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DFL dissension mounts over Bakk’s leadership

Mike Mullen//June 12, 2015

DFL dissension mounts over Bakk’s leadership

Mike Mullen//June 12, 2015

Meeting over beers, Steve Timmer and his friends had been griping about the same thing for years before he finally got around to doing something about it  — or about him, as it were.

Timmer, a retired attorney, liberal blogger and the founder of the “Drinking Liberally” events in Minneapolis, launched an online petition asking for Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk to step down from his leadership post, claiming Bakk had used that position to “exact political revenge” and “divided [his] caucus.”

Petition signatures had passed the 500 mark as of Friday morning, and Timmer said “thousands” had viewed it online. Among the signers is Laura Nevitt, a political consultant and longtime DFL insider, who said Bakk had lived up to, and exceeded, his reputation as someone who values cutting deals over building consensus.

“I think he’s hit his tipping point this session, and pushed a little further than people are comfortable with,” Nevitt said.

No one who knows Bakk, a battle-tested political veteran, thinks a few hundred angry progressives could drive him from office. Not even Nevitt expects the online campaign to get its desired result.

The more intriguing question is how many of Bakk’s fellow caucus members would be interested in signing that petition.

Indeed, the anti-Bakk petition quotes from a letter by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, in helping make the case against the Senate leader. In a message to Bakk, Dibble wrote that the DFL caucus was asked to trust leaders on the final day of the session, and felt it had been let down.

“It is safe to say that trust is not at an all-time high,” Dibble wrote.

That letter, first reprinted by the Star Tribune, is just one piece of evidence in the growing case that Bakk has lost the favor of not only back-benchers, but high-ranking members. No fewer than five committee chairs have said since the session ended that they were forced to vote on major provisions within their jurisdiction that had never been passed out of — or, in some cases, appeared in — their committees before suddenly arriving on the Senate floor.

Each of those provisions was passed as part of omnibus budget bills, though often without the support of the relevant committee chair; despite vetoes, most of the more controversial matters are expected to survive the special session.

The chorus of frustration continued through Thursday, as members prepared to meet as a caucus to go over special session bills. The Thursday night meeting lasted about four hours, or several times the length of any caucus’s meeting that same night. If senators pushed leadership for answers to tough questions, neither they nor Bakk volunteered that information following the meeting. Dibble, pressed for details as he left, had little to say.

Even less willing to inform the press were a half-dozen outstate senators who left the caucus discussion as a group, and offered nothing in the way of insight.

That cadre of senators, along with a few others, have remained loyal to Bakk, both in their end-of-session votes and post-session comments. Aaron Brown, a liberal Iron Range blogger, observed that Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, had taken some of the “blame-slash-heat” for controversial outcomes in conference committees, including the provision to strip power from the state auditor’s office.

Both Saxhaug and Sen. Dave Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, the third Iron Range senator, have spent several weeks trying to convince their constituencies and local media that the session was a positive one, Brown said, adding that he had heard of similarly upbeat discussion at a DFL fundraiser featuring Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

“[Bakk’s] closest allies have really been doing a lot of damage control,” Brown said. “There’s a coalition that any Democrat would need to have to be a leader in that Senate caucus. Bakk may have stretched the elasticity of that coalition a little further than might work.”

That coalition necessarily relies upon a tenuous balance between urban and suburban progressives coupled with moderate, outstate Democrats, with the latter more likely to favor pro-agriculture or pro-mining laws. But many of the metro-area DFLers say their complaints are as much about process as policy.

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, said she had received “no satisfactory explanation” from her leaders for why the Legislature should give counties the option to hire an outside accounting firm instead of using State Auditor Rebecca Otto. Torres Ray also did not know why that law did not come before her Senate State and Local Government Committee.

“I think many of us [in the DFL caucus] have been trying to figure out how we let the public know that these deals really do not represent our wishes, and the process followed was not a process we approve,” Torres Ray said.

Also disappointed in the process was Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, who said the late appearance of numerous controversial proposals had caused a great deal of “anxiety” and “frustration” within the caucus.

“I can say for myself I have yet to get a clear understanding of the justification that our leader has for the negotiations, and the outcomes that he agreed to,” Sheran said. She added that she was looking forward to the Thursday night caucus meeting: “There may be some [justification] that I just haven’t been privy to. But I haven’t heard it yet.”

Sheran and other Democrats have followed the lead of Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, on the most controversial environment and energy positions agreed to by Bakk, a handful of Senate Democrats and large portions of the Republican minority. Speaking generally, Marty said that if the caucus gives in to “people who bully their way to get things in [bills],” those people will only come back for more during the next year.

“A lot of people are saying we’ve got to take a look, as a caucus, at how we want to move forward,” Marty said Thursday. “What happened this session is not acceptable. We, as a caucus, have to have those discussions.”

If those discussions are happening now, they’re not within earshot of Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis. Hayden joked that he would probably be the last senator to learn of a putsch forming against Bakk: Hayden holds the only leadership position in the caucus that is appointed rather than elected, and he serves at the pleasure of the majority leader.

“I don’t know if people would be calling me, of all people,” Hayden said, laughing. “But, in all honesty, no one has called me. No senator has lobbied saying they want to [replace Bakk as majority leader].”

Hayden blames the tension on a “culture shock” that liberals, both in and out of the Legislature, are experiencing after two years of total DFL control. He also said Democrats from districts like his should remember that the seats they lost in the House in 2014 were almost entirely in Greater Minnesota, so it would make sense that this session would slant toward issues of importance to outstate.

Bakk’s strongest support, both before the session and now, at his hour of need, comes from labor, mining and agriculture groups, and the leader has probably not done anything to hurt himself with those interest groups.

Bernie Hesse, a lobbyist for the UFCW Local 1189, said he heard no complaints from union members — or a few DFL senators in attendance — at a labor meeting in early June, and said Bakk is even better positioned to hold that support heading into 2016. Labor groups will want to keep the ear of Bakk, himself a former labor negotiator, with a larger bonding bill on the docket for that session.

And legislators, too, would be wise to heed that fact, lest they lose their leader’s support as the next bonding bill is written — or when the caucus is making decisions on how to allocate its 2016 campaign funds. (Only three Democrats joined Bakk and his closest Senate confidantes to vote for the original agriculture and environment bill; all three are freshmen who represent swing districts.) Hesse used an analogy that might be appreciated most by Bakk, a consummate sportsman.

“If you’re going to shoot the animal make sure you kill it, and not wound it,” Hesse said. “I think that’s a fear.”

But the 2016 elections are a fear for others, too. Dan McGrath, executive director of TakeAction Minnesota, said the biggest threat to his progressive advocacy organization, and its like-minded coalitions, is cynicism. If grass-roots volunteers think their efforts are rendered moot by a fixed political process, they are less likely to get involved in the first place.

McGrath said a number of progressive achievements, including gay marriage, a higher minimum wage, “ban the box” legislation and a tax increase for the richest Minnesotans had only been made possible through broad citizen support.

“We had unprecedented grass-roots involvement,” McGrath said. “And when that’s absent, you see the results — at best, gridlock, and at worst tremendous harm. I think there’s a lesson for Senate leadership, and a lesson for all elected leaders.”

Hesse, for his part, predicted that 2016 would be the time that Bakk and his tight-knit clique would reap the consequences of this session, though not in the way some might think or hope for: Instead of ousting those members from their positions of power, angry liberal activists might produce a few candidates to run long-shot endorsement challenges against DFL senators who cut unpopular deals this year.

“They’re not going to toss Bakk,” Hesse said, assured that the majority leader would hold his position next year. “People are upset, and, internally, the senate caucus has just got to sit down and take a day or two to be shouting at each other.”

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