When news broke in March that an independent commission was recommending a $14,000 pay raise for Minnesota legislators, Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt came out swinging.
In 2014, Democratic majorities in the Legislature put an initiative on the ballot to create the salary commission, and voters overwhelmingly approved it in the 2016 election. But Daudt, who’s been Speaker since 2015, quickly sought advice from attorneys about whether the Legislature could block the raises without violating the state Constitution. He issued a press release and called a news conference to make his intentions clear: “Middle-class families’ needs must come first.”
Paul Gazelka had a different take. When approached by reporters, the majority leader of the Minnesota Senate said voters took the issue out of legislators’ hands. He had no plans to fight the commission’s decision.
The reactions, from two leaders within the same party, reflect dramatically different leadership styles now at play in the Capitol.
Daudt, now in his second term as Speaker of the House and sizing up a run for governor in 2018, has emerged as the leader of a more openly conservative caucus, and a more vocal opponent of Democratic policies, particularly the legacy and priorities of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Gazelka, only four months into the job of Senate majority leader, has chosen to operate mostly behind the scenes, building friendly relationships with Dayton and other Democrats in the minority.
Part of the sharp difference in style can be attributed to the two leaders’ different political realities. After the dust settled on the 2016 election, Daudt emerged with a 77-seat caucus and a comfortable majority in the 134-seat Minnesota House, allowing him to push more conservative policies on everything from education and health and human services funding to Real ID compliance. Gazelka and Senate Republicans hold the chamber by a single vote, a tight margin that has already proved difficult in getting controversial bills passed.
In order to the end of session on time, the two Republicans will not only need to find agreement with Dayton — they’ll need to find it with each other.
Both elected to their current seats in 2010, Daudt and Gazelka have gone through political evolutions over the last half a dozen years.
Daudt worked at car dealership and as political operative when he first won his House seat, quickly emerging as one of the more politically savvy freshman in St. Paul. When Republicans lost the majority in the House and Senate in 2012, Daudt rose from a rank-and-file lawmaker to the minority leader of the House. At the time, he was considered a more moderate legislator with a reputation for working well with Democrats, a good position to be in given Republicans’ minority status. He was repeatedly attacked by the Tea Party wing of the party, who criticized him for not pushing to trim back state spending enough and making deals with Democrats.
Over the years, Daudt’s relationship with Democrats soured, however, particularly after Republicans reclaimed the majority in 2014 and he rose to the speaker’s rostrum. With the DFL in control of the Senate and Dayton in the governor’s office, Daudt and the House were positioned as the only Republican foothold in government. He became the de facto spokesman for Republican ideals in budget battles and transportation debates, both of which ended in chaos in 2015 and 2016. As the House majority grew in the 2016 election — and Daudt’s political star continued to rise — he pushed the door open for him possibly running for governor in 2018.
Daudt and Dayton’s relationship also hit a low point late in 2016 over whether to call a special session to deal with rising health care insurance premiums. An open negotiation — in front of reporters — ended in a shouting match with both storming out of the room. “I will tell you that the relationship is damaged,” Daudt said at an event previewing the 2017 session. “He has done and said some things that I don’t think were appropriate. I probably have responded in a way that wasn’t the best.”
Gazelka’s rise was also swift. After serving a single term in the House, he was recruited in 2010 to run against incumbent Republican Sen. Paul Koering, who was openly gay and the center of a media scandal after he dined with a gay porn star in Brainerd.
Gazelka, a mild-mannered, Christian conservative whose district includes Little Falls and Staples, beat Koering in a primary. During his first term, he made social issues a big part of his agenda, co-sponsoring an amendment to the state’s Constitution that would have banned gay marriage. After the amendment failed and the GOP lost control of the chamber in 2012, Gazelka switched to focus on health care and tax issues.
His eventual rise to power after the 2016 election was unexpected, even for him: Republicans took control of the Senate last fall by just a single seat on the same night their leader, Sen. David Hann, lost his seat in suburban Eden Prairie.
Gazelka emerged the top pick to lead the Senate Republican caucus, now with a one-vote majority. “Three days ago, I had no intention of running for majority leader,” told reporters after he was elected, surrounded by many of the members of 34-member caucus. That one-vote majority wasn’t lost on him from the start — he vowed to leave controversial social issues behind and work with Democrats. “I guarantee to do my part to do the best for Minnesota,” said Gazelka. “We have to be able to reach out to the governor and with the House.”
Senate stuck in the middle
Now halfway through the 2017 session, the divide between the House and Senate can be seen through their respective budget bills.
In the K-12 education finance bills, for example, House Republicans eliminated Dayton’s signature pre-kindergarten education program, which the governor perceived as a political shot. In the Senate, Republicans left the pre-kindergarten funding alone. House Republicans have also called for deeper cuts to health and human services and other government programs than both Dayton and Senate Republicans. The Senate’s tax cut bill is about $900 million, far more than Dayton’s package of $280 million in tax cuts, but far less than the $1.35 billion House package.
“I agree with the House approach, of course,” Republican Tax Chairman Rep. Greg Davids said. “I have a lot of confidence with our leaders. Daudt listens and he is a consensus builder [in the caucus]. I’ve served with Gazelka too and he’s very calm he’s very measured. He’s not going to be the one burning bridges.”
Outside of the budget, the biggest policy bridge the House and the Senate need to cross is on Real ID, a federal requirement that all states have drivers licenses with enhanced technology features in order to board an airplane. With a deadline of January 2018 to comply, House Republicans moved ahead with a proposal that not only complies with federal law, but makes it a law — not just a rule — that the state cannot issue driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Dayton wanted lawmakers to go in the opposite direction, giving the state explicit authority to issue licenses to undocumented immigrants to make them more accountable.
The issue got even more complicated in March, when five Republican senators voted with all Democrats to defeat the Senate’s version of a Real ID bill. Gazelka then wedged himself in the middle of the issue, stricking a deal to remove any rule-making on driver’s licences from the bill. The new deal passed off the Senate floor, but a larger debate with the House looms.
Gazelka said he intentionally took the middle ground on many issues to act as a mediator between Dayton and the House in the negotiations ahead. “If you look at a lot of the Senate bills, they are in the middle of two sides,” Gazelka said. “I do see that as the Senate’s role this time around.”
For his part, Dayton said said he recently had lunch with Gazelka and walked away feeling that he genuinely wants to end the session without contention or by going into overtime. “He will play a pivotal role in that scenario,” Dayton said. “However that unfolds.”
Dayton also recently had a cordial lunch with Daudt, he added, “even if he hasn’t said anything good about me since.” When asked if he thinks Daudt wants to end the session smoothly, Dayton paused.
“I think the proof is in the pudding.”