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Senate Republicans will head into the 2012 legislative session and election cycle with a new leadership team at the helm after one of the most dramatic downfalls of a Minnesota politician in decades. In an 11-hour marathon session at the Radisson hotel in Roseville on Tuesday, Republican senators elected Rochester Sen. Dave Senjem as their new majority leader.

New Senate majority leader? In crisis, Republicans turn to Senjem again

Hello again: Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem met the press after the 11-hour caucus session in which he was elected. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Former minority leader elected on a single ballot after marathon caucus meeting

Senate Republicans will head into the 2012 legislative session and election cycle with a new leadership team at the helm after one of the most dramatic downfalls of a Minnesota politician in decades.

In an 11-hour marathon session at the Radisson hotel in Roseville on Tuesday, Republican senators elected Rochester Sen. Dave Senjem as their new majority leader. The move came 12 days after the sudden resignation of Sen. Amy Koch, who stepped down from her leadership post on Dec. 15 after being confronted by four GOP senators over an inappropriate relationship she subsequently admitted having with a Senate staffer.

The caucus also picked four new assistant majority leaders, including freshman Sens. Ted Lillie, Roger Chamberlain and Paul Gazelka as well as Finance Committee Chairwoman Claire Robling. While senators say the former leadership team voluntarily stepped down from their positions — “under no duress,” Senjem said at a news conference afterward — many rank-and-file senators were reportedly upset about the way the Koch revelation and her resignation from leadership were handled internally. The circumstances surrounding the Koch scandal were reportedly a subject of lengthy discussion on Tuesday before the caucus proceeded to the majority leader election.

‘Nothing but forward’

Sens. Geoff Michel, David Hann, Chris Gerlach and Robling surprised Koch with allegations of an affair during a meeting at the Minneapolis Club the day before she resigned. In the days that followed, holes emerged in the timeline of events presented by Michel, who served as acting majority leader on an interim basis. (After former Senate GOP Chief of Staff Cullen Sheehan stepped forward to say he was the staffer who disclosed the Koch relationship to Michel, Michel admitted fudging the dates in question, saying he did so only to protect Sheehan’s identity.) In the end, Robling was the only one of the four senators who retained a spot on the leadership team.

Senjem said the chain of events surrounding Koch’s resignation were “so sad in so many ways and so perplexing. All I know is that the people involved, I amongst them, did the best job that we could.” Koch attended the caucus meeting but was one of only a few senators who did not appear before reporters immediately after the election.

“The caucus has acted,” Senjem said, “and the direction is nothing but forward.”

“Over the course of the last two weeks we’ve gone through a difficult period,” he continued, “but we’ve come out of that, and all directions now are looking forward. No more looking backward. The 2012 session is what we have looking us straight in the face.”

A stabilizing influence

In the weeks leading up to the Senate majority leader race, Senjem — who served as minority leader from 2007 to 2010 — emerged as a safe and stabilizing choice after the dramatic turn of events with Koch, senators said.

Lobbyist Tom Hanson, who worked with Senjem when Hanson headed the Minnesota Management & Budget office in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration, said Senjem’s strength lies in bringing people together. “He is one of the most well-liked and respected figures in the Capitol, which shows why he was elected after Amy’s resignation,” Hanson said. “He was always a calm head in negotiations when others weren’t. He is just an all-around good guy.”

A senior DFL lobbyist said that while Senjem isn’t as conservative as the caucus he now leads, he is a popular and trusted figure among caucus members. “Everybody likes him,” the source said. “He’s sort of like the happy uncle. It’s hard not to get along with the guy. I think he was the consensus guy that was a safe choice because there’s been so much turmoil. And I think he wasn’t a part of [the Koch scandal], and that gave him some distance. That was an advantage to him.”

The lobbyist added that Senjem’s ascension to majority leader almost guarantees there will be a bonding package passed and signed in the 2012 session and makes a floor vote on the Vikings stadium and racino very likely.

The Koch factor

At the news conference after Tuesday’s meeting, Senjem took pains to strike a note of conciliation with regard to Koch, who remains a sitting senator despite her resignation from leadership. He called it “wonderful” to have her present among caucus ranks at the meeting and emphasized that the caucus had “cleared the air” and was prepared to move forward.

But if Koch chooses to serve out the rest of her term, her continued presence may pose ongoing complications for Senate Republicans. Most immediately, it keeps alive the prospect of a Senate ethics inquiry that could produce more public attention to the scandal and might reveal further damaging details.

“If there’s any ethics complaint, I don’t know how she stays in office,” the DFL lobbyist said. “If there isn’t an ethics complaint, she could quietly try and serve out her term, but the question for the caucus members is: Will she be a distraction?”

It seems unlikely that an ethics complaint could be avoided, since members of the Senate DFL minority could press the matter if Republicans don’t. That specter was underscored early Wednesday in Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk’s letter of congratulations to Senjem.

In it, Bakk wrote, “The integrity and honor of the Minnesota Senate have been seriously called into question by recent events, and right now our first priority must be restoring the public’s trust in our institution. I urge you, as the new majority leader, to take this responsibility very seriously and ensure that all ethical and legal questions surrounding the recent allegations concerning Senate members’ conduct are addressed in a transparent and expeditious manner.”

Observers from both parties have also noted that Koch’s “inappropriate relationship” could become a factor in what’s expected to be a multimillion-dollar media campaign against the GOP-sponsored 2012 ballot initiative to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota. And some think such attacks would be harder to deflect if Koch is still a member of the Senate.
The road ahead

As majority leader, Senjem will have to set the legislative agenda for the upcoming session while working to forge a campaign strategy and raise money to defend his caucus’ slim majority in the 2012 election. His leadership team will also have to complete a task that the Koch regime left unfinished: the trimming of more than $2 million from the Minnesota Senate’s $41 million 2012-13 budget as part of the budget deal struck with Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration back in July.

GOP Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, who was among those considering a run for the job, said that about 10 senators were put forward for the four assistant leadership positions but that only two senators ran for majority leader. Ingebrigtsen declined to name the second senator. Hann, who was said to have been aggressively campaigning for majority leader in the aftermath of Koch’s resignation, confirmed that he voluntarily stepped down from his leadership post. But when asked if he was the second senator nominated for majority leader, Hann said the caucus has decided not to disclose those details.

“We just thought since we were making a restart that we would just make a clean sweep,” Hann said. “We are not going to talk about the internal process. We had a long day and we ended up with a result, and we are just ready to move forward.”

In addition to the four elected assistant leaders, Senjem will select two additional senators to join the team. In picking the senators — which must happen within seven days of his election — Senjem says he is looking for “chemistry” with the current slate of leaders.

Senjem, who was first elected in 2002, has been a champion of racino legislation and was the chief author of a bill to use racino revenue to generate economic development dollars last session.

But one member of the new Senate leadership team, Paul Gazelka, denied that gambling and the Vikings stadium were major considerations in Tuesday’s meeting. “Today was about electing a new majority leader,” he said.

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