Listen Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher news conference
Listen Rep. Steve Sviggum analyzes the new Minnesota Legislature
Smiling House DFLers, many of them first-time officeholders, crowded on the state Capitol steps around the likely new Speaker of the House, Margaret Anderson-Kelliher of Minneapolis. She says the party won the majority for the first time since 1998 because candidates zeroed in on what she says are core issues.
"We have been talking about these issues non-stop for three and a half years. Education, health care. Making sure property taxes are under control in this state," she said.
The DFL picked up 19 House seats in the election, giving them an 85-to-49 seat majority. In the Senate, the DFL majority grew to 44 of the total 67 seats.
They campaigned against recent college tuition increases, rising municipal property tax levies and school referendums, and cuts in health care programs for lower- and some middle-income Minnesotans. Kelliher says DFL leaders intend now to deliver results on those issues.
"We will be focused on these things like a laser beam. We think this is what Minnesotans want us to be talking about," according to Kelliher.
Kelliher says lawmakers will start by ensuring health care coverage for all Minnesota children. She says she sees a Legislature that will find more common ground with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Republican minority and she hopes to work early on to establish good working relationships with them.
What the new majority party will not be talking about, Kelliher says, are divisive social issues, such as a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
In the Senate the issue of abortion is much less likely to surface. The election replaced a majority opposed to abortion rights with a majority that supports the right to abortion.
One of the first orders of business for the expanded DFL majority is to replace Majority Leader Dean Johnson.
Johnson suffered his first election loss in his 30-year political career. Johnson did not respond to interview requests, but issued a statement blaming his defeat on outside groups that poured money and effort into the race to ensure he lost. His race was targeted by groups working to halt state funding for abortions and secure a constitutional ban on gay marriage, who declared victory against Johnson today.
Among the names mentioned as a possible replacement are lawmakers from rural and urban areas of the state. One is Keith Langseth, DFL-Glynson, who says he'll consider the position. Langseth says he expects the Legislature to work on increasing funding for schools and state aid to cities.
"Somehow I think Gov. Pawlenty has to go out with a different attitude than he did four years ago when it was win on everything. Now I think he's going to understand that he's got to sit down and work on some compromises," he said.
University of Minnesota-Morris political science professor Greg Thorson says the now lopsided leads held by Democrats mean they have a much clearer shot at moving ahead with their agenda than even the Republicans had when they held the House majority.
"What that means is no longer will the focus be on these conference committees. We can expect Democrats to be united on enough issues and push forward their legislation and actually force the governor's hand," Thorson predicted.
Outgoing Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum, R- Kenyon, warns of impending tax increases from the Democrats. He also says says Republican issues, such as tougher laws against illegal immigrants and bans on gay marriage and state-funded abortions, will probably not be discussed on either House floor.
"I suspect the Democratic majority will try to do the 'Kumbaya thing.' It's time to come together, it's time to heal; now it's time to heal. I've been trying to get them to heal for eight years and they've been somewhat unwilling to do it."
Sviggum says Minnesota Democratic candidates, some in traditionally conservative suburban districts, got swept into office on a national wave of discontent with the Republican Party over the Iraq War and high-profile scandals.
DFLer Margaret Anderson Kelliher, though, predicts the party's dominant position in the Legislature won't easily be swept away.
"Maybe you could say we were good surfers in terms of that wave. I actually think this is pretty real. I think this is very much where Minnesotans are at," she said.
Both parties will be meeting over the next few days to determine House and Senate leadership positions and committee assignments.