Minnesota Senate Republicans selected Dave Senjem of Rochester as their majority leader Tuesday night, capping a tumultuous two weeks in which a scandal took down their former leader.
The vote came after an 11-hour private meeting, which members said included "soul-searching" about how to move forward and restore faith in Senate Republicans.
Senjem, 69, takes over one of the most powerful roles at the Capitol and will have a guiding hand in the upcoming legislative session, future budget negotiations and in whether Republicans retain control of the Senate, which Democrats have vowed to win back.
"All directions now look forward, not back," Senjem said. "In the course of the last two weeks, we've gone through a difficult period and we've come out of that."
Senjem replaces Sen. Amy Koch, a Republican from Buffalo who resigned her leadership post two weeks ago and admitted she had an inappropriate relationship with a male subordinate. Since then, Senate Republicans have been swamped by internal squabbling over shifting accounts of exactly when Senate leaders knew about Koch's relationship and why they waited so long to talk to her.
Senjem, the former Senate minority leader, was not among the group of Senate leaders, including Assistant Majority Leader David Hann and Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel, who confronted Koch.
In the end, the senators who met with Koch about the allegations lost their leadership positions, including Hann of Eden Prairie and Michel of Edina.
In their place, the GOP caucus Tuesday elected four assistant majority leaders: Sens. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, Paul Gazelka of Brainerd, Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo and Claire Robling of Jordan. Senjem has seven days to appoint two additional assistant leaders. One of Senjem's first tasks will be to trim $2 million from the Senate's budget.
Senjem did not criticize the former leaders, praising them for managing a complex crisis.
"The whole incident was so sad and perplexing in so many ways," Senjem said.
Turbulent month for party
December has been a turbulent month for the Minnesota GOP. Fierce political operative Michael Brodkorb was fired as Koch's communications chief after she stepped down and Tony Sutton quit as state Republican Party chairman amid complaints about mounting party debts and lack of financial discipline. Republicans will select a successor to Sutton on Saturday in St. Cloud.
Koch, who has not spoken publicly since stepping down, attended Tuesday's meeting but arrived and left through a side entrance of the Roseville Radisson.
Senjem said he urged Koch not to resign her seat. She has already said she will not seek re-election next year.
In Senjem, GOP senators chose a well-liked leader who has chaired the Capital Investment Committee and is a supporter of expanded gambling, which could become crucial in negotiations for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium and in repaying public schools more than $2 billion the state borrowed to balance the budget.
Gov. Mark Dayton said he called Senjem to congratulate him. "I look forward to a constructive working relationship with him on behalf of the people of Minnesota," Dayton said in a statement.
Of the governor, Senjem said: "We'll get along fine. We will do just fine."
Robling called Senjem "a great collaborator" who will listen to other senators. "We want to be heard and we know he will listen," she said.
House Speaker Kurt Zellars, R-Maple Grove, also congratulated Senjem. "I worked with Senator Senjem when he previously led the Senate Republican Caucus and respected his leadership, communication and integrity. He is committed to putting the needs of this state and its taxpayers first."
Koch stepped down from the leadership post after just 11 months, giving her one of the shortest tenures as majority leader since at least the 1930s. She was widely credited with recruiting and campaigning for GOP candidates, helping the party win control of the Senate when Senjem served as minority leader.
Senjem said he stepped aside for Koch after the 2010 elections because he was "out of gas" and "needed a break."
Now, he said, he is energized by the future and the enthusiasm of Senate colleagues.
"There's nothing but bright in the sky ahead of us," Senjem said.