Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the GOP’s Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee chair, finds himself in something of a power broker position heading into the 2019 legislative session.
Not that you could get him to admit it.
“I’ll let history conclude whether or not I am as powerful as you think I might be on the judiciary committee,” Limmer said.
Heading into session next week, the DFL House is splitting its judiciary and public safety jurisdictions among three committees — two full budget divisions and a corrections subcommittee. It’s a move DFL House leaders say reflects their criminal justice reform agenda.
The Senate, which retains the one-vote Republican majority it gained in 2016, has not followed suit. Its Judiciary and Public Safety committee roster remains unaltered since Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, replaced Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, in early 2018. Limmer, likewise, still holds its gavel.
Three committees against one might sound like a DFL advantage — and to the degree that they get more issues publicly debated, perhaps it is. But in its quirkiness, politics is sometimes less baseball than golf, where a lower tally prevails. Those three House committees must move any bills past Limmer and his committee to get them passed into law.
That gives Limmer considerable power to affect the DFL’s agenda. “It really concentrates and coalesces power in the Senate with Chairman Limmer,” said Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, a key GOP voice in House Public Safety over the past four years; he no longer has a seat on the committee.
“I think he ends up being the linchpin on this thing,” Zerwas said. “He is going to be the director on what moves forward and what doesn’t.”
House Speaker-designate Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, has an innovation in mind to conceivably balance the scales. She said the jurisdiction’s two primary DFL House chairs—Judiciary’s John Lesch and Public Safety’s Carlos Mariani, both of St. Paul—might serve as DFL co-chairs on a future judiciary conference committee, where apparently they would negotiate, two-against-one, with Limmer.
David Schultz, the Hamline University political science professor and attorney, said he has never seen such an arrangement before and isn’t sure it is viable. But the ever-unflappable Limmer isn’t worried.
Hortman would have to change rules on committee structure to pull that off, he said. It is more likely that one of the Democrats will lead conference negotiations, he said, while the other is simply empaneled as a committee member—the same way it has always worked.
As to whether he is the power broker Zerwas describes, Limmer demurs. His power is no greater than any other chair, he said. Besides, he said, it is unclear exactly what DFL leaders mean by “criminal justice reform,” so it is hard to get a gauge on which elements of their plan he might support or oppose.
Yet his oft-stated view that anything passing through his committee needs broad support remains in force, he said. It was that lack of consensus—meaning lack of GOP support—that kept him from steering any DFL gun legislation to the Senate floor last year, for example. He’s not sure how much has changed.
“All I hear about in the news is rather sweeping reform changes—which might be justified,” Limmer said. “I hear controversial issues being revved up. And I am trying to understand where the wide consensus actually is.”
Limmer is among the Legislature’s longest-serving members. He lost his first election to DFL Sen. Tad Jude, DFL-Mound, in 1986. Since then, he has been on a 30-year winning streak. He got elected to the House in 1988 and moved over to the Senate in 1995.
Limmer, a hot-rodder in his youth, came to the Legislature with perhaps slightly hotter blood than he exhibits these days. There was a time in the Eighties, for instance, when he promoted the electric chair as a form of capital punishment in Minnesota.
But it wasn’t long before he began to mellow. He recalls, for instance, how his staunch pro-life views once led him to oppose living wills, which would permit doctors to unplug life support and allow suffering, terminally ill patients to die.
“I thought that perhaps pulling the plug on someone was acting like God,” Limmer said. “It was only when talked to a very conservative medical doctor who told me that keeping a plug in the wall was playing God as well. It gave me a different perspective.”
He said he remains a Reagan Republican with bedrock conservative principles but that, after listening to constituents’ stories over the years he has come to see many more shades of grey. “I try to keep an open mind,” he said.
Limmer is up for a good crusade every now and then, though. He was author of the bill that put a failed gay marriage ban on the ballot in 2012. A staunch privacy defender, he led a successful charge to block Minnesota from signing onto federal Real ID legislation in 2009. It finally passed in 2017, against his strenuous objections.
The 2019 legislative session, in short, is not Limmer’s first rodeo. Nor is it the first time he has seen the House split up similar jurisdictions into numerous committees. House membership is twice as large as the Senate’s, Limmer points out, and its leaders are under pressure to reward longstanding members’ service.
“They have to give out chairmanships to members,” Limmer said. “So they’ll take a single committee and divide it into separate committees so they can spread titles around the caucus. The DFL has done it before and they are doing it again.”
Of guns and guardians
For her part, Hortman points to stark political dynamics that she thinks Limmer—and the rest of the Republican Senate—should pay heed to. To do otherwise, she said, might prove perilous to the Senate’s GOP majority.
For example, Hortman maintains that a big reason Democrats won the House in 2018 was because suburban moms revolted against Republicans on gun-safety legislation. Limmer declined to advance any gun legislation in his committee last year because it was too controversial and lacked consensus, she said.
He could do that again this year. “I am not going to entertain wild-eyed right- wing or left-wing gun proposals,” Limmer said. “I am interested in things that are a real solution to the problem.”
But if he does, Hortman said, Limmer will put several suburban GOP Senators at risk of losing their seats. She lists Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth; Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point; Dan Hall, R-Burnsville; Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake—even Limmer himself—among them.
In suburban districts, where leaders of both parties say that Donald Trump also acted as a dead weight on suburban House Republicans in 2018, gun-safety legislation appears to have traction, Hortman said, and she has placed the issue atop her priority list.
“You can either get with your suburban constituents,” she said, “or you can find a new line of work.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said his caucus is open to discussing gun legislation, but like Limmer, he wants to focus on consensus bills. “I am first looking at safety in schools and mental health within schools and outside,” he said. Those are bills he knows will pass, Gazelka said, and they are his own priorities.
To Limmer, guns are just one log on a big woodpile—one that might provide fuel for legislation in 2019 or that might sit inert for another season. There are many other issues that also need to be dealt with, he said.
His priority for 2019—a budgeting session—is to make sure core government functions get sufficient funding. He lists the courts, corrections, prosecutors and public defenders among those functions. “Everything else is open game because it is not necessarily written into our state constitution,” he said.
Limmer detects consensus among legislators for enhanced penalties on sex traffickers and sex offenders and he will listen to those proposals—though he is unconvinced that longer prison terms are a reliable deterrent. He also wants to help strengthen the state’s embattled guardian ad litem program, he said
Whatever he does, Limmer plans to do it methodically and patiently. George Washington once referred to the U.S. Senate as a “cooling saucer”—a place where hot-button issues go cool off and get slow, more analytical consideration. Limmer sees his role in much those terms.
“We certainly will live up to the expectation of what a Senate should do,” he said.