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The Minnesota Senate Republican caucus is in disarray after a tumultuous few days that saw Majority Leader Amy Koch suddenly step down following allegations of an “inappropriate relationship” with a direct subordinate on the Senate staff.

Many names surface in Senate leadership scrum

Acting Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel (left) and Health and Human Services Chairman David Hann are among those who might emerge as candidates for Senate majority leader. The caucus will vote on Tuesday. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Michel among likely candidates, but contenders stay mum publicly

The Minnesota Senate Republican caucus is in disarray after a tumultuous few days that saw Majority Leader Amy Koch suddenly step down following allegations of an “inappropriate relationship” with a direct subordinate on the Senate staff.

The race to replace Koch as majority leader is moving quickly out of necessity. According to caucus bylaws, Republican senators must elect her replacement within two weeks of Koch’s official letter of resignation on Dec. 15. Republican senators are also eager to shift the focus away from the scandal to the 2012 session and general election. The caucus announced this week that it will meet Tuesday to hold the election.

Only one senator — Mike Jungbauer — has officially thrown his name in the mix, and only one GOP Senate leader has publicly ruled out running: Senate President Michelle Fischbach. But more than a half dozen other names in the 37-member caucus are being floated, either by the senators themselves or by those who would like to see them at the helm of the chamber. That list includes acting Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, Taxes Chairwoman Julianne Ortman, Health and Human Services Chairman David Hann, freshman Assistant Majority Leader Dave Thompson and former Minority Leader Dave Senjem.

Freshman Red Wing Sen. John Howe says a lot is at stake in the vote, and he plans to weigh his options carefully. “It will make a big difference in the direction of our state,” he said. “It will influence what bills get heard and go to the floor. It will have ramifications for the entire state of Minnesota.”

Most agree the next majority leader will have to possess fundraising skills as well as the campaign chops exemplified by Koch heading into the contentious 2012 general election, in which Republicans will defend their slim, newfound majority status. The new leader will also have to be a stabilizing force, senators say, and move the caucus forward after one of the most dramatic downfalls of a legislative leader in decades.

Leadership, committee chairs consider post

The Republican senators who have suggested they are weighing a run include Michel, Hann and Senjem, three of the four senators who sat in front of the news media on Friday to discuss the revelation that Koch’s resignation followed her being confronted about an alleged relationship with a staffer. The fourth, Chris Gerlach, did not return a call seeking comment about the majority leader race.

Many think Michel’s entrance into the race is a foregone conclusion given his acting majority leader status, his old job as Koch’s number two and his reputed taste for the limelight. Michel did not return a call seeking comment.

But one factor should be taken into consideration by the Edina senator, sources say: He would be put between a rock and a hard place in trying simultaneously to please a notably conservative caucus and swing-district party activists back home in the suburbs. On the fundraising side, however, sources say Michel is the main money-raiser for the caucus, a skill that will be critical facing the 2012 elections.

Hann, a conservative stalwart and former gubernatorial candidate, has said he is not ruling out a bid for majority leader. Hann ran for the job after the 2010 elections, and he has been a point person in laying out caucus positions and publicly challenging Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration. Most recently, Hann bucked Dayton by blocking $25 million in federal health care grants.
But Hann’s firm stance against expansion of state-sponsored gambling could make or break his potential candidacy, especially as the Vikings stadium issue heats up. Some form of expanded gambling appears to be the most likely vehicle to pay for the project, and Hann’s opposition to any expansion of gambling could automatically win him support from the chamber’s more conservative members, namely other anti-gambling senators like Dan Hall, Paul Gazelka and Dave Brown.

But by multiple headcounts, there’s enough support pass a racino proposal in the Senate, especially one that’s tied to paying back the expanded K-12 school shift. Hann would likely block any gambling proposal from landing on the chamber floor, and one senator says that could seriously hinder his ability to garner votes for majority leader. Hann could not be reached for comment.
Ortman, who is the chairwoman of the powerful Taxes Committee, was notably absent at the news conference and has avoided commenting on the Koch scandal to the media. (It’s said that Ortman was one of Koch’s closest Senate friends and confidantes.) But in the wake of Koch’s resignation, Ortman was said to be making calls to try to gauge the support she could gather. Ortman did not return a call for comment.

Despite his freshman status, Thompson has also not ruled himself out of the race. He is a rapidly rising star within the Senate GOP. A former talk radio personality from Lakeville, Thompson was the only freshman elected to the Senate leadership team, and his name was thrown out as a possible candidate to run against U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar in 2012. Freshman senators also make up a majority within the majority caucus — 21 of the 37 members are new to the Senate. They will be a formidable voting bloc in the election.

But that doesn’t mean every freshman will automatically vote for a fellow frosh for majority leader. “I think there’s a lot of value to someone who has served several terms in the Senate,” said freshman Sen. Carla Nelson, who served one term in the House. “I think there’s historical experience and there’s political experience that’s valuable.”

Jungbauer has taken to the Web to lobby for his candidacy. Amid turmoil on Friday evening over Koch’s resignation, Jungbauer tweeted that he would “change the face” of government as majority leader. In a video posted to YouTube this week, Jungbauer said past leadership has not done enough to help small business owners.

But Jungbauer is an outsider in his caucus. The three-term senator from East Bethel was noticeably shortchanged when the Senate GOP committee rosters were released last winter. The then-GOP lead on transportation was passed over for the gavel, which was given to the less experienced Sen. Joe Gimse. Jungbauer currently sits as vice chairman of the Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee.

Rural legislators lobbied to run

Some rural legislators see the majority leader race as an opportunity to elevate the voice of outstate senators after the metro-heavy leadership team last session. Several rural Republican senators have been heavily lobbied to join the race.
“I’ve been asked and been humbled by a bunch of members who say we need someone that’s stable and who’s going to remember rural Minnesota,” said Bill Ingebrigtsen, a two-term senator from Alexandria. “We certainly have to continue doing the good job that we did in creating economic opportunity… but there’s a healing process that has to happen, and we have to have someone in that leadership role that is good, stable, strong, and good at handling people and staff. This was a staff issue, and those can be very damaging. There is a certain amount of healing that’s going on.”

Ingebrigtsen says the Vikings stadium issue needs a champion next session, adding that he supports expanding gambling to pay for the project. He says he will likely decide on whether to run by the end of the week.
The situation is similar for Senjem and Gimse. While some considered Senjem too moderate during his tenure as minority leader, others see him now as the sort of stable presence that’s needed in the aftermath of the Koch scandal. “He doesn’t look the part, but when everybody is in disarray, he just seems to say the right thing at the right time to bring it back into focus,” one Senate Republican source said.

“The honest truth is, I’ve gotten a good number of calls from people who think, given the situation, … I would be a good fit at this point,” Senjem said. He says he is still mulling a run, as the job would be a major time investment leading up to the 2012 elections. “You always have to worry, as we are four seats away from the minority. Being in the majority, there’s certainly a sense of comfort there, but there’s also the reality that if this thing turns four seats, we are no longer in power.”

But whereas Hann could lose votes from pro-gambling members, Senjem will almost certainly lose the support of the anti-gambling contingent in the caucus. Senjem has been a longtime racino champion, carrying the legislation for the last several sessions. “If you see Senjem get in, you will see racino get on to the floor. If Hann is in, you won’t see any expansion of gambling get to the floor,” the source noted. “There’s a lot at stake.”

Gimse, who startled everyone in 2006 with his stunning defeat of then-DFL Majority Leader Dean Johnson, is also considering a bid for the job after receiving calls from senators. “I think we need a leader who will be able to calm the caucus and ensure that everybody is heard,” Gimse said.

Gimse also supports expanded gambling but emphasizes that he would first put that money toward paying back the school shift.
“Clearly the highest priority that I’m hearing is paying back that shift,” he said. “That is a higher priority in that scheme than the Vikings.”

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