With DFL unity at stake, Bakk sets his own priorities at State Capitol

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2014 - 10:21 PM

Senate leader not hesitant to ruffle feathers of fellow Democrats.

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All his life, Tom Bakk has built things — from carpentry projects he worked on alongside his father on the shores of Lake Vermilion, to relationships that facilitated his ascent to one of the most powerful perches at Minnesota’s Capitol.

Now the majority leader of the state Senate’s strong support for a controversial building project on the Capitol grounds is chipping away at the foundation of unity among Democrats in a pivotal moment for the party.

Bakk has been the most vocal advocate for a new $63 million office complex, across the street from the Capitol, proposed to house senators during and after an ongoing renovation of the domed Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton, facing a difficult re-election, calls the embattled project a political liability. A House committee has plans to review the proposal Friday morning.

The building plans have strained Bakk’s relationship with House Speaker Paul Thissen as the two men try to negotiate a harmonious finish to a legislative session that could determine whether Democrats maintain full control of state government.

It’s a session that has seen alliances between Democrats tested, not just over the office project but in the ongoing effort to raise the state minimum wage from $6.15 to $9.50 an hour. What seemed like a slam dunk for the party has again divided Bakk from Dayton and Thissen, as the majority leader pushes back against longtime allies in labor and angers party activists who seek not just a wage hike, but an automatic tie to inflation.

“I’m just trying to take a thoughtful approach on this, and the idea of putting minimum wage increases on autopilot, I think, puts some of our business community at risk,” Bakk said in an interview. “I realize that’s not where labor wants to be. But it’s the thoughtful approach.”

In November both Dayton and House Democrats will face voters. State senators won’t be on the ballot until 2016, making Bakk the only leader who can count on being back in power next year. The tension that has generated exploded publicly last month, when Dayton and Thissen called Bakk out for moving slower than they wanted on a tax-cut package that benefited more than a million Minnesotans.

“I don’t like to call out my friends or allies publicly, but I didn’t see anywhere else to go,” Dayton told the Star Tribune. “What I was trying behind the scenes wasn’t effective, so I had to try another approach. It was a very important part of my agenda.”

After a news conference where Dayton publicly accused DFL senators of linking the fate of the office building to the tax cuts, Thissen quickly summoned reporters and made the accusation even more explicit: He said Bakk had demanded the House give final approval to the building in exchange for a Senate vote on the tax cuts.

Following the blowup, the Senate quickly passed the tax cuts, which will send $444 million in tax relief to Minnesotans this year and more than $1 billion in the following two-year budget cycle. While he voted for the bill, Bakk suggested labor’s focus on minimum wage inflation indexing over tax policy was a misguided use of available state revenues.

“Now a billion dollars is gone, and I tried,” Bakk said. “I tried to hold up for a couple of weeks to see if labor and other Democrats would say ‘Hey, hey, don’t put us back where we were under Ventura and squander a balanced budget by giving it away with a huge tax cut bill.’ No one stepped up.”

Speculating on the nature of the Bakk-Thissen relationship is a popular pastime at the Capitol. The two cut very different figures: Bakk, hailing from northeastern Minnesota, is a burly union laborer, gregarious and blunt. Thissen, who grew up in the suburbs and represents southwest Minneapolis, is a lanky attorney, reserved and professorial.

“I don’t think they understand each other very well,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, the House’s chief negotiator on the minimum wage bill. He said House Democrats are frustrated that Bakk has insisted on concessions in order to pass policy goals widely supported by the Democratic base.

Even though the House and Senate are controlled by DFLers, “Last session and this session have been very transactional, and very few things have happened without some price being paid for it,” Winkler said.

Bakk and Thissen downplay disagreements; both insist they have a fine working relationship, and chalk up differences to tensions inherent in divided government.

“You know, I remember when I was in the House. We all liked to gripe about that sneaky Roger Moe and what is he up to now?” Bakk recalled of one of his predecessors as Senate majority leader. Bakk served four terms in the House before switching to the Senate in 2002.

Still, the usually reticent Thissen has grown less tempered in recent remarks about Bakk and his fellow Senate DFLers. Last month, Thissen unloaded over the stalled minimum wage bill: “The bottom line, to me, if the Senate wants to kill the bill, they should just tell Minnesotans directly and stop playing games with it.”

Even as Democrats war over minimum wage, Republicans have been hammering on the Senate office building. Dayton himself has been a critic, saying it could cost Democratic candidates votes over the impression that it’s lavish — another example of politicians feathering their own nests.

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