Politics and Government

Minnesota Senate DFLers pick new leader

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, speaks in support of paid parental leave during a state employee union news conference in 2017. On Saturday the Senate DFL caucus picked Kent to serve as minority leader.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2017

Updated: Feb. 2, 8 p.m. | Posted: Feb. 1, 4:30 p.m.

Democrats in the Minnesota State Senate have picked a new leader.

On Saturday the Senate DFL caucus selected Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury to serve as minority leader, replacing Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook. Kent is the first woman to lead the caucus. It’s also a major shift from Bakk, who represents a rural district in northern Minnesota, to Kent, whose district is in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities.

“It is my privilege to have been as the elected leader of the Senate DFL caucus,” she said in a brief statement after the meeting. “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 have a successful election in November.”

The DFL caucus announced the decision after a marathon six-hour meeting Saturday at a carpenters’ union hall on St. Paul’s east side, not far from the Capitol, where they were meeting behind closed doors.

Senators declined to offer a vote total or characterize the margin of the election as they walked out. Bakk left the meeting without comment about the change or his political future.

In a statement issued Saturday evening, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said Kent “is a progressive champion, and I look forward to working with her as the new Senate DFL leader to improve the lives of Minnesotans. In his many years in the Legislature, Senator Bakk has been a steadfast ally for working people. 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.”

A man at a podium surrounded by colleagues
Senate Minority leader Tom Bakk (center) and Sen. Susan Kent (far right) appeared together in December 2019 to announce a DFL clean energy and climate caucus. Kent defeated Bakk in a bid to lead the Senate DFL caucus.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News 2019

While it’s been controlled by Republicans in recent years, the Minnesota Senate has long been a DFL stronghold; it’s known for the relative longevity of its leadership. The Minnesota Senate has had only six DFL caucus leaders in its history, most of them majority leaders.

Bakk, from Cook, had led Senate DFLers, in the majority and minority, since 2011. He’s been the minority leader for the last four years. Republicans hold a 35-32 majority in the Senate, led by Paul Gazelka, a three-term GOPer from Nisswa.

Bakk has been in the Legislature since 1994, and was elected to the Senate in 2002.

Kent was first elected to the Senate in 2012, beating incumbent Ted Lillie by a 1,924-vote margin. She narrowly beat Republican Sharna Wahlgren in 2016, by just 399 votes — less than 1 percent.

She announced her challenge to Bakk in December. Earlier this week, Kent drew another potentially strong Republican challenge in her own district — from former Woodbury City Council member and Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens.

The Senate is set to convene for the 2020 legislative session on Feb. 11. All 67 senators will be on the ballot in November, for two-year-terms, halved by decennial redistricting following this year’s U.S. Census.

DFL divides

The change in leadership highlights some rural-urban tensions within the party.

"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," said Aaron Brown, a lifelong northern Minnesota resident and political observer.

Brown said there's a cultural battle within the party, between the historically DFL farming and labor bastions of Greater Minnesota, and the increasing numbers of DFLers in the Twin Cities and other urban parts of the state.

"What we see is this enormous cultural conflict, a cultural collision ... a divide between educated, affluent urban areas and resource-based or working-class rural areas. Now, it's not as simple as that. You know, there's working-class people in the cities and there's plenty of affluent people in Greater Minnesota, too. But it's just it it feeds the narrative of this urban and rural divide that we hear about so much."

Brown noted that Bakk pushed heavily for mines and pipelines, which have drawn DFL opposition elsewhere in the state.

"Bakk used his leadership position to do what he could to to aid in the development of both non-ferrous mines (and) pipelines, which have been controversial. And so that's the very difficult path that Bakk had towards the end of his run here, is trying to balance his personal priorities for his district with his responsibilities as the party's caucus leader. And now Sen. Kent inherits that very same problem — though coming at it from a different point of view."

MPR newscaster Emily Bright contributed to this report.

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