Editor’s note: PIM Politician and Legislator of the Year citations are named annually in the PIM Weekly Report. This item is reprinted from last Friday’s edition of WR. (If you aren’t a subscriber, click here for more details.)
PIM Politician of the Year: Amy Koch
On the morning of January 29, Sen. Amy Koch stood before a small crowd of reporters in the State Office Building beaming. On the previous day, Mike Parry — theretofore best known for his tactless pronouncements on Twitter — won a special election to take the Senate District 26 seat being vacated by Dick Day. Republicans couched the victory as part of a national backlash against President Obama’s policies and a harbinger of GOP success in 2010.
“We have got some outstanding candidates in a lot of districts,” Sen. Amy Koch said at the time. “We’re going to play in a lot of districts.”
The GOP’s rhetoric might have played as hyperbole at the time. But in retrospect, Parry’s victory certainly did foreshadow the great Republican wave of 2010, culminating in the takeover of both the state House and Senate. It also served as a sort of coming-out party for Koch as a statewide Republican leader. Beginning with the SD 26 contest, no figure played a more crucial role in achieving the GOP’s first Senate majority in the modern era of partisan political contests.
As head of the Senate caucus re-election effort, she recruited strong candidates across the state, landing several challengers with formidable business resumes. In coordination with GOP consultant Ben Golnik and Senate communications chief Michael Brodkorb, Koch focused the caucus’s meager financial resources on takeover targets and relentlessly stressed a message of budgetary malfeasance by Democrats at the Capitol. She pushed the GOP caucus leadership to broaden the field of targeted contests to seemingly entrenched Senate DFLers like Leo Foley and Don Betzold. During the final 10-week stretch, Koch and Golnik led weekly phone calls with each of their top 20 candidates to get updates on voter contacts and fundraising.
“We probably talked to each other more than we talked to our spouses during that last stretch,” recalls Golnik. “It was all in and then some.”
The end result: Republicans picked up 16 seats and overnight were catapulted from an irrelevant minority to a 37-30 majority. The outcome was so stunning to Senate Democrats accustomed to ruling the upper chamber that some refused to believe the results on election night even after the carnage was clear.
Koch was then rewarded for her sweat equity by being named the first female Senate majority leader in the state’s history. It was something of a bloodless coup, with then-caucus leader Dave Senjem quietly stepping aside. Koch’s elevation to Senate Majority Leader caps a remarkable rise for the 39-year-old Buffalo Republican. She arrived at the Capitol just five years earlier after winning a special election.
In Republican circles, Koch’s already being touted as a possible candidate for higher office. But first she faces the messy prospect of governing with a $6.2 billion deficit and a DFL governor.
PIM Legislators of the Year: Matt Dean & Erin Murphy
The definitive history of life at the Capitol during the Tim Pawlenty years has yet to be written, but we think it’s safe to say the era won’t go down as one of the brighter hours for comity and compromise between legislators. Practically all of the marquee battles, particularly during Pawlenty’s second term, when DFLers controlled both House and Senate, came down to partisan brinksmanship over budgets and taxes. Pawlenty won nearly all of those battles, and the lone exception — when Democrats were joined by six rogue Republicans in overriding the veto of a Transportation bill containing a gas tax hike — will probably go down as the most memorable legislative showdown of the decade. (It also cost four of the six GOP apostates their jobs, underscoring the perils of bipartisanship under the big top on Pawlenty’s watch.)
The dynamics last session were more of the same, with the fight revolving around Pawlenty’s line-item vetoes and unallotments from the year before. One of the budget items nixed by Pawlenty, the General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) program that pays hospitals for providing care to indigent single adults, soon emerged as the hot-button issue of the session for Democrats. But for once, they were not alone: Many Republican legislators, particularly rural House members, also wanted to see GAMC resurrected in some form. The alternative was to risk seeing financially stressed regional hospitals back home either close departments or go under entirely.
Amid the tug of war over GAMC and the Pawlenty cuts more generally, GOP Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood and DFL Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul worked together through weeks of shuttle diplomacy between the legislative caucuses and the governor’s office to craft a partial GAMC restoration bill that was agreeable to Pawlenty. It was tortuous work, and more thankless than it looked — because although their efforts won a lot of public plaudits at the time, they cut both ways among Dean and Murphy’s caucus mates. Privately, a number of members on both sides thought their deal betrayed the caucus’s position.
For Dean, the role of dealmaker in the GAMC fight came naturally in a couple of senses. During his four terms, the 44-year-old architect had come to be known as a seeker of common ground; in 2008, as the lead Republican on the House HHS Finance Committee, he helped to craft a nationally heralded health care reform bill. He also had a direct connection to the issue: His wife, Laura, is an obstetrician who works in one of the hospitals affected by GAMC funding.
Murphy’s background as a nurse and health care lobbyist gave her immediate insights into the issue as well. But unlike Dean, she had little previous experience as a lead negotiator or spokesperson for any high-profile initiative. Thrust into that role, she quickly learned to excel at it, and her raised profile made her one of three principal House DFL contenders for the majority leader position that most people presumed Democrats would still control after the dust settled in November.
It was Dean, of course, who wound up in that post, where he will play one of the Legislature’s most critical parts in this year’s effort to resolve a $6.2 billion budget deficit with a minimum of gridlock and bloodshed. But both figure to loom large in Legislatures to come.