ST. PAUL — In a game of political chess leaders say is intended to prevent a "fiasco" in the Minnesota Legislature down the line, the state Senate near-unanimously elected a new Democratic president in the GOP-controlled body.
GOP leadership on Thursday, Nov. 12, made the move in preparation for a possible Biden administration appointment from Minnesota's congressional delegation, which could potentially trigger a series of executive and legislative leadership shuffles.
Senators voted 63-4 to install Iron Range moderate Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, as Senate president, breaking tradition for the leadership role to be held by the majority party. Earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told MPR that the move was in preparation for the potential appointment of Minnesota's Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar to President-elect Joe Biden's cabinet.
Should Klobuchar get a cabinet nod, Minnesota politicos speculate Democratic Gov. Tim Walz would nominate his lieutenant governor, Democrat Peggy Flanagan, to assume Klobuchar's then-empty seat. If that were to happen, the state Senate president would automatically rise to fill the seat of lieutenant governor.
The hypothetical scenario has precedent: Nearly three years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Al Franken resigned from his seat and former Gov. Mark Dayton appointed his Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to Franken's seat in Congress. Republican state Senate President Michelle Fischbach then rose to the lieutenant governor position but refused to leave her leadership position in the Senate, prompting several court challenges.
In 2018, Republicans held the same one-vote edge in the chamber that they are set to have moving into 2021. And losing one vote — had they kept a Republican Senate President who then got promoted to lieutenant governor — even temporarily, could be the deciding factor on key issues lawmakers are set to face. Additionally, when a Senate president hypothetically rises to fill the lieutenant governor seat, that Senate district would see a special election — prompting a potential flip.
“We’re going to take preemptive steps to make sure we don’t have to go through that fiasco again,” Gazelka told MPR, noting he believed Klobuchar would get an appointment to the Biden administration given her involvement with his campaign. Klobuchar, herself, though has said that she's focusing on her current job.
Gazelka and former Senate President Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, on social media said the switch in leadership would likely be temporary and Miller planned to return to the position in 2021.
In a virtual news conference Thursday morning, Minnesota House Democratic leadership didn't offer their thoughts on the new Senate leadership, dismissing the movement as "games."
"People are dying and they’re playing parlor games," House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said. "It's irresponsible."
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said it is "all a little bit premature" to speculate on hypothetical questions that could arise weeks or even months down the line.
"Really, the reason we are being called in today is to determine whether or not the governor should continue to have emergency powers pursuant to Minnesota law and the answer is yes," she said. "The rest of that does look a little bit like games."
Nonetheless, Tomassoni noted the historic nature "since the advent of partisan politics in the Legislature" of being a member of the minority party presiding over the Senate.
"Hopefully this is the beginning of working across the aisle and coming up with bipartisan solutions," he said. "We have just gone through a tough election cycle and we need to bring people together rather than form battle lines."