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New Senate leader says he intends to foster consensus

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka says he never considered leading his caucus until outgoing Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie — the presumptive majority leader — lost his re-election bid Nov. 8. “My wife said, ‘You ought to be running for that seat,’” he said. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka says he never considered leading his caucus until outgoing Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie — the presumptive majority leader — lost his re-election bid Nov. 8. “My wife said, ‘You ought to be running for that seat,’” he said. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Here’s something you might not know about Sen. Paul Gazelka, the GOP’s Senate majority leader-elect: He’s an art aficionado — at least as it relates to his wife, Maralee. She specializes in scripture-based performance art, which she calls “live painting.”

“If I can talk her into it,” said Gazelka, R-Nisswa, “I will have some of her art up in my office.”

Another thing: Gazelka is a self-styled adventurer, though at age 57 that now involves less waterskiing and more sightseeing, with the occasional deer hunt tossed in. Here too, he said, he and his wife are in sync. “She is always beckoning me for my next adventure,” Gazelka said.

Certainly, Maralee can be said to have beckoned Gazelka to the greatest adventure of his political career, one that is just about to begin — leading a Minnesota Senate GOP caucus with the slenderest possible majority.

At a Nov. 10 press conference, Gazelka said he never considered leading his caucus until outgoing Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie — the presumptive majority leader — lost his re-election bid Nov. 8. “My wife said, ‘You ought to be running for that seat,’” he said. He did, and he won.

Gazelka has served three Senate terms and one House term since his first election in 2004. He has at times been called a hard-liner, though colleagues say he lacks the thorny exterior often associated with that type. Former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, describes him as “kind and gentle.” Others say he is “often reserved” — a description he likes.

“My wife tells me that I am made for this because I can deal with a lot of friction,” Gazelka said. A St. Paul native who grew up in Virginia, Minnesota, he is the fifth of 10 kids from a Catholic family. He thinks that explains why he is so adept at working with people and keeping his cool.

“Anyone who has a big family knows that the middle child is the great negotiator,” Gazelka said. “So I am able to deal with a lot of stuff.”

Temperate, not moderate

Yet having a temperate demeanor is not the same as being a political moderate, and Gazelka’s conservative bona fides are well-documented. His late, failed amendment to the Democrats’ 2013 gay marriage bill, for instance, would have allowed private businesses to deny wedding services to same-sex couples on religious grounds.

He staunchly opposed building a new Senate office building — though he announced on Nov. 10 that his Republican Senate colleagues would soon move into those new digs after a year of resisting.

He will admit to chafing if he senses unfairness gaining the upper hand in the political process, but losing political battles fair and square does not bother him — that’s simply part of governing, he said. Republicans tried hard to stop the Senate building, he said, and failed. So it’s time to move on. “That is in the rearview mirror as far as I am concerned,” he said.

He has no problem if anyone categorizes him as a social-fiscal conservative with a Main Street Republican bent. This is a man, after all, who wrapped up his bachelor’s degree in business at Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“I was looking for a Christian college that had high academics,” he said. “I just happened to be referred to that college.” Right after graduation he moved back to Minnesota, following his father at age 23 into a career in insurance.

Still, Gazelka does not think of himself as a hard-liner. “I’m a bridge-builder,” he said.

He likely will have to be. His 34-member Senate caucus has exactly one more member than the DFL. That will require him to lead by consensus while brooking no internal dissent — no easy trick. “We have to find the things that we agree on and work on those,” he said. “That is my commitment to our caucus.”

Familiar situation

The situation Gazelka walks into is not unlike the one former Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, faced when she took over as Senate majority leader in January 2011. Hers was the first Republican Senate majority in 40 years. It also came paired with a GOP-dominated House and an executive suite occupied by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

It was perhaps the most turbulent biennium in living memory, marred by a 20-day state government shutdown (for which voters later punished Republicans at the ballot box). It saw a $6 billion budget deficit, failed GOP-sponsored constitutional amendments on marriage and voter ID, and Koch’s messy ouster and resignation late in the term.

Koch predicts the going will be easier for Gazelka. While health insurance is in crisis, there is no massive deficit to deal with this time around, she said. Additionally, Gazelka’s caucus will enjoy four-year majority tenure; Koch’s was truncated by two years because of redistricting.

Perhaps Gazelka’s key advantage, Koch said, is that he captains an experienced crew. When she led, only Sen. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, had ever held a gavel, and that was when he was a House member. Gazelka’s caucus, by contrast, includes several members who have previously chaired committees. Most of his assistant leaders are well-seasoned, and Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, the first female Senate president, will return to that post.

“They have been there,” Koch said. “So they really understand the full budget.”

Not everyone is so confident, naturally. Javier Morillo, the labor leader and progressive activist, worries that Gazelka’s nods toward collegiality might actually be head fakes and that taking up arms as a “culture warrior” may prove too tempting for a leader of Gazelka’s political stripe to fully resist.

On the other hand, Morillo said, it might not be up to Gazelka. Morillo’s Republican friends assure him that GOP senators are uninterested in a repeat of 2011-12. “Hopefully, the caucus around him will say no even if that is the direction that he himself wants to go,” Morillo said.

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, has a similar take — albeit with greater personal confidence in Gazelka. Senjem said four years ago that the 21 freshmen senators of 2010 were eager — perhaps overeager — to institute immediate and sweeping changes.

Now, after attending this month’s caucus meeting where Gazelka was named majority leader, he senses the 12 brand-new senators are a more patient lot. “I think we will stay the course on what we might call the important economic issues of the state,” he said.

Senjem notes, too, that there is strong political experience among the newcomers. For example, Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, was a former deputy chief of staff to Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

No one believes that Gazelka will totally shed the conservative identity that attracted his district’s voters to him. Yet, newly tapped Assistant Senate Majority Leader Gary Dahms said Gazelka knows that this is not the time to wage cultural battles from the Senate floor.

“I do not believe for one minute that Paul will be unable to do a good job leading because of his strong stand on some issues,” said Dahms, R-Redwood Falls. “Paul understands timing.”

Session goals

Gazelka’s first priority for the 2017 session will be a long-term fix to the health insurance crisis, though he expresses openness to Dayton’s near-term premium rebate solution — assuming that is not dealt with in a special session before Gazelka is sworn in.

Beyond that, Gazelka wants last session’s failed bonding bill and long-term transportation funding passed, and he wants to revive a vetoed tax bill that included tax credits and cuts for seniors, agricultural interests, parents and students. “If we do those three things and nothing else in this first year,” Gazelka said, “we will have done a lot.”

For that to happen, he said, cooperation, not confrontation will be required, and he means to hold his caucus to that standard. “When I talked to the governor recently I said, ‘I know that for us to accomplish something, it has to be a win for both sides,’” Gazelka said. “If we do that, I am convinced that Minnesota will come out the winner.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the party affiliation of newly elected Sen. Matt Little of Lakeville. He is a Democrat.

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