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All together now? A year after publicly feuding, Minnesota’s top Democrats are singing a much different tune

Part of the harmony is the result of Bakk’s efforts to make nice with his caucus — and with the governor. But the DFL’s unity is also reflected in the party’s policy proposals.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk speaking at Wednesday's press conference as Gov. Mark Dayton and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen look on.

On Wednesday, Minnesota’s top Democratic lawmakers stood side by side at a press conference and answered a single question, one at a time: Are you all on the same page this year?

“I feel like we are,” Tom Bakk, the state Senate majority leader, offered up first.

“I think so,” Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton quickly followed.

After a short pause, DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen gave the most definitive answer: “Yes.” 

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On its face, the question might seem like a strange thing to ask a group of putative political allies who were gathered together in St. Paul to try to put public pressure on House Republicans in the run-up to end-of-session negotiations. But the state of relations among Minnesota Democrats hasn’t always been clear over the past year.

During the 2015 legislative session, remember, Dayton proclaimed Bakk had “stabbed me in the back,” after the Senate voted to suspend a handful of pay raises he granted his commissioners. The governor also suggested he could no longer sit in a room alone with Bakk because “I don’t trust his word.” In the final days of session, Bakk and House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt were the ones who came together and announced a deal to pass the state’s budget, an agreement neither Dayton nor Thissen’s House Democrats particularly liked. 

On top of that, few DFL lawmakers walked away happy with the result of last year’s session, which ended in a frenzy of late-night hearings and closed-door deal-making that was followed by a one-day special session.

In fact, it was the messy conclusion of last year’s session that brought Democrats together on Wednesday, as they called on Republicans to release the details of their $600 million bonding bill so they can start negotiating the final details of the proposal soon rather than later — and in public.

“The only way we are going to get a bonding bill done is if Republicans put their ideas on the table so Minnesotans can look at them and so we can have the debate,” Thissen said. “That’s what democracy is all about.”

The conspicuous display of harmony is a dramatic shift from last year. Part of the turnaround for Democrats is the result of Bakk’s behind-the-scenes efforts to repair relationships within the caucus — and with the governor’s office. But the unity has also extended to policy, with Democrats aligning their agendas more closely this session.

When Senate Democrats released a $1.5 billion bonding bill proposal earlier this week, for example, it was strikingly similar to the $1.4 billion one Dayton released in January, with the Senate Democrats’ bill including many of Dayton’s top priorities, like clean-water infrastructure and funding for the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. Senate Democrats have also hewed closely to the governor’s priorities on their targets for spending the state’s $900 million budget surplus. Both call for similar spending on broadband infrastructure and racial disparities this year.

Part of the friendliness among Democrats can be attributed to the unusual circumstances at play in 2016, with a historically short legislative session presided over by divided government followed by a major legislative election. All 201 seats are on the ballot this fall, meaning the control of both the House and Senate is at stake.

Dayton, who isn’t on the ballot this fall, said he would travel to all of Minnesota’s 87 counties this fall to talk about clean water and other issues that are important to him, but also to campaign for House and Senate Democrats (Dayton said he would separate his state travel expenses from campaign expenses).

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DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin, who watches what’s happening in St. Paul from a distance, said he’s seen a dramatic improvement in relations among top Democrats.

“I think the governor and Sen. Bakk and Rep. Thissen have come together in a real concerted way to focus on the outcomes and the goals for this session,” Martin said. “I’ve seen them working together better than they have in the past. They understand that, particularly this year, they need to work together and not have a repeat of what happened last session.”

For his part, Bakk has said the end of session is always bumpy.

“In all of our memories, things seem to somehow come together,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little bumpier than other times. I believe this session will come together too.”