Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

DFL majorities pick their leaders

Charley Shaw//November 9, 2012

DFL majorities pick their leaders

Charley Shaw//November 9, 2012

Newly elected Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, right, appears with Sen. Katie Sieben, who will be assistant majority leader when the Legislature convenes. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Bakk and Thissen take top spots; now comes wrangling over committee chairs

Close on the heels of Tuesday’s election, members of the new DFL House and Senate majorities gathered behind closed doors on Thursday to elect their leaders. As expected, the minority leaders who helped steer Democrats back into control — Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook — were elevated to House speaker and Senate majority leader.

There was more drama concerning the caucus picks for number-two positions. Issues of gender and regional balance figured prominently in those elections: Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, was elected assistant majority leader. Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, was elected Senate president over former President Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul. And Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, won the House majority leader position.

The Senate also held elections for the two most powerful committee chairmanships: Finance and Taxes. Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, once again received the Finance gavel that he long held before the DFL lost control of the chamber in 2010. Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearwater, was elected Taxes chair in a contest with suburban Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope. With Rest losing the Taxes contest, the election of Sieben as assistant leader was seen as important for giving suburbanites, who played a key role in this week’s elections, a voice at the top level of the caucus.

Suburban and greater Minnesota representation in leadership roles is particularly important, because that’s where the battleground districts for DFLers are located.

In the House, Murphy beat out rural Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dillworth, for the majority leader slot. The selection of two top leaders from the Twin Cities urban core breaks with a custom of choosing leaders based on geographic balance considerations. But Murphy’s selection reflects her work in recruiting the incoming House DFL freshman class and her ceaseless round-the-state campaigning on behalf of her recruits.

With the top leadership elections settled, the days and weeks ahead will be dominated by the byzantine process of choosing committee chairs. The selection of chairs has historically been based on seniority. That method will loom large as leaders try to harmonize entire classes of caucus members with their new list of standing committees. One interesting dynamic involves the Senate DFLers who were elected in the Democratic wave of 2006 and could now make the cut for chairs.

“Based upon seniority right now, a lot of those folks from ’06 are going to be eligible for committees because of retirements and everything else that has happened,” said one DFL observer.

Bakk confirmed as much to reporters on Thursday. “There’s a very good chance,” he said, “that Senate incumbent members that were sworn in in 2007… could end up as chairs depending on the number of committees that we have.”
Thissen declined to comment on the seniority thresholds for the House.

Observers are already handicapping the races for the remaining gavels in both chambers. Here’s a committee-by-committee look at how those assignments may come down:


In the House, Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, is expected to regain the Taxes gavel that she held when the DFL controlled the majority from 2007 to 2010. In the Senate, where the Taxes chair is elected by the caucus, both Skoe and Rest had extensive experience in tax matters; Rest served as Taxes chair when she was in the House, and Skoe, who has been on Taxes since 2003, was chairman of the property tax subcommittee before the DFLers lost the majority in 2010. He’s regarded as a pragmatist from greater Minnesota whose sensibilities should mesh well with a number of the incoming suburban and rural freshmen, according to one DFL observer.

Health and Human Services

Longtime Health and Human Services Chair Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, left the Senate to take a job at Hennepin County after the DFL lost the majority. There are two names floating around for the job: Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, has said he wants the gavel. Sources who follow health care say that Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, is also being mentioned and is believed to have the favor of Bakk.

Marty has the fourth-longest seniority in the Senate. He is also one of the most liberal members of the caucus and an ardent supporter of single-payer health care, which will prompt objections to his bid from more moderate members of the caucus. In the House, former Health and Human Services Finance Chair Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, is likely to return to his old committee. If there is a separate health care policy committee in the House, as expected, Rep. Tina Liebling is a possible candidate because she was the lead DFLer on the Health policy committee in the last two years and represents the health care center of Rochester.

Finance/ Ways and Means

Cohen, who was unanimously elected Finance chair, previously chaired the committee from 2003 to 2010. The way the House will structure its top spending committee could be different from the last time DFLers were in control. Between 2007 and 2010, DFLers found a way to accommodate veteran caucus members Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, and Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, by forming two committees: Finance and Ways and Means. In light of Solberg’s 2010 defeat, Carlson probably won’t have to share the House’s top fiscal position.

Capital Investment

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is hoping to return to the chairmanship of the committee that writes bonding bills. She held the gavel on that committee during the previous DFL reign. The big question is in the Senate, where someone new will fill the shoes of retiring Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon. The obvious choice in terms of seniority and committee experience is Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. Pappas has served on Capital Investment since 2003. She was also chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, which covers an area that features prominently in the bonding bill. But Pappas was elected Senate president, and Bakk indicated she will carry significant administrative responsibilities for planning the Midwest Region of the Council of State Governments meeting that’s planned for Minnesota in 2013 and the National Conference of State Legislatures convention that will be in Minnesota in 2014. It’s possible that former Senate President Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, who lost to Pappas in the election for Senate president, will get Capital Investment as a consolation prize.


Competition for Transportation chair will likely be fierce due to the perennial divide between transit advocates from the metro area and bridge-and-road-oriented legislators from greater Minnesota.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, has a long track record of advocating for transit on the committee. He has the seniority and is interested in being chairman. Road builders who fear Dibble is too transit-focused may lobby for the committee to be divided between finance and policy committees or to see a subcommittee created. Some Capitol watchers are wondering if Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, could become the favorite of greater Minnesota transportation interests, although he’s lacking in seniority.

In the House, Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, was previously transportation policy chair and for the last two years has been the DFL lead on the Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. He said he plans to keep transportation issues front and center as a legislator. There’s an unparalleled situation regarding Rep.-elect Ron Erhardt, DFL-Edina. Erhardt served nine terms in the House as a Republican and was ousted by his own party. For part of that time, he was chairman of the Transportation Policy Committee. Erhardt has said he’s been told he can carry his seniority forward in the DFL Caucus, which would put him among the top ten most senior caucus members and in line for a gavel.

K-12 Education

While many veterans of the Senate DFL Caucus have departed in the last two years, former K-12 Education Finance Chair LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, remains. First elected to the Senate in 1982, Stumpf has the most seniority in the Senate, which gives him the clout to go just about wherever he wants.

A more controversial figure on education issues is Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. She was first elected in a special election in 2005 and now possesses sufficient seniority to be in line for a gavel. Bonoff has drawn praise from the business community and criticism from teachers unions for some of the education policies that she has championed.

In the House, where former K-12 Finance Committee Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, is retiring, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who previously chaired the K-12 Education Policy and Oversight Committee, is becoming one of the most senior members of the caucus and stands as a likely choice to run K-12 Education Finance.


Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, is likely to return to the Environment Finance Committee she led when the DFL last controlled the House. Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who at that time was chairman of the environment policy committee, has been elected to the Senate. It’s uncertain whether Environment will be a single committee or split between policy and finance areas.

In the Senate, where former chairwoman Ellen Anderson has retired, Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, is in position for the job after having served in the past as chairman of forestry and game and fish subcommittees. Saxhaug said he’s interested in being Environment chairman. Lobbying over the committee will center around whether its membership represents a pro-business or pro-environmental tilt — or, as some refer to it, whether the committee is “brown” or “green.”


The DFL House and Senate are bereft of long-time agriculture committee chairmen. Sen. Jim Vickerman, DFL-Tracy, retired in 2010 and Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, was defeated that same year. Among senior members of the Senate DFL with much knowledge of ag, the pickings are slim. One possibility is Sen.-elect Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who is entering the freshman class but served on agriculture committees for most of the five terms he served in the House.

Insiders will recall that Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, became Agriculture Committee chairman in 2010 in his first year in the Senate after coming over from the House. Eken pulled off a hard-fought election win in the Red River Valley and is somebody the caucus will want to promote. Another former House member turned senator who has an ag background is Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City. Koenen was elected to the Senate from the House in a special election earlier this year, which on paper gives him more seniority than Eken.


The Senate DFL’s former Commerce chair, Linda Scheid, died from cancer in June 2011. Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is a possible candidate for the Commerce gavel. Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, oversaw Commerce when House DFLers last held the majority, and he was the lead minority member on the panel during the last two years. This year, however, Atkins has so far declined to disclose his committee preferences.

Top News

See All Top News

Legal calendar

Click here to see upcoming Minnesota events

Expert Testimony

See All Expert Testimony