Throughout this legislative session, political pundits and other presumptive political analysts have attributed the pace of this legislative session to Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-02, Cook). Many disparaging comments have been directed his way and in spite of the entire government being in DFL control, any impediment to an aggressive pace is laid on his doorstep. This brings to mind the US Senate adage proffered by political icon US Senator Robert Bird (D-WV), “The Senate is the saucer in which the hot liquid cools.”
There is much ballyhoo about Governor Mark Dayton (DFL) having his body cast removed a week before schedule, to call for a Tax Bill. As people are trying to figure out the operational structure of the Minnesota Senate they may need to understand the power dynamic, history and the personalities involved. The three principal characters are Bakk, Sen. Dick Cohen (DFL-64, St Paul) and Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-02, Clearbrook). This triumvirate provides leadership, order and fiscal management and revenue.
Now one fact lost on most people is each one of these person is effectively “House Trained.” Meaning they all served in the state House before the Senate. Cohen in spite of having the most seniority in the Senate, was elected to the House in 1976, served one term and lost in the “Minnesota Massacre,” returned in 1982, then served two more terms and moved to the Senate in 1986. Bakk and Skoe both were both elected to the Senate in 2002, with Bakk arriving at the House in 1995 and Skoe later in 1999.
Their ascendance to their current positions marks an initial achievement for both of themand a repeat performance for Cohen. When Bakk moved to the leadership spot, he opened up the Tax Chair for Skoe, while Cohen became Chair of Finance in 2003. Let’s not forget Bakk still sits on the Tax Committee, and he originally secured the Chair after only two years in the Senate.
These three have their own interesting dynamic, but it might warrant an understanding of how the Senate used to work to learn Cohen’s intent regarding legislation. During the late 1980’s, a time of fiscal challenges for our state the Chair of the Finance Committee was Sen. Eugene “Gene” Merriam (DFL-Blaine). During his tenure, Merriam constructed the Uber-committee if any legislation carried a fiscal note, he wanted to see it. Every piece of legislation that required any spending had to come before the Finance Committee and be referred out. This meant, every lobbyist, state agency or any other postulate had to appear before the Chair.
While this holding of court occurred on the east side of the Capitol, another proceeding took effectively center stage in Capitol room 15 right below the Rotunda, where Sen. Doug Johnson (DFL-Tower) held his own court as Tax Committee Chair. Both these individuals played their roles with precision, where if a bill needed funding Merriam identified it and then the supplicants had to go to the Tax Committee to procure funding for it.
Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe (DFL-Erskine) had the ability to play the constant “Good Guy” smile for the cameras, defer to the process as a work in progress and let Merriam and Johnson play good cop bad cop, with their hats ever changing, depending on the issue, and the session wore on. Ultimately, Moe would reveal the grand design, like the Great and Powerful Oz, and the session would end. Usually, around two weeks before the revealing Moe, would have communicated through his Chief of Staff Vic Moore, a scheduled post-session trip of Moe to Norway, which was code for time to get to work.
Much of this artistry was due to negotiations with the Governor’s office and it didn’t matter if the Governor was Perpich (DFL), Carlson (R)or even Ventura (IP).
Here are a few facts that might help shape your perspective. Moe was first elected to the Senate in 1970, and rose to become Majority Leader in 1981, he was Chair of Finance in 1980. Merriam was first elected to the Senate in 1975 and became Chair of Finance in 1987. Johnson was elected to the House in 1970, the Senate in 1976 and became Tax Chair in 1981. Each of these men had a long history together and their concurrent terms provided a solid foundation for their interaction.
We think, in order to best understand Cohen,one need to look to Merriam. Cohen wants the influence of Clean Gene. We have heard he may carry some disregard for Bakk’s approach to legislation, because he (Bakk) lacks the seasoning of the Senate to hone his approach. But one thing is clear, Bakk delivered the Senate back into the majority and every Senator with two terms under their belt knows the difference between 2012 and 2014.