During David Senjem's years as a Rochester City Council member, several colleagues had no idea he was a Republican.
He was known as a grandfatherly character with the paunchy waistline, eyeglasses that never sat quite right and meandering council speeches that sometimes left people wondering where he would come down on an issue. He was a diehard community booster, a steady Mayo Clinic administrator, but never an ideological firebrand.
On Wednesday, the newly elected majority leader of the Minnesota Senate said he is deeply committed to conservative values of smaller government and personal responsibility, but that doesn't mean he will block out people who don't agree with him. Noting he supported Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, "that makes me pretty conservative. Either way, I am comfortable with where I am."
Senjem, 69, faces new and complex challenges that will test his leadership of the Senate Republicans. He replaces former Majority Leader Amy Koch, a Buffalo Republican who resigned her leadership post two weeks ago after being confronted about having an inappropriate relationship with a male staffer. As one of the three most powerful people in the state, Senjem now must nurse a wounded caucus, corral sometimes impetuous freshman members and prove he has the savvy to strengthen their slim majority in the Senate, which Democrats have vowed to win back.
In choosing Senjem to head the caucus, his fellow GOP senators selected a tested, well-liked and disciplined leader who is not an all-or-nothing conservative. He opposes abortion and voted to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to forbid same-sex marriage, but he also has supported robust bonding packages and local option sales taxes. He's also rankled some GOP colleagues by sponsoring legislation to allow slot machines at horse-racing tracks, called racinos.
Senjem had served as minority leader for four years and helped the party win control of the Senate last year for the first time in more than generation.
'I got recharged'
The demands of the campaigning and fundraising left Senjem depleted, so he handed-off leadership to Koch.
"I think Minnesota is well-served when many people have a chance at leadership," Senjem said Wednesday.
But when the scandal enveloped the caucus this month, Senjem said he couldn't bear to see all the party's successes frittered away. So he jumped into the race for leadership.
"I got recharged," he said. "I am ready, willing and able -- and anxious."
Former Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, an Owatonna Republican, praised Senjem's cool-headed focus.
"He is not going to be the ringleader of real rabid ideas that cause more trouble and more alienation for Republicans," said Day, who is now a racino lobbyist. "He will help settle it down."
That doesn't mean it will be easy. Senjem will likely be in the middle of the effort to build a publicly funded stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
"We have a very good and positive working relationship with Senator Senjem," said Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president of stadium development and public affairs.
Bagley also pointed to Senjem's longtime push to pass racino as a possible stadium funding source. "If racino is the plan, then we'll get strongly behind it," Bagley said Wednesday.
That could put Senjem in the middle of a fierce fight with tribal gambling interests, fellow Republicans and many Democrats.
First, he must navigate continuing fallout from the Koch scandal.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who sent Senjem a letter Wednesday congratulating him on his election, is urging the new leaader to ask more questions about how the allegations regarding Koch were handled.
While Bakk said he does not think Koch should have to resign from the Senate, he said more questions should be asked of Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, Koch's deputy who has given differing accounts of the timeline that led to Koch's fall.
Senjem said Bakk is welcome to file an ethics complaints, but "this has been dragging on long enough and the people of Minnesota want to move on."
Those who have followed Senjem's political career hope his willingness to compromise doesn't alienate him from staunch conservatives who sometimes demand political purity.
Former Rochester City Council President John Hunziker said Senjem was always thoughtful and willing to consider opposing ideas.
"My biggest concern for him is that the idea of compromise has been lost somewhere," Hunziker said. "If he is not allowed in any way shape or form to compromise, I don't think he will get along any better than anyone else up there."
Senjem said he doesn't necessarily envision a long tenure as leader. He plans to finish out the remaining year in Koch's term, and from there, who knows?
"It's not a life sentence," Senjem said.
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