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Amy Koch, Michael Brodkorb

., Star Tribune and Associated Press

Can one color outside lines at the Capitol?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT
  • Star Tribune
  • March 17, 2012 - 4:23 PM

For the Legislature to serve Minnesota well, it must be a place where it's safe for a legislator to sound off about ideas that depart from the orthodoxy of his or her own party.

Such safety has never been guaranteed. But in the GOP choke-held Senate of 2011, it seemed in exceedingly scarce supply. Reporters heard whispers about Republicans harboring mavericky thoughts being told by their fellow Republicans to stifle them, or else.

Or else -- what? Robocalls, committee assignment changes, push polls, a rival for reelection ... there are plenty of ways for a political machine to force strays into line, especially when the guy with his hands on the machine's levers has a powerful protector.

That's what Michael Brodkorb had. Last week the former Senate communications director confirmed what everybody knew: He had an affair with former Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch.

He says that's why he was fired in December. Because female Senate employees who have had trysts with their bosses in the past weren't fired, he's claiming gender-based discrimination, suing the Senate for a cool $500,000-plus and threatening to name names if he doesn't get it.

It's a pity this charmer wasn't sent packing for another reason. Brodkorb was a major player in a Senate regime noted for suppression of independent thought in its own ranks.

That ought to be particularly offensive in the Senate. It's the body with longer terms because this state's founders wanted it to operate without the constraint of a tight political leash.

Brodkorb is gone, though clearly he's anything but forgotten. I'm watching for signs that free thinking is better tolerated under GOP Majority 2.0.

The evidence I collected last week was less than reassuring. GOP senators were nervously buzzing about two of their number, Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen and Warren Limmer of Maple Grove, facing rivals for party endorsement from the GOP right wing. Those two are strong individuals but hardly wayward from GOP norms.

Ortman complained that a direct-mail business owned by GOP Sen. Chris Gerlach was mailing voters in several GOP senators' districts, including hers, implying that they were soft on the so-called "right-to-work" constitutional amendment. She voted for the amendment in committee on Monday.

Meanwhile, freshman Sen. John Howe, R-Red Wing, seemed to be backing away from his earlier interest in finding a compromise on another GOP-backed, DFL-detested amendment proposal, a photo ID requirement to vote.

Howe, 48, is the former mayor of Red Wing. That's a role that tends to instill pragmatism in a politician. His varied background in retailing, banking and public safety, plus his inquisitive mind, make him one to watch in the large GOP class of 2010.

Last summer, he didn't disappoint. As the state hurtled toward the shutdown cliff, Howe publicly proposed tax revisions that readers of Star Tribune editorials will find familiar: Extend the sales tax to clothing and services and use the additional revenue to reduce the income tax.

Almost as quickly as Howe launched that tax-reform balloon, it disappeared. But he piped up this year as the voter ID requirement was redrafted as a constitutional amendment.

Rather than requiring voters to carry ID cards, he said, government could keep photos of voters in an electronic voter registration file, or "poll book."

The rules governing such a system could be enacted with an easy-to-change statute that the DFL governor could sign, not imbedded in the Constitution.

That idea reportedly has stalled. Because of pressure from his fellow Republicans, I asked?

No, Howe said -- but he did not deny that there's been pressure. Rather, his electronic poll book bill isn't quite ready for prime time.

He's still working on how his bill will handle vouching for Election Day registrants who lack photo ID cards with current addresses. "It could still come up this year," he said of his bill.

When the bill is ready, opposition within his own party won't deter him, Howe said.

"I'm not afraid to do something they may ask me not to do. ... I've always viewed myself as a problem-solver. I want to take a look at both sides of an issue.

"Up here we get too caught into 'either/or' propositions. I think there are very few times when we should take that position. The majority of the time, there is a way we can get something done."

Such comments might be heresy at a Tea Party. But the thinking behind them is essential to governance in a state prone to divided government and shifts in partisan control.

Wise legislative leaders know that. They give wide berth to legislators willing to advance an independent idea or suggest bipartisan compromise.

Howe seems to be that kind of legislator. One measure of the wisdom of the Republicans who have replaced Koch and Brodkorb at the Senate's helm will be in the running room Howe is allowed on photo ID.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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