Senate GOP has eye on 2 agency chiefs

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Minnesota Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, speaking to reporters after the close of the first legislative session.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Fresh after the ouster of Gov. Mark Dayton's pick to lead the Public Utilities Commission, Senate Majority Leader David Senjem said Republicans have two other Dayton commissioners on a "watch list."

"As we've gone down through the list, there might be some that are more on the question-mark list," Senjem, R-Rochester, said last week. He specifically said Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Paul Aasen are being watched.

While Senjem did not say that the commissioners on the watch list will be ousted, his warning adds fuel to the already fiery fight over gubernatorial picks. It is one that has long burned at the Capitol.

The Minnesota Constitution says the governor can appoint people with "the advice and consent of the Senate." In practical terms, that means commissioners can serve without being confirmed but if the Senate votes against confirmation, they're out.

While it is rare for the Senate to reject a governor's pick -- the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library lists just 14 commissioners who have been rejected since 1935 -- it is not at all uncommon for senators to publicly and privately raise questions about a governor's appointees.

In recent years, a DFL-controlled Senate ousted Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's picks for education commissioner and transportation commissioner; Independence Party Gov. Jesse Ventura's pick for commerce and public service, and one of Gov. Arne Carlson's choices for the Board on Judicial Standards.

"This is a very political process, and governors understand that," said Chris Georgacas, who was Carlson's judicial standards pick.

Georgacas, who was the state Republican Party chairman at the time the Senate ousted him, said he took his rejection "with humor" and acknowledged that as the "hard-charging" GOP chair he was "radioactive" for many DFLers. The Senate took the process in stride, too: According to reports from the time, "outnumbered GOP senators waved white handkerchiefs" on the Senate floor when it became clear they would lose the 40-25 vote on Georgacas.

Governors, however, do not take the Senate's judgment so lightly.

"The Senate has shown me very clearly that qualifications don't matter, but butt-kissing does," Ventura said when the Senate rejected his choice of Steve Minn for the merged public service and commerce departments in 2000.

Dayton last week similarly lashed out when the GOP-controlled Senate ousted his pick for the Public Utilities Commission. "Republican Senators tried to demean Ellen Anderson today; instead they demeaned themselves. Once again, they showed Minnesotans who they really are. They are too extreme to lead," Dayton said.

Not surprisingly, Republicans said Dayton's comments went overboard. They also pointed out that Dayton voted to reject nearly three dozen of former Republican President George Bush's picks for federal spots when he served in the U.S. Senate.

"We did what we had to do," Senjem said. "It is over at this point."

At least until the Senate decides how to handle the commissioners that are under watch.

  • Tweet of the week

    St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer (@SPACC_Kramer) on Feb. 1:

    "I've never been glitter bombed. Did kiss a woman once who had gold dust on her face. Does that count?"

    The week ahead

    Minnesota party caucuses will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Check www.mnvotes.org for more information and to find your caucus location.

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