I was scanning the Minnesota House roster on the last Friday morning of the regular session, wondering who might be good at Let's Make a Budget Deal, the Special Session Edition, when something happened I'd never witnessed before.
It wasn't the over-the-top, anti-Obama "prayer" by talk-radio preacher Bradlee Dean. That was an outrage. But it wasn't the first time I'd heard the Legislature treated to a partisan harangue in the guise of prayer.
What was unusual was that, after an odd pause, the session was gaveled to a start for a second time. It was as if Dean had not appeared. The official House chaplain, Lutheran pastor Grady St. Dennis, was called to the lectern to offer a soothing, nonsectarian invocation.
Not long afterward, Speaker Kurt Zellers came down from the rostrum and stood on the floor of the House. In unequivocal terms, he denounced Dean and apologized -- even though Dean has a following within his Republican Party's base.
Zellers had nothing to do with inviting Dean to the House. He did not have to own up to personal responsibility for the episode, but he did.
I learned some things about the rookie speaker that morning. In eight years in the House, Zellers, 41, has become an institutionalist as well as a partisan. He's adroit in the face of an unexpected problem. He's able to see the DFL point of view. He exhibits a grown-up's sense of responsibility.
So can he be a budget dealmaker in the next few weeks -- in time to avert a dreaded government shutdown on July 1?
That may depend on the sincerity of something he said two and a half months earlier.
Zellers had been asked about a letter that GOP state chairman Tony Sutton had sent his party's legislators reminding them (I paraphrase, but not much) that higher taxes are evil and DFLers are devils. (Come to think of it, that was pretty much Bradlee Dean's message, too.)
"Chairman Sutton can send us all kinds of letters recommending all kinds of great things," Zellers said in response. "It doesn't mean that I have to do exactly what Chairman Sutton says. I got a pretty big independent streak in my German heritage."
Zellers will need to make that streak visible if he's going to lead his caucus and this state back from the precipice of a government shutdown on July 1. Sutton has gone out of his way to be the apostle of just-say-no budget negotiations with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
He's characterized a move in Dayton's direction as a "compromise of good and evil." Last week, Sutton bashed Dayton as a spoiled rich guy -- "never had to work a day in his life" -- who insists on having his own way on the budget.
Never mind that Dayton has offered to split the difference between his original budget position and the Republicans'. Or that anyone who ever worked for or with Mark Dayton will attest to how hard he pushes himself -- and them.
Zellers may be as conservative in political philosophy as Sutton. In fact, Zellers helped promote Sutton's candidacy when he was first elected GOP chairman.
But unlike the rhetorically bombastic Sutton, Zellers is a low-key North Dakota farm kid who believes in building consensus gradually and personally.
That's what he's done within his caucus this year. Some of its members -- particularly the freshman class, which Zellers helped recruit and elect -- wanted to send Dayton a smaller budget than the $34 billion on which the caucus settled.
(That's why Dayton last week called out the GOP freshmen as "extremists," provoking an outcry from GOP freshmen senators and a relatively milder rebuke from Zellers: "It seemed awfully personal. This isn't personal with us.")
Zellers preferred the measure of political safety that fewer unpopular votes for spending cuts would bring his vulnerable members.
He brought his caucus around. But he's paid a price in public opinion in the weeks since.
Zellers says the now-vetoed House budget is as large as he can or will deliver this year. Dayton has moved $1.8 billion in the GOP direction; the GOP position has not changed.
The choice that faced Zellers and his fellow Republicans last weekend was compromise in Dayton's direction or take the fight into June. More time was the easier choice.
Come late June, the choice will be compromise in Dayton's direction or close every service of state government that a judge deems nonessential. Just the loss of tens of thousands of paychecks to state workers could send this state's fragile economic recovery into a tailspin.
When it's down to that choice, a grown-up, adroit House speaker with an independent streak and a proven ability to bring his caucus around ought to know what to do. And the members of his caucus who know what governing requires ought to have his back.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.
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