It was a reporter who first informed Michelle Fischbach that she was the next in line to be lieutenant governor.
It was 2010, shortly after Fischbach was chosen by her colleagues to be president of the state Senate. She was doing an interview about her new job when a reporter told her that if a vacancy occurs for any reason in the lieutenant governor’s office, the Minnesota Constitution requires the person who presides over the Senate to take their place.
“I said, ‘Are you serious? I’ve got to go call my husband,’ ” Fischbach recalled. But even then, it was more of an interesting bit of trivia she could mention in conversation. “You never actually think it’s going to happen.”
But it did, of course. In December, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate, after Al Franken announced he would resign in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal. In early January, Smith will transition into her new role in Washington, and Fischbach will have to transition into her new role — as lieutenant governor.
The situation has thrust Fischbach, 52, into the limelight. But it hasn’t changed her determination to also serve her central Minnesota district in the state Senate — which means she’s likely to become the first person in modern political history to try to do both jobs at once.
‘I didn’t say no fast enough’
Growing up in suburban Woodbury, Fischbach’s family was always involved in local Republican politics (her brother is currently the chief of staff to Nevada Republican Lt.Gov. Mark Hutchison), so it was natural that she would get involved too. “It was always around me,” she said. “The do-things-yourself, take-care-of-yourself attitude of Republicans appealed to me.”
In 1984, just after Fischbach graduated from high school, she volunteered for Republican U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz’s re-election campaign, where she described herself as the “do anything” intern. She knocked on doors and marched in parades when needed. It was during that campaign that Boschwitz set Fischbach up with her future husband, Scott Fischbach, who was then a full-time campaign staffer.
After the campaign, Fischbach moved from Woodbury to St. Joseph in central Minnesota to attend the College of Saint Benedict, where she studied for two years and eventually went on to get her degree in political science from St. Cloud State University. The week she graduated from college, she had her first child, Bryce. “I had Bryce, took a final, and we were intending to go to the graduating ceremony, but instead we just dressed up and took pictures because I had just had a kid,” Fischbach said.
The young family moved to Washington, D.C., right out of college, where Scott did political consulting. But they’d always planned to move back, Fischbach said, and raise their family in a small town in Minnesota. They soon moved to Paynesville, where Scott grew up, and Fischbach quickly got involved in local politics, becoming the first woman ever elected to the Paynesville City Council in 1995. She served for a year on the council when she got a call about an opening in the Minnesota Senate.
At the time, the area’s senator, DFL Sen. Joe Bertram, had been in office for 15 years, but he’d recently pleaded guilty to shoplifting, and the owner of the store said he tried to bribe him not to report the incident. Bertram resigned in the midst of his term, and Fischbach was asked to run.
“I didn’t say no fast enough,” she laughed. “The next thing I knew there were people in my dining room putting together a campaign.”
She was thrust into the middle of an endorsement and primary election in the middle of the winter, one of the coldest she can remember. “It was the year that [Gov.] Arne Carlson called off school statewide twice … that’s how cold it was,” she said. She won the race and immediately sought re-election the following year, but none of it was part of her plan.
“I was on the council and I was really enjoying that,” she said. “I guess that’s how some people get into public service — when they’re not even thinking about it.”
A long career in the Senate
During her subsequent eight terms in the Senate, Fischbach spent much of the time as the ranking minority member of the Health and Human Services Budget Division and the Finance Committee. A prominent pro-life legislator, Fischbach authored many bills to further restrict abortion in the state. In 2001, her husband, Scott, became the executive director of the state’s largest anti-abortion organization, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life.
In the 2010 election, Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years, and Fischbach was quickly voted by her fellow members to be president of the chamber, the first woman to ever hold the position. Republicans lost the majority two years later but then won it back in the 2016 election, and Fischbach was again elected to serve as Senate president.
The job of the president is to make sure parliamentary procedures are followed on the Senate floor, and few Republicans know the rules and procedures better than Fischbach. Cal Ludeman, who serves as secretary of the Senate alongside Fischbach, said she can be stern but also funny, two qualities needed to preside over the sometimes unruly debates and proceedings at the Capitol.
“She is very professional and business-like — and a bit of a perfectionist — but she comes to all of that with a pretty wry and interesting sense of humor,” Ludeman said. “That enables her to be very cordial with all of the senators while being firm in her position as the presiding officer of the chamber.” She also loves shoes, Ludeman laughed. “We have to pay attention to the mat [behind the podium] she stands on every day so she doesn’t poke too many holes in it.”
But the accomplishments Fischbach is most proud of during her time in the Senate are those that hit closest to home. She said she still tears up thinking about Tom Decker, a police officer from Cold Spring, Minnesota, in her district who was shot and killed responding to a call in November 2012. She authored the bill that dedicated an 11-mile stretch of state Highway 23 as the “Tom Decker Memorial Highway.”
She also authored a bill dedicating part of the highway to Paynesville Medal of Honor recipient Kenneth Olson, who was killed at the age of 22 while serving in Vietnam. Olson was participating in a reconnaissance platoon when his group was attacked. He threw himself on a grenade blast to save the lives of fellow soldiers. President Richard Nixon posthumously awarded Olson the Medal of Honor in 1970, and Fischbach keeps a re-creation of one of his badges in her office. “They are good people,” she said. “I was elected by them to serve them, and that’s what I want to continue to do.”
‘I never asked for it’
Fischbach’s loyalty to her constituents is partly responsible for the situation in which she now finds herself. As Senate president, the constitution requires her to move over to the lieutenant governor’s office to serve alongside Dayton, a Democrat. But she isn’t going to give up her seat to do so.
Republicans are arguing she can continue to do both jobs. That’s in part because of an 1898 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that argued that the Senate president could be lieutenant governor at the same time. That’s happened twice in history since then, both instances in the late 1920s and 1930s, but Democrats argue that ruling is moot after a 1970s amendment to the Constitution that took the job of presiding over the Senate away from the lieutenant governor. Dayton has asked Attorney General Lori Swanson for her opinion, and the whole matter could wind up in court.
Whatever happens, at least in the short term, Fischbach will likely head to the lieutenant governor’s office sometime in January, after Smith is sworn in as a U.S. senator. She will continue to serve in both roles until she’s forced to do otherwise, likely by the court.
She’s not worried about the prospect. There are only a handful of prescribed duties for the lieutenant governor, including serving on several boards. Fischbach will only be in session between February and May in 2018, and there’s an election next fall to elect the next lieutenant governor.
Fischbach and Dayton met on Friday for lunch, at which they ate walleye and hot fudge sundaes and showed each other pictures of their grandkids. “He seemed like a very nice man,” she said. “Obviously … we have political differences, and we both agreed on that.”
But they also agreed they could work on one issue with bipartisan support: Elder care, particularly in the wake of a series of stories from the Star Tribune that showed widespread abuse and poor systems of reporting in facilities. “That’s something we can all get together on,” she said. “It’s tragic.”
If it comes down to a situation where she has to do one job or another, Fischbach said she is going to try to stay in the Senate. She’d prefer the governor call a special session to elect a new Senate president — a Democrat — who could then head to the lieutenant governor’s office. She has never planned to run for any office other than her Senate seat.
“I kind of ascended to this; I never asked for it, never aspired to the office,” she said. “I feel a commitment and a real kinship with the people in my district.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece said Fischbach would be the first person in state history to serve as lieutenant governor and Senate president at the same time. There are two other known times a governor and lieutenant governor served at the same time in the late 1920s and 1930s.