An odd episode in Minnesota political annals ended Friday as Republican Michelle Fischbach dropped one of the dual roles she has juggled since January. Fischbach resigned the state Senate seat she has occupied for nearly 22 years and became, unambiguously, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, first in line of succession should DFL Gov. Mark Dayton be unable to complete his term.
Her move brings welcome clarity to a situation that had been a subject of partisan argument since Jan. 4, when former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith resigned that office to assume the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Al Franken. The Minnesota Constitution says that “the last elected presiding officer of the Senate” — in this case, Fischbach — “shall become lieutenant governor in case a vacancy occurs in that office.”
Fischbach refused to take the oath of office or accept the lieutenant governor’s salary for nearly five months, insisting that she was merely “acting lieutenant governor” and that she could remain in the Senate. DFLers disagreed; a pending lawsuit argued that she was no longer eligible for Senate service. That suit was expected to be withdrawn Friday, leaving to armchair speculators the question of whether her simultaneous service in two branches of government was constitutionally permissible.
The attention of the state’s political class quickly pivoted to more practical considerations. Fischbach’s exit from the Senate leaves that body divided evenly between the two parties, 33-33. Regrettably, that lessens chances for the special session we’d like to see this summer or fall to correct some of the ill effects of this year’s lawmaking failures. District 13 voters will choose Fischbach’s successor in a special election coinciding with the Nov. 6 general election; he or she can take office almost immediately thereafter to bring the Senate back to full strength — and to determine which party will be in charge.
With control of the chamber in the balance, the District 13 election promises to be among the most hotly contested legislative races in the state this year. Meanwhile, Fischbach is free to function as lieutenant governor — perhaps to get Minnesotans accustomed to seeing her in that role. Capitol wags speculated Friday that she may seek the office in her own right this fall. One GOP candidate, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has yet to name a running mate.