REGIONAL - Just days before the start of a new legislative session, Iron Range political clout took a hit Saturday when influential District 3 Sen. Tom Bakk, of Cook, was ousted as the leader of …
REGIONAL - Just days before the start of a new legislative session, Iron Range political clout took a hit Saturday when influential District 3 Sen. Tom Bakk, of Cook, was ousted as the leader of Senate DFLers.
After six hours of closed-door deliberations, Susan Kent of Woodbury, a Twin Cities suburb, was elected to replace Bakk, ending his nine-year run as leader of the DFL caucus.
Caucus members, including Bakk, were uniformly tight-lipped after the marathon session, declining to comment on internal deliberations. However, Kent, the first woman to lead the Senate DFL caucus, made a brief statement after the meeting.
“It is my privilege to have been elected as the leader of the Senate DFL caucus,” Kent said. “This is an important year. We have a lot of important issues facing Minnesotans and we are committed to working hard to deliver for those people and our communities and to have a successful election in November.”
Elected to the Senate in 2002 after eight years in the House, Bakk had led the chamber’s DFL caucus since 2011 as both minority and majority leader. His role in shaping the party’s legislative initiatives and direct involvement in end-of-session negotiations with the governor and other legislative leaders helped keep Iron Range issues at the fore of discussions in St. Paul.
“In politics, access and power are important,” said Aaron Brown, an Iron Range political writer. “Bakk had that. When you’re not at the table it’s a little more nerve-wracking. Bakk used his leadership position to do what he could to aid in the development of both non-ferrous mines (and) pipelines, which have been controversial. Now he and other local legislators will need to convince other legislators to take up their issues in negotiations.”
Kent’s ascension to DFL caucus chair reflects broader shifts in the state’s cultural and political landscape, Brown said.
“The outcome of this debate within the DFL caucus was always going to happen at some point,” Brown said. “Most of the Democratic votes are in the metro and suburban parts of the state. Symbolically, seeing Senator Bakk lose his bid to keep his leadership position is one final sign that the loss of clout in greater Minnesota is continuing. And people have strong feelings about that.”
With DFL sights set on recapturing the majority in the Senate in the upcoming November election, Republicans wasted little time trying to turn Bakk’s dismissal to their advantage in a statement issued Monday by Senate majority leader Paul Gazelka.
“I want to speak to the folks on the Range,” said Gazelka. “The Democrats have turned their back on you. I just want it to be crystal clear— when they threw out Tom Bakk as their minority leader, a legend frankly, doing great work for mining, paper mills and all the work up there, and now they have somebody from the Cities, it’s a different day. Republicans have your back up on the Range.”
Brown suggested Bakk’s situation could have some effect on area legislative races.
“Sen. Bakk and other local legislators have enjoyed some crossover appeal with Trump voters,” he said. “Will that hold up if they don’t have the political power? That could open up the possibility of there being a more competitive race.”
While speculation swirls about the implications of the leadership change in the Senate, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, issued a statement Saturday acknowledging Bakk’s contributions.
“In his many years in the Legislature, Sen. Bakk has been a steadfast ally for working people,” she said. “As my partner and leader of the DFL Senate, he has been a trusted resource and friend. He deserves our gratitude and appreciation for his service.”
Minnesota Public Radio contributed reporting for this story. You can hear MPR News at 89.3 in Ely and 92.5 on the Iron Range.