One advantage of working in the news media, is that we regularly get the chance to talk at length with our various elected officials. Over the years, we’ve frequently talked with Sen. Tom Bakk, whose long career in state politics will soon come to an end.
While we haven’t always agreed with Sen. Bakk, we’ve always been impressed with his approach to politics, which is focused on results. Sen. Bakk is the kind of politician that voters used to rate highly— effective, non-ideological, and focused on bringing home the bacon.
And we don’t mean “bacon” in a pejorative sense. Throughout American history, voters have sent elected officials to their various capitals to fight for their interests, including as much of their piece of the pie as possible.
“Politics” has long been defined as the art and science of government, and it’s an art and a science that Sen. Bakk was clearly able to master early in his 28 years in elected office. His retirement, along with that of Sen. David Tomassoni, another experienced, non-ideological senator from our region, represents a major loss for voters here.
We certainly weren’t the only ones to recognize that Sen. Bakk and Sen. Tomassoni were cut from cloth much different from most politicians these days. Sen. Bakk spent the vast majority of his years in St. Paul in leadership, including as both minority and majority leader in the state Senate. That he was able to retain that leadership role during a sharply divided era in politics, speaks volumes about his pragmatism and his ability to find common ground, even among the sometimes fractious elements of his own caucus.
When Bakk and Tomassoni left the DFL caucus in the wake of the 2020 elections, it was just another strategic decision that allowed the two senators to leverage a narrow GOP majority in the Senate to further advance the interests of their districts. Bakk landed the key chairmanship of the Senate Capital Investment Committee and Tomassoni was installed as Senate President.
Even as he’s heading out the door, Sen. Bakk is still trying to find a path forward for agreement on the uses for the state’s record budget surplus. He’s been on the phone with leaders in both parties making the case for an agreement that, if reached, will provide real assistance to the region.
Among the major pieces of legislation still in limbo is the omnibus tax bill, which would, among many other things, provide a solution for the Ely School District’s $4 million shortfall in its ongoing school renovation. That project has been hampered by the rising cost of building materials during the COVID pandemic and without a legislative fix, the district is likely to face some very difficult choices. Sen. Bakk had engineered several provisions designed to help Ely as well as the Rock Ridge School District, which is experiencing similar problems with its own building project.
This is what legislators are supposed to do. Sen. Bakk spent his time in St. Paul working on solutions to problems facing his district. These aren’t DFL or Republican problems. They’re just problems and 95 percent of the time, the solutions are practical, not political or ideological.
It’s probably difficult to remember that for many years, up until 1973, legislators in Minnesota were considered non-partisan and didn’t run with party labels, a recognition that they were supposed to be problem solvers rather than partisans.
The various disagreements that are currently holding up most of the Legislature’s work this year are examples of putting politics over problem solving. DFLers, who are certainly at risk of operating in the minority in both the House and Senate next year, should be doing whatever they can to cut a deal with the GOP, but they face pushback from some in their caucus who are more interested in partisan politics. It’s probably worse on the GOP side, where Sen. Bakk notes many Republicans fear they’ll face primaries from extremist groups in their party if they show any willingness to compromise with DFLers.
It’s no wonder that the Legislature can rarely complete its work on time, and that the state regularly runs the risk of partial shutdowns over political brinksmanship. Legislators like Sen. Bakk and Sen. Tomassoni, who regularly put aside partisan considerations to pursue “the art and science of governance,” are an increasingly rare breed in St. Paul. Their absence, beginning next year, will certainly be felt.