After enduring one of Minnesota public life’s most humiliating episodes in recent memory, former GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch has turned the page.
She bought and now manages a bowling alley, the Maple Lake Bowl, and helps run a property-management business in Buffalo, both of which keep her hopping. She is helping her 18-year-old daughter, Rachel, prepare for college, with hopes of landing a spot at Vanderbilt University. And this year she finished the online MBA degree that she had been pursuing since her Senate years.
So how is she doing?
“I’m doing so good,” she says. “I’m loving what I’m doing right now.”
It’s 11 a.m. and the Maple Lake Bowl regulars have not yet begun filtering in. Koch, 42, offers a cup of coffee across the bar.
“There is a lot of opportunity out there,” she says. “There are a lot of options open, and I am exploring a few things. I am enjoying my time here and I am enjoying my friends. And I think that I am finally to the point where …”
She doesn’t finish the thought before another leaps forward.
“When you go through something difficult, everybody has this cliché: ‘You go through the fire and come out hardened steel,’” she says. “You get tougher and you get smarter.
“I guess they are clichés because they are true.”
The “something difficult” that Koch endured is exceedingly well-documented.
While a senator, Koch was involved in an extramarital affair with a staffer, Michael Brodkorb. Several colleagues found out about it and confronted her in a late-night meeting. She never admitted anything to them, but offered to quietly resign her leadership post for “personal reasons” while pledging not to seek re-election.
That was Dec. 14, 2011. The next day, she held up her end of the bargain.
Then, to her shock, two days after word of the affair leaked online, four male colleagues — GOP Senators Geoff Michel, Chris Gerlach, David Hann and David Senjem — hastily assembled a press conference to publicly air allegations that Koch had been romantically involved with an unnamed staffer and that the affair was poisoning the Senate work environment. That, they explained, is why Koch had to bail out.
It remains a painful and touchy subject, and one Koch is tired of discussing. She did state publicly several times in the media early last year how betrayed she felt, but nowadays she prefers not to “beat up on anybody.” Or, really, to discuss anything about that episode.
“I’ve never been a victim in this — I don’t really speak about it,” she says. “I had this incredible seven years. And then I had this very difficult time.”
Koch was Minnesota’s first female — and its shortest-tenured — Senate majority leader. Elected in 2005, she rose rapidly as one of her party’s brightest stars. She accepted a “thankless task” of recruiting GOP candidates to compete in the 2010 election, and ended up engineering a historic Republican takeover.
“I needed to pick up 13 seats, which nobody thought we were going to do — I mean, nobody,” she recalls. “I knew we could. I had looked at the numbers. I always said my number was nine to 14. We picked up 16.” It was the largest turnover of any state Senate in the country that year.
Less heralded, but also true: Koch presided over the first-ever all-female team of Minnesota Senate power brokers. During the single year of her leadership, all five of the most powerful Senate positions — majority leader, Senate president, tax committee chair, full finance committee chair and president pro tem — were occupied by women.
“That story was never written,” she says.
Koch can point to a number of personal triumphs during her tenure. Having grown up in the family utilities business, she voted for the 2007 renewable energy standard that requires electrical utilities to generate 25 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2025.
In her freshman year she fought hard, and over the objections of powerful former Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis — “the queen mother of health care in this state,” Koch calls her — to get a radiation cancer center built in her home district.
“Two or three years later, both my mom and my sister had radiation at that center,” she says. “And then I fully understood what it meant to have something close, what that meant in people’s lives and what I was accomplishing.”
Not all was smooth sailing, of course. During her majority leader stint in 2011, the state government shut down in a standoff over taxes: Gov. Mark Dayton wanted to raise them on the wealthy, and the GOP’s House and Senate majorities refused. At midsummer, a compromise budget deal was finally arranged that turned a $5 billion deficit into a $1 billion surplus. Koch considers that another triumph.
Koch also authored a 2009 bill to put a constitutional ban on gay marriage on the ballot. Though it went nowhere that year, the same measure passed in 2011 — though she was not then listed as an author. It ultimately proved disastrous for Republicans, proving a factor in their defeat at the ballot box in 2012.
In personal terms, however, nothing was quite as disastrous or painful as that Dec. 16, 2011, press conference. Until she is persuaded that it might help illustrate how determined she is to set her sights firmly on the future, Koch does not want people to know that she has never viewed video footage of that event.
“I never will watch it,” she says. “I don’t have any interest in it.”
Perhaps that is understandable. Besides the public humiliation, it proved personally ruinous. Koch’s husband, Christopher, knew about her relationship with Brodkorb, she says, and they were trying to work out an amicable split. They remain friends. Mainly, she says, they wanted to wait for Christmas and daughter Rachel’s birthday to pass before telling her about a divorce. Instead, her Senate colleagues did it for her in the media.
When it rains, it pours. A few weeks later, Koch’s terminally ill mother died. Then, in July 2012, Brodkorb filed a discrimination suit against the Senate, ultimately settled, that dredged up details of their relationship and served to keep the matter fresh in the public mind as Republicans were heading into what turned out to be disastrous fall elections.
“I was just really ready to be done with 2012,” she says. “That’s all I’ll say.”
It is not that she wants to erase that period from memory, she says. “I don’t,” she says. “It’s a part of who I am. And I really have grown and learned from it.”
The point, she says, is that while it may be OK to glance occasionally at the past, it is unhealthy to linger there. “I don’t want to stare at it,” she says. “I don’t want people to stare at it.”
In any case, she assures everyone, her life is hardly at a standstill. Indeed, there has been some public evidence that, at some point, Koch hopes to return to public service. Her face and name have begun popping up in the public arena, in political contexts.
In October, she participated in a debate on the minimum wage that was broadcast from her Maple Lake bowling alley. It pitted Koch — who opposes a wage hike — against advocate Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. The debate was the result of brief Twitter skirmish between the two.
On Jan. 17, she appeared as a panelist on TPT’s political affairs show “Almanac,” where she let her fiscal conservative flag fly over the issue of bonding.
“Every time, I wish for a bonding bill that would focus on the things that we’re supposed to be bonding for,” she said on the program, listing infrastructure and transportation among the key priorities legislators should focus on. “Leave the honey-baked hams and the pork out of it.”
She has been performing some low-level volunteer groundwork in her district on behalf of Tom Emmer’s gubernatorial campaign. She is less involved in formal party activities, she says, though on the night of her Feb. 4 interview with Capitol Report, she was planning to attend her local Republican caucus.
So is calculus involved in any of this? Maybe, but it is not part of some “grand scheme,” she insists.
“I like that stuff,” she says. “I also enjoyed my time in office. But there are a lot of ways to serve. I wish that people would focus on that.”
Hamline political science professor David Schultz thinks it probably is best if Koch avoid overtly entering the fray, particularly as a candidate, at least for the foreseeable future.
Fairly or unfairly, he says, many in the party hold Koch’s travails responsible for the party’s trouncing at the polls in 2012 that gave Democrats complete control of state government.
What’s worse, Schultz says, Koch may now be considered too moderate for the emerging Republican Party. Not that she really is a moderate, Schultz says; she is anything but. But party activists who Schultz has heard tag former Gov. Tim Pawlenty “a closet socialist” are not likely to warm to one of his acolytes, especially in the wake of scandal.
That points to yet another problem: Women leaders who either lose races or succumb to personal controversy seem to spend more time wandering the wilds of political exile than do men, in Minnesota and elsewhere. Koch seems to have compounded that existing problem, Schultz says, by expressing bitterness in the press last year about the way she was treated.
“I think she defied the boys’ club,” Schultz says, adding that Koch remains “in the penalty box.”
As for a political future, Koch says she rules nothing in or out. When the time comes to make that decision, she, her friends and her family — and no one else — will make it.
“I am not going to let media, I’m not going to let other colleagues, pundits and folks that are not involved in that conversation, slam a door in my face,” she says. “Not ever. That is what I know for sure.”
The Koch File
Name: Amy Koch
Job: Owner, Maple Lake Bowl; former Minnesota Senate majority leader
Grew up in: Buffalo
Lives in: Buffalo
Family: Single, one daughter
Education: Buffalo High School. B.A., Russian, St. Cloud State University; MBA, Cappella University online
Hobbies: Politics, reading. Most recent book finished: Ember Reichgott Junge’s “Zero Chance of Passage”
Random fact: Koch is a former Russian linguist for the U.S. Air Force and National Security Agency.