DFL gains strength in the House, but short of edge over Pawlenty

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 5, 2008 - 11:22 PM

DFLers bolstered their House majority by two seats, but the question was what effect that modest change would have.

A day after DFLers strengthened their hold on the Minnesota House -- but missed a chance at a veto-proof majority -- taxpayers had to listen closely to learn what might happen next.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, speaking confidently, said that those thinking DFLers would automatically square off with Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and push for tax increases as a remedy to an expected budget deficit, might be surprised. "We haven't decided what we're going to do yet because we don't know what the problem is," said Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, referring to the deficit's unknown size.

Two floors below in the State Office Building, a subdued House Minority Leader Marty Seifert warned that DFLers who promised to "live within their means" during their campaigns might now have different ideas. "We certainly want to work with the Democrats on creating good policy, but also [want to let] them know that when it comes to wasting money or raising taxes, that's not going to be an option," said Seifert, R-Marshall, who said he was unsure whether he would seek to keep his leadership position.

With 87 seats in the 134-member House, the DFL will hold sway in a chamber with 23 new faces: 11 DFLers and 12 Republicans. DFLers gained six new House seats but lost four, for a net gain of two. Still, the 87 seats represent only the second time since the 1970s that one party has held such a large majority.

Among those whom voters ousted Tuesday was Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, whose opponent, Tim Kelly, received a campaign visit from Pawlenty. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who tried to help Wollschlager's reelection, called the first-termer's 791-vote loss the most surprising of the night for DFLers. "I thought [she] would be able to pull that one out," Kelliher said.

Gone, too, was Rep. Shelley Madore, of Apple Valley, another first-term DFLer, who won by only 195 votes two years ago and was beaten this time by 1,033 votes by Tara Mack, a House legislative assistant. "This has got to stop," Madore said of the negative campaigning she faced.

One surprising result came in the Bloomington race to succeed Rep. Neil Peterson. The second-term Republican lost in the GOP primary after he voted with DFLers to override a Pawlenty veto. On Tuesday, Jan Schneider, the Republican who beat Peterson in the primary, lost to a DFLer, Paul Rosenthal, allowing the DFL to gain a seat.

What will change bring?

What the fresh faces might mean for taxpayers is unclear.

Jerry Newton, a DFLer who won a Republican seat in Coon Rapids, said he would not immediately tumble to tax hikes as a way to solve Minnesota's budget problems. "Unless the deficit is huge, something exceeding $4 billion, I don't think there would be any need for a tax increase," he said.

And although Newton said he was interested in addressing tax equity between higher-income taxpayers and the less affluent, he said that "I don't believe in soaking the rich."

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said that Tuesday's results might not lead to much change. The elections, he said, "didn't signal much of a partisan shift one way or the other," said McClung, who said the governor would work with the new Legislature "in a constructive, positive, bipartisan way to tackle the budget deficit."

Seifert said Republicans had accomplished their primary goal: keeping DFLers from gaining five seats and the 90 seats necessary to override a gubernatorial veto. "If they had reached 90 votes, I think I would have [been] calling this press conference and saying, 'Bye-bye, everyone,'" Seifert said, alluding to the pressure he faced to keep the DFLers from gaining that stranglehold.

Seifert said House Republicans, might now be more philosophically united and better able to keep their members from joining DFLers to override a Pawlenty veto. In the most controversial House vote this year, six House Republicans joined with DFLers to override Pawlenty's veto of the $6.6 billion transportation funding bill.

Seifert said Republicans will be without two of their most unpredictable members, Reps. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, and Mark Olson, R-Big Lake. Erhardt, one of the six Republicans who voted to override Pawlenty, was not endorsed by his party, ran as an independent and finished second Tuesday in a three-way race. Olson, who was expelled from the House Republican caucus after a misdemeanor domestic assault conviction, ran for a state Senate seat and lost.

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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