Mr. Nice Guy?

For the past ten months, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Senate DFL leaders have been working hard to repair relationships within the 39-member majority caucus in the midst of a critical session and election year.

One Saturday last June, a group of three-dozen or so lawmakers gathered at 3 a.m. in an office building down the street from the Minnesota Capitol.

A special session of the Legislature had just adjourned, but more than a dozen members of the Senate Democratic majority caucus were unhappy, and they wanted to get their feelings out in the open. Their ire wasn’t directed at the Republicans in control of the House, however, it was directed at one of their own: DFL Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.

The fault line was mostly regional, with several metro-area senators upset over deals Bakk had cut with House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt — without their knowledge — in the final hours of the regular session to pass a state budget. Among other things, those deals nixed a long-standing citizen oversight board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and a handful of other environmental provisions that were important to metro senators and their constituents.

The problems went beyond the budget deals, though. Bakk had also soured relations with Democratic allies in the House and with Gov. Mark Dayton’s office, after the Senate DFL voted earlier in the session to suspend pay raises for two dozen of Dayton’s commissioners. After the vote, Dayton held a press conference to lambast Bakk, with the governor memorably saying that the lawmaker had “stabbed me in the back.” He had also met with a handful of senators after the vote to express his anger over Bakk’s move. 

Tensions within political parties are common, but things inside the Senate DFL had gotten so bad they had spilled out into the public. At the 3 a.m. meeting, senators considered taking Bakk up on his offer to stand for a no-confidence vote as Senate Majority Leader. That didn’t happen. Instead, the DFLers decided to put him on review for the 2016 session.

Since that night 10 months ago, Bakk and Senate DFL leaders have been working hard to repair relationships within the 39-member majority caucus in the midst of a critical session and election year. Now, four weeks into the 2016 session, legislators say there’s been notable improvements, but that the mending is still a work in progress.

“I was horribly upset with the last 48 hours of session. It was a mockery of the whole system,” said Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center. “I think our message was heard by leadership, and they have been going out of their way so that we know they are trying to be very transparent. I don’t feel shut out, but the proof will be in the pudding when we get to the last 48 hours of this session.”

New environmental reviews

Efforts to repair those relationships began almost immediately after last year’s session concluded. Last summer and fall, Bakk held weekly conference calls with rank-and-file senators to increase communication and transparency in the caucus.

Once session got underway, one of the first steps DFL Senate leaders made to quell uneasiness was the creation of a new committee to review environmental budget proposals. That means any major changes in that part of the state’s budget now have to go through an extra step of approval. To chair the committee, Bakk appointed one of his major detractors, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.

State Sen. John Marty
State Sen. John Marty

“We did some restructuring of committees so it more accurately matches what the House is doing, and I think we had some good discussions about how we shouldn’t be letting this horse trading going on,” Marty said.

The move didn’t go unnoticed by Republicans, who railed against it on the first day of session, saying the new committee tipped control on environmental and budget issues over to metro-area senators and left out rural Minnesota. Republicans have signaled it will be a theme on the campaign trail this fall, but Bakk stood on the Senate floor to defend the change.

“I thought that was quite significant,” said Eaton.

Another early test arrived with the debate over extending unemployment benefits to out-of-work miners on the Iron Range. Republicans wanted to couple the benefit extension to a one-time, $258 million business tax credit for companies that pay into the state’s unemployment insurance fund, but it was important for some senators to keep the two issues separate. Not everyone in the caucus agreed, but in the end, senators passed the two issues separately, forcing Republicans to do the same.

“We didn’t want to set a precedent where things like that are lumped together,” said Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan. “[Bakk] held his ground on that, and he really gained a lot of respect from a lot of the senators who were concerned if he was dealing upfront with us or not.”

Republicans in the House also wanted to insert language into the bill that proclaimed legislative support for the mining industry, but that language made some DFL senators uneasy, especially with controversial projects like the PolyMet Corp. and Twin Metals copper-nickel mines still seeking permits from the state. Bakk, who hails from Cook on the Iron Range and strongly supports mining, pushed back on including the pro-industry language.

“That was a test and I think he did pretty well with that,” said Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, who was among the group of disaffected senators last year. “It was an important step.”

‘We are in counseling’

Not everyone was unhappy with the way leadership dealt with budget negotiations last year. Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said Bakk had to make certain deals to pass a budget under divided government, and she hasn’t noticed major changes in the way leadership is dealing with members this year.

“[That night] we had that cathartic experience as a caucus,” Bonoff said. “It’s like anytime you get in a fight with your friends or your family, you have to talk it out and say your piece.”

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden
Asst. Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said relationships have improved across the board after having conversations with members as well as Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith. “The relationship with the governor and lieutenant governor is now more candid and we’ve had good conversations,” Hayden said. “I think just having some candor can facilitate productive conversations in a way that doesn’t turn personal.”

Those relationships are critical as legislators on both sides try to get the most out of a $900 million budget surplus and bonding bill ahead of a major election, when all 201 lawmakers are on the ballot.

Yet the rough 2015 session and the long hours has caused a lot of senators to call it quits. So far, eight DFL senators have announced their retirement, including five women. “I’m sure how miserable things were last year didn’t help,” Eaton said. “They’ve all been doing this for quite awhile.”

“You had some members that have said, ‘I have had enough of this,’” Hayden said. “This is really hard work for low pay and it takes a lot of time. The citizen Legislature doesn’t work well with people’s lives. They are under a tremendous amount of stress to make it work.” 

Hayden said legislators were frustrated after going from an all DFL-controlled government to a divided Legislature, creating a “perfect storm.” “People were so euphoric on what we were able to do as a DFL controlled government and then we have to work with a House that doesn’t feel the same way as we do on issues.”

Many DFL senators will remain wary of their own leadership until the 2016 legislature adjourns, since the final hours of session is when the major deals get done. “It’s like a significant other being unfaithful, and we are in counseling to see if this is going to work,” said Carlson. “We haven’t committed yet.”

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/11/2016 - 10:19 am.

    Growing up

    I have never talked with a single campaign worker who told me that the reason they participate in politics is so they can read about the petty squabbles of their candidates in the newspapers. If this people can’t play nice with the other members of their party in their legislative body and in the other legislative body, they need to be reminded that there others out there who can and will.

  2. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 04/11/2016 - 01:36 pm.

    Late session cramming

    is a Republican strategy. If you pay attention you’ll see them doing the same thing in every state in the Union. They wait until the very last minute to force concessions and to slide sleazy amendments or clauses into bills that they hope will go unnoticed. Like the one that allowed counties to bypass the Auditor’s office. If Democrats were smart they’d be ready for it this year. I’m not convinced that they are or that Bakk would act a lot differently than he did last time. For instance I doubt that his arm needed too much twisting far as nixing the citizen’s oversight board for the MPCA goes.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/11/2016 - 09:18 pm.

      Playing Hide the Hanky

      The GOP restroom bill in North Carolina certainly fits this profile. It was sponsored, voted on and signed into law in a matter of hours. The real purpose of the law has nothing to do with restrooms.

      First, the local government loving GOP has denied cites the right to set their own minimum wage ordinances. So much for local control.

      Second and more importantly, one sentence prohibits victims of illegal workplace discrimination from filing suit in state courts. NC employers have wanted this for a long time. Federal court is much more favorable to employers in these cases than state court. For example, in US court one has only 180 days to file suit, as opposed to 3 years in state court. Employers are also far more likely to win in US court. The “liberal” main stream media has made almost no mention of this.

      There are no enforcement provisions in law as far as restrooms, and law enforcement agencies have no plans (or idea) on how to enforce the law. But no matter, the social conservative voters were thrown a bone and the 1% were served.

      I find it truly ironic that employers got what they’ve long wanted, and yet PayPal has pulled it’s expansion form NC. It’s tough to hold together a party with two disparate wings.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 04/12/2016 - 10:56 am.


      Late cramming is a tactic used by both sides.

    • Submitted by Chad Quigley on 04/12/2016 - 10:58 am.

      All the GOP fault

      Yeah, it’s the Republican strategy to cram bills in at the last minute. Democrats have always waited until the last minute to pass budgets when they were in complete control and Gov. Dayton changes his mind at the last minute all the time as to what is and isn’t a priority for him.

      As for the law that now allows all counties to find more affordable auditors, Dayton was well aware of the bill weeks before he SIGNED it into law. By the way, some counties already had the option to use outside auditors so legislators were making a level playing field for all counties. Playing dumb after he singed it does not mean he didn’t know what was in it before he signed it. Just like the farm and B to B taxes and the Vikings seat licenses he said he had no idea he was signing into law. If he really didn’t know about what was in the bills he signed into law, then he has no business being the governor of the state.

  3. Submitted by Michael Hess on 04/12/2016 - 05:03 am.


    Funny whenever politicians suddenly find a resolve they have lacked before- for example splitting topics like unemployment benefits and the business tax question.

    These are the same people who embedded building an entire office building into a broader bill arguably in secret.

    Love the newfound transparency but hopefully it’s not just for political show on a few sacrificial topics.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/12/2016 - 10:41 am.


      Democrats sneaked the new office building into law without anyone noticing? Dude, there was huge fight over that office building.. it was all out there for everyone to see.

      • Submitted by Michael Hess on 04/12/2016 - 04:54 pm.

        The fight

        Was political theater after it was passed in the bill. Don’t forget how it started….. Tucked into a tax bill instead of being out on a bonding bill like all such capital expenditures should be. Gotta remember how it started…

        The Senate Office Building Was tucked into a 379 page bill at the last minute of the legislative session. “With little public debate, the Legislature included language authorizing the project as a small provision in a controversial, 379-page tax bill that passed in the final minutes of the last night of the legislative session May 20.” (Bill Salisbury, “New Senate Office Building Puts Majority, Minority Under One Roof,” Pioneer Press, 6/10/2013) – See more at:

  4. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 04/12/2016 - 11:07 am.

    Metro v Outstate

    Most of the schisms have been this metro v outstate. The Guv has most of his people from being in the metro area and a near silent Lt Guv. Republicans made gains because of the DFL metro apathy to anything outside the metro. Bakk is being put as the ‘problem’ within DFL circles yet as the DFL moves further and further to the left, they are losing much of the outstate support they used to have. Bakk realizes this so instead of working solutions, they’d rather ostracize him.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 04/12/2016 - 12:42 pm.


    I think the DFL did a great job for Greater Minnesota. The fact that the Republicans campaigned so hard on things that weren’t relevant to any sort of divide with out state, specifically the Senate Office Building was a tacit admission of that on their part. To me, the real issue which was below the surface was gay marriage. That cost us just enough to lose close races. I expect that to be less of a factor in 2016.

    The grudge that a lot of people like me have toward Senator Bakk has to do with the office building. Needed as it was, it simply wasn’t and isn’t worth a great deal of trouble. No doubt if the Republicans return to power, they will tear it down or turn it over to the U or someone else, which would be just fine with me. But it was never more than a stand in for other issues like gay marriage.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/13/2016 - 08:37 am.

      I think there was schism within the party

      The more time goes by, and the more I see of the current party treatment of Sanders, the more convinced I am that there was/is a schism in the party between Dayton and the establishment.

      During the last election cycle I kept waiting for a democratic response to all those weird claims the republicans were making but the response by-and-large never materialized. It was almost like the democrats didn’t care. The narrative coming from the party was about: “over-reach” while the Dayton campaigned on his liberal agenda. Dayton won, the legislator didn’t. When they lost the establishment (represented by Bakk) were almost gleeful in their proclamations that they “told us so”.

      I think there were those in the democratic party that wouldn’t have minded seeing Dayton lose because he’s problematic for the party in various ways.

      At any rate, during a community forum a while back Ron Latz pointed out (with a grin) that “we” lost the legislature because of “over-reach” and we were warned about that. Here’s the thing… it’s not about whether or not democrats or republicans “win”, it’s about whether or not constituents win. Democrats who had the power and the votes to settle several issues like transportation and education funding simply left those issues on the table because they were afraid of over-reaching, and then they lost anyways. Now we’re stuck republicans who want wipe out the surplus and create another budget deficit. Winning and losing is part of the political process, no party “wins” indefinitely. Next time democrats have a chance to settle issues and solve problems, do the poor bastards who voted for you a favor and take care of business.

  6. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 04/19/2016 - 02:44 pm.

    Tom Bakk

    A vote of no confidence should help. Don’t they have a way to dump this guy as their leader?

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