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Continued: A political earthquake, an effort to find footing

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 31, 2011 - 4:26 PM

Somewhere in the South Pacific last week, Samoans went straight from Thursday to Saturday. Friday disappeared.

I know some Minnesota legislators who wish they could perform that trick. They'd want to make the last half of December 2011 disappear.

"All directions now look forward, not back," said the new leader of the Senate's not-so-new-anymore Republican majority, David Senjem, after he was selected Tuesday to succeed Sen. Amy Koch, who resigned the post on Dec. 15.

"In the course of the last two weeks, we've gone through a difficult period, and we've come out of that."

A ton of wishful thinking was stuffed into that last clause.

Koch's departure rocked the Capitol. A bigger jolt was felt on Dec. 16, when four senior Republican senators summoned reporters to inform them that Koch had been involved in an "inappropriate relationship" with a male staff member who reported directly to her. That same day, the dismissal of the fiercely partisan caucus communications director Michael Brodkorb was revealed.

This was about an 8.2 on the Capitol's political Richter scale. Aftershocks are bound to be felt for a prolonged period.

Senjem and Co. would do well to anticipate as much, and to ponder how to turn this episode into something constructive for their wounded institution. Instead of trying to stabilize the Senate by pretending the last two weeks didn't happen, they might do better to invite questions and answer them as forthrightly as legally advisable, given the possibility of a lawsuit over Brodkorb's dismissal.

That was the spirit in which Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, spoke with me last week. Until Tuesday, he was Koch's officemate, Senate floor seatmate and deputy majority leader. He says he was and remains her admirer and friend.

Now, after helping orchestrate the leadership change, Michel is a rank-and-file legislator once more. He says he voluntarily stepped out of his leadership role. He's about to start his 10th year of service in an institution that he plainly loves.

"Our focus was always on an inappropriate workplace relationship, and a workplace environment," Michel. "This was about how the institution of the Senate ought to be managed and run, not about an affair."

He likened the situation the Senate faced to that of a publicly held company whose CEO had a clandestine personal relationship with a powerful senior vice president. No board of directors in the know would long tolerate that situation, Michel said.

"We did not demand [Koch's] resignation, though it was one of the things that was contemplated," he said of the Dec. 14-15 meetings between Koch and four other senators that preceded her resignation from leadership. "What we demanded was to sever the relationship between a manager and a direct report. That had created a conflict of interest, and a difficult workplace environment for staff and other members."

They decided to disclose Koch's relationship to the Capitol press corps on Dec. 16 because "we discovered there was broad, widespread knowledge of the situation already." Better to tell the bad news yourself, PR experts advise.

Other legislators through the years have broken their marriage vows without the "outing" Koch endured. Most were male. That difference set sexism detectors buzzing all over the state.

But this situation was different, and not because Koch is a female leader, Michel argued.

"I'm not aware that we ever faced a time when the chair of the Rules Committee, in charge of all personnel and budgets, was in such a compromised position. We had to act, so the Senate could function."

"So the Senate could function." That appears at this early vantage to have been the guiding motive for the leadership coup -- not personal gain or special-interest advantage.

If that narrative holds up to longer scrutiny, the Senate GOP upheaval won't inflict lasting political damage. It may even have a silver lining. It could deprive DFLers of their claim that Republicans don't care about government. Plainly, Michel and his cohorts do.

As events unfolded, Michel said he wished for "a playbook" -- a set of agreed-upon, modern-era, bipartisan guidelines about what constitutes conflict of interest by legislative leaders, what are inappropriate relationships between legislators and their staffs, and what should ensue if the expected standards of conduct are not met.

Koch was served notice in mid-September that she had a conflict of interest that compromised the integrity of her decisionmaking. She did nothing to correct it until she was confronted three months later. What's to be done in that situation?

Answering those questions sounds like an assignment for the Senate Ethics Committee -- one that Senjem and DFL Minority Leader Tom Bakk might want to make jointly.

The Senate could cross its fingers and hope no such thing ever happens again. Or it could acknowledge that legislators are human. Conflicts of interest will arise again. And the Senate will be a more respected institution if it knows how to mitigate them.

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.

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