New state Senate leader says social issues won't be major 2017 agenda items

Paul Gazelka
State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, center, is applauded by his fellow Republican Senate members, as he prepares to address the media after he was elected Nov. 10 at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
Jim Mone | AP

Senate Republicans picked Paul Gazelka as their new majority leader last week after winning a narrow one-seat advantage (34-33) over Democrats.

This week, Gazelka and his GOP colleagues were busy setting up a new leadership team, designing a new committee structure and packing up to move into the office space across the street where Senate Democrats currently reside.

"Well, about a week ago this was not anywhere near my radar," Gazelka said.

Gazelka's rapid ascension was the result of a key loss for Republicans in last week's election. Senate Minority Leader David Hann was defeated in his Eden Prairie district even as Republicans won enough seats statewide to take over the majority, pending two recounts. Gazelka praised Hann as an effective and honorable caucus leader, and said he was grateful to be chosen as his successor.

"My leadership style may be slightly different from his," he said. "I don't want to try to fill his shoes. I want to simply use the talents I have."

Gazelka is pro-gun, anti-abortion and supports traditional marriage. Last session, he introduced a bill to allow businesses and organizations, based on religious views, to deny marriage-related services to same-sex couples.

But those aren't necessarily the issues he intends to press during next year's session Gazelka said the approach will be different from the last time Republicans were in charge of the Senate, in 2011 and 2012, when they passed two constitutional amendments voters ultimately rejected to ban same-sex marriage and require a photo ID to vote.

"I think there was an exuberance about we can change everything," Gazelka said. "Those of us that are still here realize that you can't get everything done right away. It doesn't work as well that way. So, we really are interested in building consensus and moving toward the things that we know we need to accomplish."

Gazelka says health care reform, transportation funding and tax relief are the top priorities. He said other issues, including the social issues that he's championed throughout his time in the Legislature, can wait.

Sen. Scott Dibble
Sen. Scott Dibble speaks during a debate over the agriculture and environment bill in summer 2015 at the State Office Building in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News file

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, carried the legislation that legalized same-sex marriage in Minnesota. Dibble said he's extremely concerned about the priorities of Senate Republicans under Gazelka's leadership.

"These bills are going to be heard and they're going to be passed and they're going to be put on the governor's desk," Dibble said. "It's going to be very, very painful and very, very difficult for a lot of Minnesotans, because they're going to be told by the Legislature that they don't count, and they don't matter and who they are aren't welcomed in this state. I think that's a shame."

Despite those concerns, Dibble says he views Gazelka as friendly and approachable, even when it's to discuss deep disagreements about policy.

Senate Republicans are already showing a unified front in praise of their new leader.

Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, who has served alongside Gazelka since 2011, said he thinks the caucus made an excellent choice.

Paul Gazelka
State Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is joined in laughter by Senate Republicans at a question from the media after he was elected Nov. 10 at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
Jim Mone | AP

"I think we're all on the same page. I think we're going to move some real good legislation forward, and I think that we've got a very strong leader."

For Gazelka, being a respectful listener is part of who he is and also part of the plan moving forward as the Senate majority leader.

"I am a person of deep Christian faith. But I respect people and respect that they have different views than mine," Gazelka said. "We're all different. And I think the better we can just honor people, no matter where they're coming from, no matter their position in life, no matter their viewpoints in life, it's amazing what we can do."

Gazelka's approach will be tested next session when the Senate and the Republican-controlled House begin sending bills to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. Gazelka stressed that he's already on friendly terms with Dayton, but he noted that they're both passionate about their differing political beliefs.

"We have goodwill to start," he said.

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