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How Kurt Daudt united Minnesota’s Republican lawmakers

Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt reaching for his gavel
Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt reaching for his gavel at the start of the special session.

In February, Kurt Daudt found himself in an awkward situation. Two of the three most powerful players in state government were fighting – and he was in the middle of it. 

The spat, between Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, had erupted after the Bakk-controlled Senate voted to suspend pay raises for more than two dozen of Dayton’s commissioners. 

After the vote, Dayton called a press conference to tell the world that Bakk, a fellow Democrat, had “stabbed me in the back.” Dayton said he probably wouldn’t be able to sit in a room alone with Bakk again, he added, because “I don’t trust his word.”

It would have been easy for Daudt, a Republican and the newly minted speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, to let Bakk and Dayton continue to hash out their differences in the public, a strategy that would have allowed him to win some easy political points.

But that has never been Daudt’s style. In his three short terms in St. Paul, the former car salesman from Crown has quickly climbed the political ranks by being a diplomat and a people pleaser. And, true to form, instead of pouring gas on the fire, he used the incident to play peacemaker, helping to broker a compromise that allowed Dayton to reinstate the pay raises on July 1 and shift the power to raise commissioner salaries back to legislators.  

The move would pay off down the road, as Daudt fostered good will between himself and both men. As the session progressed, and as the Bakk-Dayton relationship remained cool, Daudt often negotiated deals with each man individually, including bills that contained some of his caucus’ most controversial proposals: eliminating the Citizens’ Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and privatizing county financial reviews currently conducted by the state auditor.

“People had modest expectations because [Daudt] was perceived as new and very young, and Tom Bakk was seen as this seasoned negotiator and longtime legislator,” said former GOP House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, who’s a friend of Daudt’s. “The tables got turned. I think if you look at the expectations of people, it looked like he outmaneuvered the Democrats.” 

For some, Daudt’s success in his first session as speaker was a direct result of that careful and measured approach. For others, Daudt looks good mostly by comparison, since his DFL counterparts are working to mend the dissension in their ranks. “The Republican caucus looks more harmonious than the relationship between Tom Bakk and Mark Dayton,” said retiring Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “The bar is low enough.”

Unifying a ‘diverse’ caucus 

After the November election, when Republicans swept outstate races to regain control of the Minnesota House, Daudt took deliberate steps to unite the usually fractious House Republican caucus behind him. 

It wasn’t an easy task: Daudt was challenged for the speaker job by two more seasoned House Republicans, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, and Rep. Matt Dean, a Republican from Dellwood who had once served as the House majority leader.

In the end, Daudt won the speaker’s gavel thanks to the backing of many of the new freshman legislators, members whom he had worked for all fall on their campaigns.

One of the ways he managed to keep Republicans together was by declining to seek political retribution. Instead, he handed out high-powered committee gavels to veteran lawmakers, including those who had questioned his ability to run the caucus.

But he faced other challenges early on, specifically when it came to how much Republicans wanted to spend on the state’s budget over the next two years. Democrats were already proposing to spend nearly all of a $1.8 billion budget surplus on education and other state programs. Some Republicans wanted to see deep cuts in the budget, despite the surplus, while others wanted to see more money pumped into education and roads and bridges. 

“The first few times we had some really hard discussions,” Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said. “We’ve got extremely diverse interests in our caucus, but we had to realize we were just one leg of a three legged stool and we needed to vote together.”

“Kurt’s style is to let people talk and take in their views,” House Ways and Means Chairman Jim Knoblach, added.

Republicans ultimately unified behind some big and controversial ideas: They proposed more than $2 billion in tax cuts and $1 billion in spending cuts in health and human services. But as committee chairs got to work on their budget proposals, Daudt stayed in the background. Having never held a committee gavel himself, he wasn’t deeply versed in any particular policy area, and he knew he needed to defer to those who were.

“He gives his chairs as much autonomy as they can possibly have up to a certain point, where you have to pull a deal together,” said House Taxes Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston. “He gave me great latitude to put a [tax] bill together. That to me as a chair is so important. I don’t know how I would handle it if a speaker would meddle in my work.” 

Steve Sviggum, who served as a Republican speaker of the House from 1999 to 2007, said Daudt’s calm demeanor and friendly style helped him not only tame a divisive caucus, but work with both Dayton and Bakk. 

That became particularly apparent over the last six weeks. On the final weekend of session, in May, it was Daudt and Bakk who hatched the final deal that passed through the Legislature. But after Dayton vetoed three budget bills and called a special session, it was Daudt who negotiated with the governor to strike final deals. 

“He’s pleasing to be around,” Sviggum said. “He doesn’t get too confrontational. He doesn’t tick people off, making it tough to come back again and pull things together. Kurt was wise enough not to burn bridges.” 

Not everyone is happy

But the end result of the 2015 session was still a mixed bag for Republicans.

The House GOP’s $2 billion tax cut plan fell apart in the final days of session, when no agreement could be reached to pass the proposal. Beyond extra dollars put into the state’s nursing homes, some outstate advocacy groups say Republicans had little to show for their early promise to focus on rural Minnesota. And an idea to scrap MinnesotaCare, a subsidized state healthcare program for low-income families above the poverty line, also fizzled. Instead, Bakk and Daudt agreed to leave nearly $1 billion on the bottom line to try and figure out a solution to tax cuts and transportation issues next year. Lawmakers set up a commission to look at the future of MinnesotaCare. 

“Some of us conservatives realized we didn’t get a whole heck of a lot of out this,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. “We have a hard time putting things out there or finding things that we can hold out for that are really good for conservatives.”

For Drazkowski and others, expectations are high to pass a major tax cut bill in 2016. “Given that reality, and the fact that we do have money on the bottom line, it was communicated to us that that money is there for next year and we are going to go forward and pursue reducing the tax burden on Minnesotans,” he said. 

Sviggum called it a “brilliant” move on Daudt’s part to push a tax cut bill off until next year. In an election year, Democrats are less likely to push for a gas tax increase and more likely to agree to crowd-pleasing tax cuts, he said.

Democrats, of course, have been less generous in their assessment of Daudt. Winkler was among the most vocal critics of Daudt’s performance as speaker. In a particularly heated floor session in March, Winkler yelled from the House floor that Daudt was “acting like a dictator” for ignoring DFL minority calls to take a roll call to adjourn.

“He didn’t fall flat on his face,” he said by way of judging Daudt’s first session, “but not much happened either.” 

But Winkler still saves his toughest criticisms for his own party. Bakk and Dayton never got on the same page fully in terms of strategy, he said, and the Senate majority leader is dealing with unrest in his own caucus, where members are upset over some of the last-minute deals he made with Daudt.

“The fact that the governor and the Senate majority leader could never get together on one page and put together a unified strategy and took multiple stumbles along the way,” he said. “That made Daudt’s failure to screw up look good.”

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/25/2015 - 11:52 am.

    GOP problems

    The basic problems Republicans is that while they have made quite a few promises to their constituents, they don’t have a way to pay for them.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/25/2015 - 02:37 pm.

      DFL Problems

      The basic problems with DFLers is that while they have made quite a few promises to their constituents, they don’t have a way to pay for them.

      It must be vexxing that the DFL can’t just can’t raise taxes at will and force successful companies and people to stay in MN and pay much more in taxes than they would in other States. And that around half of the tax payers truly want productivity, effectiveness and accountability from their public servants.

      • Submitted by Keith Lusk on 06/25/2015 - 04:18 pm.

        Re: Problems

        I can’t wait for the day that folks like yourself can admit out loud that GOP poison pills play a huge role in making government less productive and effective. It seems that if Republicans can’t eliminate government (because privatization is the GOP answer for everything), then they do what they can to bog down and weaken the system to make it as unproductive and ineffective as possible. Then they can sit on their perch and scream about how horribly unproductive and ineffective government programs are. This doesn’t have a positive effect on the average Minnesotan, or the public servants who just want to do their jobs.

        Never mind that history shows that we are more likely to have a budget DEFICIT with GOP leadership and a SURPLUS with DFL leadership. Which party is fiscally conservative? Bush Sr. was correct when he said that Reagan’s trickle down economics is “voodoo economics,” but some people are still buying the BS that the GOP is still selling.

        One more thing, have you read today’s article that puts Minnesota as 2015’s Best State for Business by CNBC? How can that be when our neighbor, Wisconsin is embracing and pushing all of the GOP policies; you know to create jobs?

        http://www.cnbc.com/id/102759561

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/25/2015 - 04:51 pm.

          Time will tell

          My personal belief is that we are still benefiting from the decade plus of GOP control and constraint. Whereas Wisconsin is still recovering from it’s left leaning history. Time will tell.

          I did find it interesting that mostly Conservative states make up the top 10. Maybe we were very fortunate that Medtronics and the other medical device company magnets settled here in the 1960’s… I hope they stay.
          http://www.cnbc.com/id/101747925

          By the way, the public employee unions are one of the biggest reasons for ineffective and inefficient government… I believe they are the darlings of the DFL. I don’t think we need to privatize everything, however we do need to stop basing job security, compensation, etc on seniority and start basing them on effectiveness.

          By the way, deficits can be good. Please remember that it means the tax payers have the money in their pockets. Where as surpluses mean that the tax payers do not have that money in their pockets.

          • Submitted by jason myron on 06/25/2015 - 08:02 pm.

            Who’s your chiropractor?

            “My personal belief is that we are still benefiting from the decade plus of GOP control and constraint. Whereas Wisconsin is still recovering from it’s left leaning history.”

            She/he must be really, really good to relieve the strain from that kind of contortion. Funny how that logic doesn’t apply to the Obama administration from you people.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/27/2015 - 10:46 pm.

              Shared Responsibility

              Obama and Congress are both responsible for what has happened during the past ~4 years for better or worse. Remember all those times that Liberals blamed Congress for their not being willing to spend or raise taxes.

              During the first 2 years when the Democrats had control it seemed that Obama mostly focused on ACA. I like this summary.
              http://www.factcheck.org/2012/06/obamas-spending-inferno-or-not/

              Dayton and the DFL only had complete control for 2 years, at which time they raised taxes and spending significantly. Since much of that did not kick in until ~18 months ago, I am pretty sure that has not yet affected our available work force, quality of life, educational system, etc quite yet.

              That is why I said time will tell.

          • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/26/2015 - 09:17 am.

            Not exactly…

            Medtronic did not just “settle here”. Earl Bakken, a U of MN graduate student electrical engineer was waiting for his wife, a U of MN nurse, to get off her shift, when a noted U of MN researcher, C Walton Lillehei past through the lobby and recognized Earl and began a discussion on his pacemaker research. Medtronic sprung from that conversation. Lillehei also later was the innovator behind heart valve replacement and the establishment of St Jude Medical.

            Again, these companies are not just serendipity, like say, having enormous pools of oil under your state creating the illusion of politically inspired economic success. These companies were founded and grew because we invested in the R&D infrastructure and undergraduate and graduate education programs at our state colleges and universities. And that is why we were selected the top state for business. If anyone believes that we won this award because of the legacy of Tim Pawlenty and budget shifts, well, as the youth say: ROFLMAO.

            And now as we enjoy surpluses resulting from tax increases that the right told us would lead not to being the best state for business; but, rather to ECONOMIC RUIN, Republicans in this state still believe we should follow the path of a failed state like Kansas and cut every tax we can as fast as we can and prosperity will really break out. It won’t. The Mark Dayton / Sam Brownback dichotomy is the most telling example we could possibly have: 2 marginal US Senators decide to leave Washington at near the same time and return to their home states and run for Governor. Both are elected and over time gain the legislative opportunity to enact their philosophies in the most unfettered manner possible. Brownback follows the tax cut playbook 100%, Dayton runs on tax increases on the rich and does it. And what do we see today: Minnesota, the best state for business, and Kansas with deficits nearing our surpluses and the 44th ranked state economy in the CNBC analysis.

            And finally, Scott Walker drilled public employee unions, gutting them as never before and yet in Wisconsin, like Kansas and Louisiana these kinds of policies had no economic return, only the twisted benefit of making a vocal minority over joyed that “we got those teacher unions”.

            These are the facts, June 26, 2015.
            Faithfully submitted – Douglas C. Niedermeyer, Sargent at Arms.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 06/25/2015 - 03:39 pm.

    Promises, promises

    The basic problems with DFLers is that while they have made quite a few promises to their constituents, they don’t have a way to pay for them.

    That’s not really so much of a problem for us. There was a surplus, and we don’t have the same unwillingness Republicans have to raise taxes. We aren’t in the bind Republicans who promised to deliver a lot very expensive things to their voters, but who also promised their financial supporters that they wouldn’t raise taxes.

    It is vexing to us that we can’t keep the promises we made during the campaign. But that’s the price we pay for losing elections. I have no doubt that Speaker Daudt, in his nice boyish way, will go back to the folks who paid for his 2014 campaign and tell them behind closed doors that he kept his campaign promises not to raise taxes, that their money was well invested. Explaining to voters, why he didn’t keep the promises his party made to them may prove more difficult.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/25/2015 - 04:59 pm.

      You are Correct

      The DFL may not have provided the Public Employee Unions and Government Bureaucrats with quite as much as they promised, but they did get them a lot of new dollars. Those campaign backers will probably be happier.

      Thankfully all of us car drivers can be happy we are not paying more for a regressive gas tax. Thank you to the GOP !!!

      By the way, what were these again? “Republicans who promised to deliver a lot very expensive things to their voters”

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/26/2015 - 12:31 pm.

        Failed to deliver

        If you recall, the 2014 GOP voter push, as most GOP voter pushes go, found a group (Rural MN), told them they were getting screwed by the Ds, and if they were elected things would be different.

        Well, they were different. Greater MN economic concerns are in agreement that this was a bad session for their interests, from Internet Access on down.

        And thank you GOP legislators for pushing fixing roads and transportation down the line for another session rather than show the courage to add a gas tax and fix it now.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 06/28/2015 - 05:01 pm.

          Delivered Well

          I guess I disagree, the gas tax would have been a very regressive tax that would have impacted the folks in rural MN who drive quite a bit or use fuel in their equipment. I think many will be happy the GOP stopped another tax increase from occurring.

  3. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 06/26/2015 - 03:43 pm.

    Dysfunction

    Our legislature gets an A+ in my book compared to the Congress. They only meet part of the year, have to work with a balanced budget, have vastly different party priorities (from each other and the Governor), but a lot of good outcomes were achieved. It was harder this year with a split legislature and an active feud between the Speaker and the Governor, but we have a good reason to expect next year to get money spent on transportation, early childhood education and business taxes. We won’t get as much on transportation as I’d like, because Republican are allergic to tax increases (even needed ones), or early childhood education (because of the business and education lobbies) or taxes in general (Democrats will agree to tax break for businesses that create job or promote trade). Daudt is more like an old style business Republican – he likes making deals – the Speaker a force to be reckoned with (a pragmatist about getting things to serve specific interests) and Dayton an idealist – he reminds us that we need to reach high to be the best – and Minnesota is the best.

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