On the eve of the special legislative session this month, long-simmering tensions among DFL senators exploded after an urgent visit by Gov. Mark Dayton.
As the potential for a state government shutdown grew, Dayton had come to them to make his case on a controversial environment bill.
Behind closed doors, according to several senators who were present but who asked not to be named, Dayton launched into a diatribe against Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a powerful political figure who has spent 20 years in the Legislature, the last five of them leading his Senate caucus.
Dayton said Bakk had undermined him at every turn during negotiations with Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt. He accused Bakk of “profound betrayal” by negotiating against Senate DFL positions and coordinating with Republicans on their policy initiatives.
At one point, an incensed Dayton turned to Bakk, seated in a chair behind him, and said, “I can’t trust you,” two senators who were at the meeting told the Star Tribune.
One senator said Dayton then told the group they would have to make their own decision about leadership, “but that if we want anything to be different, something would have to change.”
The governor’s rebuke of Bakk appeared to show a relationship that had deteriorated beyond repair, despite proclamations in early March that the two had overcome a public tussle over pay raises the governor gave his commissioners. At that time, Dayton had accused Bakk of “conniving” and said he had “stabbed me in the back.”
Said Sen. Bev Scalze, DFL-Little Canada: “It’s no secret that the governor and the majority leader are not always on the same page.”
Scalze declined to comment on the private caucus discussions.
A spokesman for Dayton on Friday declined to comment for this story.
A bad beginning
When the Legislature convened in January, a large state budget surplus promised to provide enough opportunity to smooth over political difficulties and allow compromises that would reward all sides. But the atmosphere turned acrimonious almost at once, with Bakk and Dayton regularly charging off in different directions. Republican Speaker Daudt brokered an uneasy truce between the two of after the initial blowup in February.
Toward the end of the session, a loosely formed coalition of DFL senators began expressing deep dismay with Bakk’s overtures to the GOP-controlled House.
Senators began sending letters to Bakk and their colleagues, accusing the majority leader of misleading them and cutting some of them — even committee chairs — out of the loop.
The day after Dayton’s tirade, senators launched into a marathon, 14-hour session.
When they finished, at 2:30 the following morning, DFL senators decided not to go home, but instead to debate the future of their majority leader. The closed-door conversation would last nearly until dawn, several senators later said.
The catalyst for the Saturday predawn caucus meeting was Dayton’s visit two nights before. That Thursday, Bakk “sensed opposition was gathering momentum. He acknowledged the mood and said he anticipated it,” the senator said, adding that Bakk even reached into his jacket and produced an envelope stuffed with ballots.
Bakk was asking for a vote of confidence that would determine whether he would continue to lead the 39-member group or rejoin the rank-and-file.
Bakk, in an interview on Friday, denied that he deliberately undermined Dayton during budget negotiations. He declined to address directly Dayton’s comments to the Senate DFL caucus, citing the confidentiality surrounding that meeting. “I won’t and can’t comment on things that happened in caucus,” he said.
He confirmed that he did intend to give his members a chance at new leadership.
“Yes, I had prepared ballots,” Bakk said. “I just felt I personally needed to know where caucus members were at and if they wanted a change, I wanted to give them an opportunity to have that vote.”
Acknowledging the discontent, Bakk said it was “helpful” that senators were able to air their grievances against him.
He added: “I’ll say this about leadership in general. I think when things go really well, leaders get probably too much credit. When things don’t go well, they probably get more blame than they deserve.”
Bakk supporters are irate at the attention the dissent among DFL senators has received.
Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said she was disappointed that the group’s private discussions regarding Bakk got aired publicly. “I don’t think any dissent is worth discussion,” she said.
Bonoff said of Bakk, “I support his leadership. He is the leader and that’s obviously the will of the caucus.”
Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, another staunch Bakk supporter, said he “has done a superb job” in difficult budget talks with Daudt and Dayton.
“Not every outcome is perfect, and I didn’t vote for all the bills,” she said. “I think he is an excellent negotiator. I was pleased with how he conducted himself on behalf of our caucus.”
Swing and a miss
Bakk, a seasoned union negotiator from Cook, a small Iron Range town, knew his senators were exhausted following the special session, but pressed for the meeting.
“It was the right time,” Bakk said. “Everything was fresh.”
One senator put it differently. “Everyone was completely wiped out,” the senator said, describing the mood and demeanor of that final meeting. “People looked like hell.”
During the often emotional meeting that stretched on nearly to dawn, the loosely organized group of senators attempted to make their case. According to those present, Bakk supporters said they were worried about the consequences of a leadership change going into an election year.
As the meeting dragged on, several senators said, the group hoping for a leadership change started with about 16 in their ranks. But they sensed that key senators who were on the fence were slipping away.
Near the end, Bakk appeared humbled, even remorseful at times, as he led the conversation. Senators said he asked his colleagues for their support to continue as their leader. Otherwise, “his heart would not be in it,” one senator recalled.
From a corner, some applause broke out and then a few others joined in. The tepid clapping subsided and no vote was taken.
Bakk emerged into the morning light having kept his hold on power.