Shortly after the Nov. 3 election, Sen. Tom Bakk talked with the Timberjay about his thoughts on the outcome, as well as his goals for his remaining years in the Legislature. Bakk, now 64, has been in office since 1994, and unlike some legislators, he’s not content to merely serve time. He has real objectives. He also has long hours of windshield time as he travels back and forth from his district to St. Paul, which gives him many hours to strategize on how to achieve those goals.
His commitment to completing the development of the Lake Vermilion State Park was at the top of the list of the things he still wants to accomplish in office. Bakk justifiably views the park and its completion as a crowning achievement of his time in the Legislature, one that both serves his district and helps to preserve the Lake Vermilion experience that he enjoyed as a boy for future generations. It’s worth remembering that Bakk worked across the aisle, with then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to create the park, even as he faced opposition from some other DFL legislators on the Range. The Cook lawmaker has always demonstrated a greater interest in results than party loyalty.
In his recent interview, he acknowledged that completing development of the park would be tougher as a member of the Senate’s minority. “It’s painful to be in the minority, but not so painful that I’m going to leave,” Bakk said. So, rather than languish on the outside looking in, Bakk found a way to leverage the GOP’s slim one-seat majority in the Minnesota Senate to enhance his influence and, very likely, bring big dividends for his district.
By leaving the DFL caucus to form his own Independent caucus with fellow Iron Ranger David Tomassoni, Bakk engineered his appointment as chair of the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee, a perch that gives him enormous influence over where state bonding dollars will be invested. Expect the Lake Vermilion State Park to see the dollars it needs to fund additional camping opportunities, trails, and a spectacular lodge. Bakk almost certainly received that commitment from Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka as part of his calculus for leaving his party caucus.
We recognize that Sens. Bakk and Tomassoni have taken their lumps for their perceived abandonment of the DFL. They’ve even been accused of being “kept company men,” as if their decision were somehow related to mining. While both Bakk and Tomassoni were disappointed that the DFL Central Committee narrowly voted for a moratorium on copper-nickel mining, there’s little reason to see their decision as a retaliatory action. Had the DFL won the majority on Nov. 3, the two Iron Range lawmakers would almost certainly have remained within the caucus. While the DFL may be divided on the question of copper-nickel mining, we expect Bakk and Tomassoni will continue to support the same kinds of DFL initiatives they backed for years, whether it’s more funding for education, public infrastructure, strengthening unions, or guaranteeing healthcare access regardless of income. Had it been a repudiation of the DFL and its values, Bakk would have encouraged Iron Range House members to follow suit. He didn’t because he recognized that they are most effective remaining within the DFL caucus, which is in the majority there.
This decision was really an effort to remain effective. It was a clever, strategic decision that enhances the two lawmakers’ influence, allowing them to better serve their districts. They recognized the unique political conditions inherent in a Senate that is both narrowly divided and hyper-partisan and took advantage to enhance their influence. If we view effective politics as the ability to deliver for one’s district, rather than one’s party, it’s tough to find fault in their decision.