First, it was the rapid one-week ouster of Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan, then the announcement by Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-09, Nisswa) leaving the leadership post and not seeking reelection, followed by the more surprising announcement by Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent (DFL-53, Woodbury) of her stepping down from leadership and her intent not to seek reelection to the Senate.
Kent ousted Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk (I-03, Cooke) is a one vote victory prior to the 2020 election. Now, interestingly enough Bakk, who left the DFL Caucus with fellow Senator David Tomassoni (I-06, Chisholm) is now named as a potential candidate for Republican Caucus Leader. Of course, since the Republicans dropped the name Independent Republicans in the early 1990’s, he would have to make a full switch.
As Kent leaves her caucus is still saddled with cloud and the looming problem of sexual harassment of a former employee by a member of the Senate Campaign staff, and Kent Campaign Manager, and House Employee, Clay Schwartzwalter, also a half-brother to Senate Jason Isaacson (DFL-42, Shoreview). The issue was not dealt with well when it was first reported and the repercussions are still being felt.
As the leadership contest to replace Kent begins and conversations with the membership ensues, this issue is forefront in the minds of all of the candidates. With this as top of mind, it is clear one casualty of the sexual harassment complaint will be DFL Caucus Chief of Staff John Pollard.
The Republican Caucus, has an easier path initially, because it has a Deputy Majority Leader in Sen Mark Johnson (R-01, East Grand Forks) and he was selected to take on the role as “Acting” Leader, but as he has clearly stated, “It’s an absolute honor to be selected by my Senate leadership colleagues to serve as Acting Majority Leader. Senator Paul Gazelka stepped down yesterday as the leader of our caucus and I am humbled to be named acting leader until a new leader is selected.”
As has been the case in past DFL Leadership contests, (Larry Pogemiller and Dean Johnson) we are privy to conversations taking place. Sens D Scott Dibble (DFL-61 Minneapolis), Melisa Franzen (DFL-49, Edina) and Nick Frentz (DFL-19, North Mankato) all have been making calls to their colleagues and expressing their interests in the position.
As we are hearing from those inside the caucus, there is a clear sympathy for Kent’s personal reality and something many in office can attest, the weight of the office and family pressures in constant conflict. Additionally, moving forward, what the face of the caucus needs to be not only for the legislative session, but going forward into the 2022 election. Some actually argue the more important issue is the election.
As we had mentioned with the resignation of Caranhan, prior to her “No Confidence” vote begs the question of the lose of a woman leader and what her replacement looks like. Dibble an openly gay male, Franzen and Hispanic female, and Frentz a straight white male does create a interesting set of issues. If the DFL Caucus had a Deputy Leader as they do when they are in the Majority, this issue could be a mere process question, but without, the issues of gender and inclusivity may come to play and constituencies outside of the caucus might have a role in the process other than the 16-members inside the caucus, for determining the choice.
To that end, Dibble as a Minneapolitan, where the slogan Defund the Police came, and is currently holding a referendum on Police Reform, which truly has yet to be defined, is seen by many as not the right fit for the current time. A senator, from a safe, but problematic place, is not the right person to bolster an election for the Senate Majority which will happen in the suburbs.
Franzen, current Minority Leader, an attorney and like Kent, another suburban Senator—who did not recapture the majority—though an inner ring suburbanite, self-describes as a “suburban woman, who happens to be diverse.” She is giving voice to the need to address the harassment issue directly and address staff concerns to prevent such an occurrence from happening again. The question is how will her appeal be felt in the outer ring and ex-burbs. She stresses her fundraising for the caucus. Also, in evidence when she was in a car accident with State Auditor Julie Blaha (DFL-MN), they were at a Farmfest expo in southwestern MN.
Frentz, also a current Assistant Minority Leader, with a chiseled jaw, affable attorney, who is in his 2nd term representing a regional center in southern Minnesota. He is a well-known ally with Governor Tim Walz (DFL-MN) both having football backgrounds and from Mankato. We will argue a regional center is much like an outer ring suburb in its politics where as an inner ring suburb appeals more to the core of the city it’s nearby.
In this case, Franzen looks well-positioned, but it will depend on whether or not she has the breadth and reach to wrangle the regional diversity of her caucus and recruit quality candidates to fill the three suburban vacancies already pending Kent, and Sens Chris Eaton (DFL-40, Brooklyn Center) and Jerry Newton (DFL-37, Coon Rapids).
We think the best tactician will be the best choice.
This is Gazelka’s statement on his decision.
Five years ago, under bittersweet conditions, I was honored to be elected leader of the Senate Republican Caucus. I have those same bittersweet feelings today as I announce my intention to step aside as your leader.
Outside of my family life, and my faith in God, leading this caucus has been the most rewarding experience of my life. I am so grateful for what we’ve accomplished together:
- Finding agreement on three consecutive budgets without raising taxes, over the strong objections of both Governors Mark Dayton and Tim Walz.
- Cutting income tax rates for the first time in 20 years in addition to tax cuts for Social Security income and small business and agriculture property taxes.
- Blocking an exhaustive list of policies pursued by the DFL that would have slowed the growth in our economy, taken away rights and freedoms and worst of all, harmed our families.
- Growing the caucus from a razor-thin one vote majority in 2017 to a comfortable working majority through special election victories and by strategically attracting centrist Democrats to join our efforts.
- Building a culture of respect in the organization – respect for members in both parties, staff, lobbyists and the public – solidifying our reputation as the “adults in the room.”
- Raising and spending record amounts in the 2020 election, winning back-to-back Republican majorities in the Senate for the first time in history, even in the face of a strong Democratic wave.
These accomplishments were possible because we stuck to our principles and communicated directly with the people of Minnesota. Again, I’m so very grateful for the work we’ve accomplished together and believe the caucus is in a very strong position to be successful in the 2022 session and the subsequent election.
I plan to be a part of that future success but look forward to letting someone else take over serving as leader while I pursue the next chapter in my political life.
It has been an honor.
Here is Kent’s statement on her decision.
“It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve my community in the Minnesota Senate for almost 10 years now. I have been inspired by the dedicated community members, advocates and colleagues I have had the privilege of working with who are committed to building a better Minnesota for everyone, “ said Senator Kent. “I began my political career as a mom fighting for better and more equitable public education, and I am proud that over the course of my tenure, Minnesota students have seen some of the biggest advancements in schools in recent history, including this year‘s educational budget, which will invest $1B over the course of the next biennium to support our students and schools.”
“I am also incredibly humble to have had the opportunity to serve as the first woman Senate DFL Leader. It has been an honor to hold this position, and I am so proud of the passion and dedication to service that my DFL colleagues displayed over the course of the past 18 months, as we faced unprecedented challenges in the legislature, our state, and our communities. Across historic legislative sessions, we have worked hard to keep Minnesotans healthy in and our communities strong. “
“The decision to retire at the end of my term next year was a difficult one, but it is in the best interest of my family. The pandemic has been hard on everyone – hard on millions of families – and mine is absolutely no obsession. Throughout it all, I have tried my best to do two roles that I own can do: be my son’s mother, and my mother’s daughter, in fact her only family member. I’ve done the best I can, and my husband, Chris, has been amazing. However, COVID has complicated our lives in ways that I could not have foreseen when I stepped up to leader ship. It’s been two years since I have seen my mother, and I am deeply grateful for her care at an assisted living facility in Dallas where she has been without direct family support. It’s time to make changes in my life and put my family first.”
“I have reflected on this over several months, and with a bit of distance since session ended, it became clear that I need to prioritize my family and can’t commit to another four-year term. With that decision, I have also decided to step down as the Senate DFL leader to give the new leader a time they will need to continue fighting for the shared values we are hold dear. I am committed to supporting a new DFL leader to ensure a smooth transition, and I will continue my he worked hard in my role as a senator for my community to last day my last day in office. I will be forever grateful for this experience and appreciate everyone’s grace and understanding of this decision.“
The Senate will DFL caucus will meet Monday, September 13 to elect a new Senate Minority Leader.