Key Republican leaders will be under duress to right the ship before the fall election
Minnesota Republicans started the 2011 session having conquered titans.
In the Legislature, GOP lawmakers had made a historic 54-seat gain in the House and Senate that fall, a swing that handed them majorities in both chambers for the first time in 38 years. At the same time, the Republican Party of Minnesota helped West Virginia-born pilot Chip Cravaack defeat 18-term Iron Range Congressman Jim Oberstar, who held the gavel on the powerful Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Washington.
The main blemish on Republicans’ 2010 election sweep was losing the governorship to DFLer Mark Dayton. But that didn’t prevent Republicans from keeping their campaign promise to stave off tax increases, even in face of a multibillion-dollar budget deficit. After a 20-day government shutdown in July, Dayton and GOP leaders agreed to a $500 million bonding bill and extensive borrowing in lieu of tax increases.
“We had just come out of a governor-led era in which Tim Pawlenty was able to set the fiscal agenda, and the conventional wisdom was that the Legislature was at a disadvantage,” University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs recalled recently. “But within a few weeks [after the start of the 2011 session], the GOP Legislature was setting the agenda. Then we had a government shutdown in which a few weeks later, the governor yelled uncle. It really toppled conventional wisdom and shows what a well-organized, unified party can do.”
But all that was before Black December, a month that saw the state GOP and the Senate Republican caucus swept up in personnel changes, stunning financial revelations, infighting and scandal. It began with the surprise resignation of state GOP Chairman Tony Sutton amid claims that the party’s finances were a mess; a couple of weeks later, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch abruptly announced she was quitting her leadership post. From there both stories only got worse, broadening into protracted tales of party debt and Senate caucus intrigue. As one GOP source succinctly put it, it was a “disastrous December.”
Now, says Jacobs, Minnesota Republicans find themselves “behind the eight ball.”
“It’s kind of circle and shoot,” Jacobs said. “They’ve just done so much damage to themselves.”
“Republicans overplayed their hand,” Washington University political science professor Steve Smith, a Minnesota native, said. “That’s all feeding into a downturn in support from the public.”
Minnesota Senate GOP: A ‘mini-meltdown’
The 2010 election sweep was felt most keenly in the state Senate, where Republicans broke a veto-proof DFL majority en route to posting the year’s largest proportional partisan gain in any state legislative body in the U.S. The caucus made history in its choice of leadership, too: Sens. Koch and Michelle Fischbach would serve as the first female majority leader and president of the chamber, respectively.
Koch, who was lauded for her work in managing the caucus’ 2010 election effort, quickly became the star on the new GOP leadership team. The three-term senator from Buffalo was often the first to speak at GOP leadership news conferences and events, and was perceived as the steady and consistent voice of GOP hard-liners. Her caucus was the more disciplined in messaging and in votes on the chamber floor. By many accounts, it was Koch who bucked Dayton the hardest on GOP fiscal and social issues when budget negotiations came down to the wire.
But the caucus that made history also garnered a flurry of unwanted headlines as the year came to a close. Late on the afternoon of Dec. 15, Koch sent a letter to her caucus announcing that she was stepping down from her leadership position and would not seek re-election to her Senate District 19 seat in the fall.
The move came as a shock to many of the senators she led, some of whom professed to have heard nothing of her resignation until they received the letter or were contacted by reporters. Koch didn’t cite a specific reason for her resignation, saying only that she did not want to be a “lame duck” leader in 2012.
“It has been a challenging, exciting and exhausting year,” she wrote. “When I was elected by my peers to be the majority leader, we faced a $6.2 billion budget deficit, had 20 new members in our Republican caucus and the task of streamlining and organizing the Senate under the new majority.”
She left the door wide open for speculation and rumor, and the following day, the story blew open. WCCO-TV reporter Pat Kessler reported that sources said Koch resigned after she had been confronted by other senators about an “inappropriate relationship” with a direct subordinate. Within an hour, GOP Senate leaders, including Geoff Michel, David Hann, Dave Senjem and Chris Gerlach, called a Capitol news conference.
“We’re here today with a lot of humility, and some sadness, and even shock,” Michel said at the start of the news conference, in which they acknowledged that the group (minus Senjem, and including Sen. Claire Robling) had confronted Koch two days earlier after hearing multiple complaints from staff that she was having a relationship with a subordinate.
The news conference was immediately criticized by GOP insiders as the wrong approach to the situation, and the criticisms grew louder the following week when it became clear that Michel had fudged the timeline of events — by his account, to protect the identity of GOP Chief of Staff Cullen Sheehan, who told Michel about the relationship. In the news conference, Michel said staff complaints started about two weeks before they approached Koch, but Sheehan later told MPR that he went to Michel about the relationship in late September.
“The way it was handled was a mini-meltdown,” Jacobs said.
In the wake of Koch’s resignation, her executive assistant and communications director, Michael Brodkorb, was fired from the chamber. Brodkorb, who helped orchestrate the Senate GOP’s historic electoral gains, left his volunteer role with Sen. Mike Parry’s congressional campaign shortly thereafter.
Just two days after Christmas, the Senate Republican caucus elected a new leadership team at an 11-hour marathon gathering at the Radisson Hotel in Roseville. They elected Senjem as majority leader, and picked Robling and freshman Sens. Ted Lillie, Paul Gazelka and Roger Chamberlain as assistant majority leaders.
But a new team at the helm does not mean the scandal’s fallout is necessarily over. Hanging over Koch’s return to the Senate is a lingering threat of an ethics complaint. Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk said in a recent letter to Senjem that he would like the majority to investigate the matter itself but did not close the door on filing an official complaint against Koch or possibly Michel, whose role in the matter Bakk singled out as troubling. Brodkorb hired legal counsel after his termination. In the end, many details are still unknown about the chain of events.
“This is a very strange kind of scandal,” Smith said. “In the end, we don’t know much detail. In the typical scandal, by now, we would know who was involved and the nature of the relationship.”
RPM: ‘Ugly, ugly stuff’
The turmoil in the Senate was rivaled only by a similar unraveling within the Republican Party of Minnesota. The drama was triggered by the sudden resignation of RPM Chairman Tony Sutton. On the eve of a GOP state central committee meeting in early December — which was expected to be a heated affair amid controversy over the party’s finances — Sutton announced over Twitter his intention to resign.
“I have worked for the Republican cause my entire adult life,” Sutton wrote in his Dec. 2 resignation letter. “I have made tremendous personal and professional sacrifices to the detriment of my family. I cannot continue to do this.”
His resignation came just more than a month after the resignation of his deputy chairman, Brodkorb, who left to volunteer for the Parry campaign. The move threw the party into chaos just hours before its state central committee was set to meet and pass a budget for the 2012 election year. At the time, the party was facing at least $500,000 in debt and $100,000-plus in remaining payments on a Federal Election Commission (FEC) fine. The uncertainty surrounding party finances — and the pending completion of an internal review led by RNC Committeeman Jeff Johnson and consultant Mike Vekich — led activists to table the budget until their next meeting.
In the meantime, a series of revelations painted a clearer picture of the financial strains on the party and the mounting pressures that likely contributed to Sutton’s resignation. As first reported by Capitol Report, activists learned that Sutton had signed an agreement with lawyers working on the 2010 gubernatorial recount that put the party on the hook to pay legal fees even though a separate corporation, Count Them All Properly Inc., had been created to raise money for the effort. Sutton signed this agreement without the knowledge of other party officials. At that point, the recount debt was known to be upward of $450,000.
“[The Republican Party is] fully committed to pay that fee — not a little of it, all of it,” GOP attorney Tony Trimble said at the time.
Acting party Chairwoman Kelly Fenton, who was elected by activists to replace Brodkorb as deputy chair, called for a Dec. 31 gathering of party activists to hear the results of the financial review, elect a new chairman and pass a 2012 budget. But the morning before activists were set to meet, Fenton, Johnson and Vekich called a news conference to discuss their internal review. The reality: The party’s debt was more than double what was originally known. A closer look at expenses and a sudden influx of invoices from vendors swelled the figure to about $2 million, including what turned out to be $719,000 in recount legal fees. The party plans to contest those fees.
The news led the party’s secretary-treasurer, David Sturrock — the only remaining elected officer from the Sutton regime — to resign the night before the meeting. The next day, GOP leaders fielded a barrage of angry questions from rank-and-file activists, who asked how the party could have so little oversight of its finances.
Activists elected a new chairman, longtime operative and strategist Pat Shortridge, who must set up a plan to pay off the debt while preparing for the 2012 election. The party is also likely to face additional FEC penalties for failing to report its finances accurately.
“It all saddens me,” a prominent GOP operative said. “It’s just a mess. We are not only broke, but we are fighting with lawyers over money, lawyers who have been with us for years and are our friends. It’s ugly, ugly stuff. I don’t see how [the state party is a] factor at all in 2012.”
Smith, Thornton controversies cap year for House GOP
The Minnesota House Republican Caucus, by comparison, had a much quieter year. Negative attention for the caucus seemed to reach its apex in the final days of the 2011 regular session, when the spotlight landed on the chamber’s debate over the anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. The measure had already passed in the state Senate without much noise, but the House was taking longer to bring it up for a vote.
Many thought the caucus might lack the votes for passage. Majority Leader Matt Dean reportedly worked hard behind the scenes to sway on-the-fence members to support the amendment. Others said House Speaker Kurt Zellers was reluctant to take a vote on the bill in the waning days of the session, as they had yet to solve the state’s $5 billion budget deficit. To make matters worse, the day before the chamber took up the amendment, controversial anti-gay-rights pastor Bradlee Dean gave the opening prayer on the House floor, outraging Democrats. While Zellers apologized to the caucus for the prayer, in which Dean questioned the faith of President Barack Obama, the incident drew more attention to an already divisive debate.
The measure passed off the floor in May, but not without hours of passionate floor speeches, angry protests outside the chamber and a total of four Republicans breaking ranks to vote against the bill.
But like its GOP counterparts, the House had its own December dust-up. Amid controversy over the Koch scandal, news broke that Zellers had fired Susan Thornton, the director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). But after a furor ensued and Thornton brought on legal counsel, it was announced that her firing had been suspended.
Then a KSTP TV story this month — citing only “Capitol sources” — alleged that former Judiciary Chairman Steve Smith, who left that position last summer for what were described as personal reasons, had carried on an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer. While House Republican leaders have avoided commenting on the matter, it has only added to the negative attention for the GOP.
“We are a long way from November,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think anything that happened with Koch and the Republican Party is a dire threat, but they will have to work double time to catch up. If they are not able to rebuild the Republican Party, [handle] get-out-the-vote efforts and recruit and support candidates, there’s a real good chance they could lose their majority in 2012.”