Basking in their newly regained majorities, DFLers on Tuesday said their coming agenda could be summed up in a single word: Progress.
Having turned the tables on the Republican rout of 2010, DFLers have consolidated power in the State Capitol in a way not seen since 1990, with solid majorities in the House and Senate and a DFL governor.
"I was asked many times what would happen with a DFL governor and a DFL Legislature and I said, 'Progress,' " Gov. Mark Dayton said. "That's our responsibility now."
Dayton was joined by Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who is in line to become Senate majority leader, and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, who hopes to become House speaker. Asked if they are planning to move ahead with tax increases on wealthy Minnesotans, as Dayton has advocated, or legalize same-sex marriage, which the defeat of the marriage amendment makes possible, the three leaders appeared wary of committing to either course.
Dayton said he has no immediate plans to call for a tax hike and Thissen urged more public discussion of the same-sex marriage issue before embarking on legislative action.
The first task for the governor and new legislative leaders may be to sort out the parameters of their own relationship. Dayton, Thissen and Bakk know each other well -- all three ran for governor in 2010 -- and worked closely over the last two years at the Capitol.
But then they shared a common purpose -- and a common political rival in the Republicans who controlled the Legislature.
Newly in charge themselves, they quickly called for bipartisan cooperation. At a news conference Wednesday, Dayton even read from Republican Mitt Romney's concession speech, praising it for its graciousness.
Outgoing House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, cautioned that neither Republicans nor Democrats can afford to get too comfortable with the perks of power. "Minnesota is one of those states that will ebb and flow back and forth," he said. "I absolutely expect next election ... there will be a little bit of a correction."
A key factor in the current correction was the marriage amendment, which along with the defeated voter ID proposal, was placed on the ballot by GOP legislators in what some said was a strategic move to drive Republican turnout. Instead, DFLers said the issues sparked a backlash that helped turn out the Democratic base.
Zellars refused to second-guess the decision to put either amendment on the ballot.
"We put it on the ballot because we believed, and the majority of members of the Legislature believed, that it was the right thing to do," said Zellers, who kept his seat.
Following strong elections in 2006 and 2008, the DFL had built up huge advantages -- a 40-vote margin in the House and a 25-vote advantage in the Senate. In 2010, that all vanished as Republicans gained a 10-vote lead in the House and a seven-vote margin in the Senate.
Now Republicans are the ones departing, while DFLers prepare to move back into the seat of power. The turnaround means DFLs now hold 54 percent of House seats -- 73 out of 134 -- and 58 percent of Senate seats, or 39 out of 67. Those numbers could still shift a bit because of two recounts: Rep. Mary Franson, a first-term Republican from Alexandria, holds a single vote lead over DFLer Bob Cuniff. In Northfield, DFLer Kevin Dahle has an 82-vote lead over Republican Michael Dudley.
Democrats unseated at least eight first-term House Republicans. In the Senate, six GOP members elected in 2010 were ousted, including Sen. Ted Lillie in the swing district of Woodbury. The suburb elected a GOP senator in 2002, a DFLer in 2006 and Republican Lillie in 2010.
That kind of back-and-forth politics resulted in the return of at least eight DFL legislators felled by the 2010 GOP sweep.
A particularly surprising flip came in Edina, once emblematic of old money Republicans. DFLers took every available seat. One of those was the venerable Ron Erhardt, who represented the area as a Republican for 18 years until he voted for a gas-tax increase in 2008 and lost a primary challenge. On Tuesday Erhardt took back his seat -- as a DFLer.
"I think the folks in that district have finally had the shades lifted on what kind of candidates the Republicans have been kicking out," he said.
Many races upon which the DFL built its majority were close. That argues against moving too aggressively, said former DFL legislator Roger Moe, the state's longest-serving Senate majority leader.
"The state is pretty much split down the middle," Moe said. "I think it is important for the Democrats to learn from what the Republicans did, which was that they kind of over-reached, particularly in terms of these constitutional amendments."
Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042