‘I never asked for it’: Meet the lawmaker in the middle of Minnesota’s lieutenant governor mess

Senate Media Services
State Sen. Michelle Fischbach: “The do-things-yourself, take-care-of-yourself attitude of Republicans appealed to me.”

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.

Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by John Ferman on 12/20/2017 - 10:30 am.

    Constitutional?

    Would a member of the legislative branch to serve as a member of the executive branch be unconstitutional. Tis time for constitutional lawyers to examine this. Ever done before, any Supreme court decisions?

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/20/2017 - 10:38 am.

    There’s something really distasteful about using “I never asked for [the lieutenant governor job]” as an excuse for keeping one’s cake and eating it, too.

    Wasn’t there another Republican woman who tried to do two Minnesota elected or appointed executive positions at once? Under one of our Republican governors?

    • Submitted by Mark Kulda on 12/20/2017 - 04:39 pm.

      Carol Molnau

      Lt. Governor Carol Molnau served as both Lt. Governor and Transportation Commissioner during the Pawlenty administration. Both are executive branch positions.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/20/2017 - 11:12 am.

    Well…

    “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.”

    Is Dayton opposed to this? He could be in an effort to force an election to replace Fischbach if she decides to stay as Lt Gov.

    And conversely, the R’s would prefer both: keep the status quo in the Senate and just in case Dayton should be unable to continue, Gov. Fischbach is ready to serve.

    The proposal above is the fair and balanced way to solve this problem. And now if only both sides could show us their fair and balanced best practices.

    Or they all could just go to court….

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/20/2017 - 01:49 pm.

      “Is Dayton opposed to this?”

      I won’t speak for him, but I am opposed to this. Why should the state go through these machinations just so Senator Fischbach can keep her leadership role? There is also the broader question of using a special session solely to advance a partisan interest (of the Democrats).

      Go to court, if she insists.

  4. Submitted by Brian Simon on 12/20/2017 - 12:43 pm.

    Workarounds?

    I know it’s asking a lot for Repubs & Dems to work together, but it seems there should be an easier solution to this problem. I heard reporting early in this process that in a special session, Fischbach could be replaced as head of the Senate just in time for the (presumably) DFLer to replace Smith as Lt Gov. Then Fischbach resumes her current role & everybody is happy.

  5. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 12/20/2017 - 12:47 pm.

    Jumping the Gun

    This is all premature speculation. Sen Franken has not actually resigned yet. Let’s not put the cart before the horse.

  6. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 12/20/2017 - 02:40 pm.

    Don’t Forget

    She is married to the president of the MCCL-one of the state’s most pernicious and intrusive groups lobbying at the Capitol.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/20/2017 - 03:51 pm.

      Interesting…

      I did not know that and went to the MCCL web site where one can find the name, email and phone of virtually every elected official in the state and one cannot find any roster or contacts for MCCL leadership. Finally found his name in a old newsletter link that included messages from him and their other seemingly all male senior leadership group.

      And that is the creepiest element of the pro-life argument: a bunch of men dedicating their lives to limiting the freedoms of a bunch of women. And when you circle it back to Michelle Fischbach you are left with:

      “The do-things-yourself, take-care-of-yourself attitude of Republicans appealed to me.”

      Hmmmm???

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 12/20/2017 - 05:32 pm.

      Given that her predecessor was Vice President of PPFA, one of the state’s notorious and shameless lobbying groups, she should fit right in.

  7. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/20/2017 - 02:56 pm.

    Just out of curiosity

    …at what point did “The do-things-yourself, take-care-of-yourself attitude … appealed to me” become an exclusive Republican franchise? Ms. Fischbach would have us believe that **only** Republicans are capable of, and display, this attitude? Shame on her, if, given the new Republican tax bill, she’s still capable of shame.

  8. Submitted by Aaron Albertson on 12/20/2017 - 03:12 pm.

    Fischbach won the district by 40

    Let’s not do this. If Dayton dies the GOP would get a trifecta. We should call a special session instead. Otherwise half the DFL will die of a heart attack

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/21/2017 - 08:45 am.

      MN, Meet Walker

      The relatively small risk of this happening is reason enough to not appoint Smith. Voter suppression. Union busting. Tax cuts for the wealthiest. Local interference laws. ALEC all the way, as fast as they could take us there.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 12/21/2017 - 09:30 am.

      Next year is an election year

      The session ends in June. If Dayton lasts 6 months his work is over.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/21/2017 - 09:59 am.

        A Governor

        Can a call a special session for any reason. Remember, the GOP loves to govern by crisis. After Walker passed business tax cuts, he “discovered” a budget deficit which he used as a pretext to bust public employee unions. Did you ever imagine Mitch McConnell would hold a SCOTUS seat open for a year? Given Citizen’s United, a few big hitters can and do dictate GOP actions. Take a look at the tax de-form that just passed.

  9. Submitted by Ken Bearman on 12/20/2017 - 05:23 pm.

    The Minnesota Constitution is clear

    Article 4, Sec. 5. Restriction on holding office.
    No senator or representative shall hold any other office under the authority of the United States or the state of Minnesota, except that of postmaster or of notary public. If elected or appointed to another office, a legislator may resign from the legislature by tendering his resignation to the governor.
    (https://www.revisor.mn.gov/constitution/#article_4)

    – – – – –

    The Republicans, including Sen. Fischbach, know enough constitutional scholars who’ll tell them the plain language of the first sentence above, adopted well after the 1898 case they cite, is controlling. If they push this into court again, they should pay all costs when they lose.

  10. Submitted by Dana Boschee on 12/20/2017 - 06:27 pm.

    ??

    “The do-things-yourself, take-care-of-yourself attitude . . ” As a resident of western Stearns county unlike Fischbach who represents much of the eastern half, I can attest that if we don’t do things ourselves it doesn’t get done out here. One example,: public recreation. The eastern half has many parks and miles of hiking and ski trails. Out here – zilch. As one county commissioner told me years ago when I petitioned for development, “You can always buy your own land and do what you want with it.” As others have pointed out, you don’t have to be politically conservative to know how and to be willing to do the heavy lifting.

  11. Submitted by Jon Butler on 12/20/2017 - 06:32 pm.

    Lame

    It’s pretty lame to say, “I didn’t ask for this.” One ought to investigate the office one has sought and won–senate president–to understand its potential and limitations. Few legislators are naive, but some have informed themselves poorly.

  12. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 12/20/2017 - 06:44 pm.

    Soon to be Lt. Gov.

    The constitution is explicit. You will no longer be a senator. You can’t rewrite the constitution at will as the Republicans love to try doing.

    Best of luck on your new and only assignment.

  13. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 12/21/2017 - 08:35 am.

    interesting

    It is beginning to look like there might be precedent on holding two offices so the Repubs might have the upper hand here.

    Gov Dayton needs to ask himself if he would like a Dem or Repub at his side. The Repubs need to ask themselves if there is a benefit to holding two positions and if they care if a Dem is Lt Gov.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 12/21/2017 - 12:52 pm.

      No precedent

      The Minnesota Constitution reigns:

      Article 4, Sec. 5. Restriction on holding office.
      No senator or representative shall hold any other office under the authority of the United States or the state of Minnesota, except that of postmaster or of notary public. If elected or appointed to another office, a legislator may resign from the legislature by tendering his resignation to the governor.
      (https://www.revisor.mn.gov/constitution/#article_4)

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/21/2017 - 01:33 pm.

      Precedent

      The precedent that the Republicans are citing relies on constitutional language that was removed when the Constitution was rewritten in 1974.

      There is, however, no constitutional bar to Tina Smith serving as US Senator and Lieutenant Governor at the same time.

  14. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/21/2017 - 10:15 am.

    A Lightweight?

    Her two proudest accomplishments as a legislator are getting honorific designations for two stretches of highway. Not authoring a major tax reform bill, not securing funding for a community health center, but getting a few small signs tacked up on the highway.

    Yes, it’s a good thing to do, but isn’t there something of substance that she takes greater pride in? Perhaps she doesn’t want to discuss her raft of anti-abortion legislation, but is there nothing else for her to point to?

  15. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 12/21/2017 - 05:54 pm.

    The best part is

    That the President of the Senate doesn’t really do much, as opposed to the Senate Majority Leader who does everything along with the Governor and Speaker of the House. Those three make all the decisions and then tell the members how to vote. Fortunately the Lt. Governor also doesn’t do much, witness the previous Lt. Governor who rarely even spoke with the Governor. Two positions that add up to “not much” shouldn’t be too hard for a 3 month stint this spring, but by all means, tie things up in court where the government is paying for both the prosecution and the defense. If only the mob hadn’t turned on Senator Franken so fast he could have resigned later in the year, but then Tina Smith wouldn’t have a leg up on the 2018 election.

  16. Submitted by Stan Hooper on 01/03/2018 - 01:36 am.

    The Fishbach Dilemma

    I agree that the constitutional issue is one that needs addressing, if for no other reason than if she holds both offices it seems a major conflict of interest for her to deal with bills and state issues from both the legislative and executive branches during the next legislative sessions. This has nothing to do with the person involved (I have no reason to deal at the personal/political levels), but it does have me spinning over the conflict of interest issue.

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