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Former Republican Rep. Dave Bishop remembers sitting in the office of then-House Speaker Steve Sviggum, trying to calm him down. Sviggum was fuming, as Bishop recalls, because he had just been voted down on an issue by the executive board, a small group of GOP representatives that serve as caucus advisers to the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Board plays a critical role in keeping GOP together

 Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Since both House Speaker Kurt Zellers (left) and Majority Leader Matt Dean hail from the Twin Cities metro, observers say, a number of senior rural members constitute a critical presence on the caucus’s executive board. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Former Republican Rep. Dave Bishop remembers sitting in the office of then-House Speaker Steve Sviggum, trying to calm him down. Sviggum was fuming, as Bishop recalls, because he had just been voted down on an issue by the executive board, a small group of GOP representatives that serve as caucus advisers to the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Bishop, who served as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee from 1999 until 2002, said Sviggum was reluctant to back down from his position. But after talking with the board, which is sometimes referred to as the “voice of the caucus,” Sviggum ultimately gave in.

“There have been times when the caucus direction would be changed or altered because of the executive board,” said GOP strategist and former House staffer Gregg Peppin. “They have the connections to the members.”

The little-known executive board has been a longtime fixture of the House Republican caucus, charged with everything from developing floor strategy and vetting policy and budget proposals, to smaller managerial tasks like hiring staff members and creating chamber seating arrangements. Its key role, however, is to act as a conduit between the caucus and its principal leaders, the speaker and majority leader. In some instances, that has meant advising the speaker and working to shore up votes, legislators say. In others, it has meant changing the leadership’s course altogether.

“As the speaker, you can turn gradually right or left and bump into indecision either way,” said Tom Hanson, Minnesota’s former commissioner of Management and Budget and a one-time legislative director under Sviggum. “They’re like the board of directors of the caucus. It’s all about consensus-building.”

Capitol watchers say the group’s role has ramped up this session as Republicans grapple with a $5 billion budget deficit and their newfound majority status in the chamber. In attempting to forge a budget that cuts a net total of $3.7 billion (excluding the $1.3 billion school shift, which is expected to be deferred) and holds the line on tax increases, Republicans enjoy a less-than-comfortable 72-62 margin in the House, and there are continuing tensions between the caucus’ suburban leadership and its rural members, who have reason to be fearful of the impact back home from deep cuts to local government aid and human services programs.

Earlier this session, opposition from rural Republicans caused the caucus to back away from making permanent cuts to local aids and credits in its so-called phase one budget bill; in the final House version, those cuts applied to 2012-13 only, and statutory funding requirements for future years were left in place. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed that bill, but many observers think he has attempted to exploit the regional tensions within the GOP legislative caucuses through measures such as his proposal to exempt aid to local governments from any ’12-’13 budget cuts.

Given these dynamics, some Capitol veterans say the board – which is notably long on rural members – will play an increasingly important role in holding the caucus together this year.

“[Majority Leader] Matt Dean can’t herd 71 butterflies,” said a longtime GOP operative who wished to remain anonymous. “They can only lose four votes [and still pass a bill].”

Setting caucus politics

For as long as Peppin can remember, there has always been an executive board in the Minnesota House GOP caucus. “I remember hearing about battles in the executive board going all the way back to the 1970s,” he said.  But the group really formalized after the 1998 elections, when Republicans took control of the House and Sviggum rose to the speaker’s chair, Hanson said.

Bishop, who sat on the board under Sviggum with then-Reps. Carol Molnau and Tim Pawlenty, said the group consisted mostly of committee chairs during that era. “It was rare for a policy decision to move forward unless it had a strong majority on the executive board,” he said, adding that board action determined “how internal caucus politics were set.”

A new cast of Republicans came on to the board to lead the caucus in the minority role after Republicans lost control of the chamber to DFLers in 2006. More conservative caucus members Mary Liz Holberg, Tom Hackbarth, Mark Buesgens and Tom Emmer joined Minority Whip Denny McNamara and Minority Leader Marty Seifert on the board.

After the infamous 2008 override of Pawlenty’s gas tax veto, the board became torn by a rift between Seifert and the caucus’ more conservative members. The two factions disagreed over how to deal with the six Republicans who voted with Democrats to accomplish the override. Emmer and others sought severe repercussions, while sources say the Seifert camp only dealt punishment in the press.

Members like Holberg, Buesgens and Emmer began splitting off altogether from meetings of the board and the larger caucus. McNamara was eventually ousted from his leadership position and the board over the tensions, sources say, and was ultimately replaced by former GOP Rep. Dan Severson.

‘The pulse of the caucus’

A sense of urgency accompanied the makeup of the board this year, as the caucus elected Maple Grove Rep. Kurt Zellers and Dellwood Rep. Matt Dean to the posts of speaker and majority leader. By most accounts, they make up the first-ever leadership team that has not struck a metro-rural balance. “That’s never happened before,” former DFL Speaker Bob Vanasek said. In his view, “Some senior rural members were tapped [for the executive board] to offset that geographic imbalance.”

After a competitive caucus election in December, a strong cadre of rural members landed on the board, including nine-term Fairmont Rep. Bob Gunther, Nelson Township Rep. Paul Torkelson, Mountain Lake Majority Whip Rod Hamilton and freshman Rep. Kurt Daudt, a farmer from Crown. Suburban representatives Jenifer Loon and Joe Hoppe were also elevated to the board. Red Wing Rep. Tim Kelly was appointed to the group by Zellers, and Holberg serves as an ex officio member as chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

Gunther has always been a strong rural voice in the caucus, and has a good sense for “where people are at,” GOP Rep. Greg Davids said. Daudt was elevated to the board by his freshman colleagues, but he is no stranger to the inner councils of Republican politics; Daudt has sat on city and county boards, and last year he served as manager of Seifert’s gubernatorial campaign. While Hamilton voted with Democrats to override the gas tax in 2008, he has since worked to redeem himself in the eyes of his caucus mates, sources say. He also played a key role last year in several contested rural elections ultimately won by the GOP.

Hamilton said he is “honored” to serve on the committee, and sees his rural perspective as important for both the caucus “and the state of Minnesota.” For Torkelson’s part, he said he was “not here because I have an ax to grind. I just want to see that the caucus runs the best that it can this session.”

“The board now is much more of a consensus-building group than you’ve had there in the past,” the GOP operative said. Zellers’ strength as a speaker is also in consensus building, a Republican lobbyist said. “He’s always been known to work well with others,” the lobbyist said, adding that the absence of more combative members like Buesgens and Hackbarth from the board will help with caucus outreach. “You’re not seeing those people on there who could make members uneasy.”

Davids said the final makeup of the board is seen as fair and balanced by most House Republicans. “They have to get the pulse of the caucus,” he said. “There are going to be some tough decisions to make, so it’s smart to have people coming from all different angles.”

As Taxes chairman, Davids has already sat before the board this session to vet his omnibus tax bill, jokingly referring to it as an “interrogation.” Davids said all of the finance committee chairs have gone before the board to weigh their omnibus budget bills.

Vanasek operated with a similar group during his tenure as speaker of the House. By his account, the board became extremely important by the end of the session, when he became increasingly involved in closed-door discussion with the administration and isolated from the caucus. “You don’t have as much time to interact with the caucus as the session wears on,” he said. “[The board] is invaluable at that point.”

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