron Range) that ARE Catholic. Especially those who take their Catholicism seriously because these encyclical letters are no joke. People are supposed to pay attention to them and do their best to put the Pope's direction into practice. Disregarding such things can be (eternally) risky, I hear.

Anyway, here are a few direct quotes that struck me as particularly relevant to Mr. Bakk's "dilemma" and his (and many other's) complicity in the recent upsurge in the copper-nickel mining and agribusiness assault on "our home":

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Industrial waste and chemical products utilized in cities and agricultural areas can lead to bioaccumulation in the organisms of the local population, even when levels of toxins in those places are low. Frequently no measures are taken until after people’s health has been irreversibly affected.”

“But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.”

“We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man ‘dominion’ over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ‘till and keep’ the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). ‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.”

From a good summary of the encyclical letter:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/18/world/europe/encyclical-la...

And, for the seriously serious, here's a link to the entire letter itself:

http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-fra...

It's a little long (almost 200 pages), but, Catholic, or religious, or not, the opening isn't bad:

"1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.[1]

"2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters."