A leading Republican state senator is taking on a colleague who is pushing a proposed "right to work" constitutional amendment while his bulk-mail company is taking money from a well-funded political group pushing the proposal.
"I think it's shocking," said Deputy Senate Majority Leader Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. "It's very troublesome and should be troubling to all Minnesotans."
Ortman is targeting fellow Republican Sen. Chris Gerlach, who has pushed to get the measure on the ballot. Ortman was among at least a couple of senators targeted by mailers from the well-funded Freedom Club urging constituents to pressure them to support the initiative.
Not disclosed on the glossy leaflets was that Gerlach's firm, Capitol Direct, sent the mailings. And on Thursday, Gerlach cast a crucial vote on a maneuver that allowed the measure to bypass a potentially troublesome committee and did not acknowledge his company's ties to the group pushing the proposal.
Gerlach would not comment personally on the issue, but issued a statement to the Star Tribune on Friday confirming that his company sent the mailings.
His customers' views "have no impact upon my role as a state senator," said Gerlach, of Apple Valley. "As an elected official, I exercise my judgment on behalf of the people I represent and the people of Minnesota."
Gerlach said that his company handled the printing and the mailing, but that he did not participate in decisions as to the timing of the mailings or who they were sent to.
The proposed "right to work" constitutional amendment would allow workers to opt out of paying union dues, an issue that is important to many Minnesota businesses but has worried Republican legislators who hold fragile majorities in the House and Senate. Backed by powerful business donors, many Republicans want to put it on the ballot in November. But other Republicans worry that advancing the measure now will turn Minnesota into a national battleground and jeopardize GOP majorities.
Ortman sees a vivid problem in Gerlach's ties to the Freedom Club even as he advances their issue in the Senate.
"It taints the entire process," she said. "There should not be any money changing hands during the legislative session involving legislation or lobbying to sway the outcome of a vote on a particular piece of legislation."
The mailings and Senate vote could leave Gerlach facing an ethics complaint.
"I think this is something of a conflict," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. "He seems to be benefiting by the action of the caucus in a way the general public is not."
Jeff Sigurdson, assistant executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, isn't so sure.
To be a clear conflict of interest, Sigurdson said, Gerlach would have had to have taken a vote on a measure that clearly benefited his company. "It doesn't seem to fall under that definition," he said.
Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288