Few people predicted that Republicans would take control of the Minnesota Senate this November for the first time in decades. Also surprising? Their new leader.
Sen. Amy Koch, 39, will become the first female Senate majority leader next month, guiding a caucus packed with freshmen she helped elect.
Her post is among the most powerful at the Capitol and puts Koch in charge of steering the Senate's agenda, speaking for the GOP caucus and hashing out deals with the governor and House.
In a year when voters dealt a blow to old guard politics, Koch, with five years under her belt, notes that seniority isn't everything.
"I just don't think people are necessarily looking for the lifelong, dug-in politician," she said recently, from her spacious new office next to the Capitol's historic Senate chamber. "They want people with some real world experience and common sense. I think that I bring that."
The jovial, loquacious Buffalo native was elected in 2005 after more than a decade of jumping between government, college and her family's utility company. Gaining office in a special election, Koch kept a low profile her first two years, colleagues said, before gradually emerging as one of the caucus' more skillful members -- particularly behind closed doors.
"Very quickly you could tell that she was one of the most politically astute people and understood the mechanisms of the political game," said fellow Republican Sen. Julie Rosen of Fairmont. That often meant thinking strategically to avoid potential legislative obstacles, Rosen said.
Koch's transformation did not go unnoticed on the left.
"I think she started off not so much with the sharp elbows but started stepping into that role more frequently in the last couple years," said Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who said that he is "hoping for the best, fearing the worst."
Koch chose to take control of the Senate GOP election efforts in late 2008, after Republicans took a drubbing at the polls nationwide and at a time when the Minnesota GOP held only 22 of 67 state Senate seats. That post would help burnish her statewide credentials within the party while she recruited candidates and steered 16 of them to victory.
"Circuitous" is Koch's word to describe her long journey to a college degree, which lasted until her late 20s.
She grew up on her parents' hobby farm just outside of Buffalo in a large family of Ronald Reagan-style conservatives. She attended Concordia College in Moorhead, but left after her first year to backpack through Europe. She returned briefly to waitress and attend North Hennepin Community College.
Koch met her husband after enlisting in the Air Force, where she was trained as a Russian linguist and later assigned to the National Security Agency in Maryland in the mid-1990s. He was an Arabic linguist for the agency.
"We were listeners," Koch said cryptically, adding that she is prohibited from describing her duties in any detail. The NSA is one of the most secretive agencies in government, charged with gathering foreign intelligence.
Koch eventually returned to Minnesota, graduated from St. Cloud State University and went to work at her parents' utility company. She and her husband will take control of that company, Hance Utility Services, in January. They have one teenage daughter, Rachel, who doesn't care much for politics but who will be standing beside her mother on the Senate floor on opening day.
Apart from volunteering in a local Republican group and working for former U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy's congressional campaign, Koch had no political experience before she ran for the state Senate. She said her family's frequent discussions about government, and their long history in the area, inspired her to take the plunge into public service.
"Government has always been an important discussion point in the family," Koch said. "We have very strong opinions about it."
Koch's political philosophy is steeped in the belief that streamlined regulation and less taxes will spur job creation and that politicians should be reflective of their districts. Her Buffalo district is among the most conservative in the state.
In addition to Reagan, Koch counts no-nonsense conservative women like Margaret Thatcher and retiring State Sen. Pat Pariseau among her political heroes. Given those role models, she and her young caucus do not plan to tread lightly in the new year.
"How we're doing things is not sustainable," Koch said. "So we need new perspective to come in and say, 'How can we do this differently?' "
Koch said she intends to maintain a "laser focus" on fixing the state's $6.2 billion projected deficit, largely through spending cuts and streamlined government. She has already shut the door on Gov-elect Mark Dayton's plan to raise taxes.
"We're not going to be increasing taxes," Koch said, specifically ruling out income tax hikes as well as increases in sales taxes. Koch also said that "I kind of reject the notion that it's all cuts." Koch did not offer specifics, but said that some programs "are going to have to be redesigned."
As a legislator, Koch was an outspoken opponent of the state's moratorium on building nuclear power plants. She hopes to eliminate that moratorium this year. One of the state's two active plants is in her district.
Over the years Koch repeatedly introduced legislation to outlaw possession of such drug paraphernalia as bongs or glass pipes, which she said was requested by law enforcement in her district. In 2006, she proposed a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. Other bills would have reduced the size of the Legislature, prohibited the state from using one-time shifts to offset a budget deficit and required abortion clinics to keep patient records for 15 years.
While her legislation has broached a variety of issues, Koch said she plans to keep the Senate's 2011 agenda narrowly focused on the budget first.
"I would like to see us do a few things really well," Koch said.
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732