He is a former carpenter and union negotiator who leveraged his political skills to become the most powerful member of the Minnesota Senate. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s determination to make a lasting mark on state finances has even some of his political allies wondering if he is pushing too far.
Now Bakk is shaking off the most bruising political comeuppance of his career, one that could jeopardize his bargaining power with the governor and House Speaker. Together with Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, Bakk is in the thick of piecing together a budget strategy that fixes wobbly finances and still raises enough tax money to make good on crucial and often divergent campaign promises.
Bakk goes in having already rejected Dayton’s budget, choosing instead to resurrect a clothing tax the governor had already been forced to drop in an embarrassing political setback earlier this year.
A former tax chairman, Bakk insists the clothing tax should stay: “I don’t think we get the best outcomes by only being worried about what’s good for the next election, or what polls really well.”
Bakk’s soaring political currency took a body blow this week when the DFL-controlled Senate got caught by some shrewd, last-minute GOP vote-flipping and failed by a slim margin to pass its own tax bill.
A grim-faced Bakk called DFLers into a closed-door meeting. When they emerged, they had cobbled together the needed votes. But the momentary defeat served as a flustering chastisement for Bakk and one that may weaken him as he enters final negotiations with Dayton and Thissen.
“I have never seen anything like this happen,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. “He’s got kind of a reputation of being a boss, a union boss. And people have this sense of him that he gives the orders and people do what he says. But I don’t think that’s working in this environment.”
Bakk dismissed the incident as a minor annoyance on the path toward a budget deal. “Yeah, it was a little bumpy,” he said. “But I don’t think it will play into negotiations at all.”
At 6-foot-2 and with a chest like a tree trunk, Bakk, 58, is a towering linebacker of a man. His sandy hair is wispy and thinning and lately he has sported a graying goatee. He has a voice like a foghorn and a laugh that rumbles through the Capitol halls. The office is strictly North Woods cabin decor, with a giant mounted walleye and pictures of his family and hunting exploits, including a recent trip to Argentina where Bakk shot a 2,600-pound water buffalo. The candy bowl in his entry holds not sweets, but Iron Range taconite pellets — along with a note warning visitors the pellets are inedible.
A secret about Bakk: He loves thrift stores. On Wednesdays, he sneaks off to take advantage of the senior citizens discount at Goodwill, methodically going down each aisle to seek out dishes and other items for his hunting shack. On weekends, the Cook resident is a voracious reader of Iron Range newspapers, reading stacks of them cover to cover.
With 19 years at the Legislature — the last 10 in the Senate — Bakk is betting his political currency on a proposal that would reach far beyond the governor’s tax-the-rich approach. Bakk not only would extend the sales tax to clothing and some consumer services, his income tax hike would reach down into what many would consider the middle class. In addition, he’s seeking a politically unpopular pay raise for lawmakers, the governor and agency heads.
Bakk said he tried to soothe any rough feelings from his proposal in a recent meeting with Dayton and Thissen — his former rivals in a hard-fought gubernatorial race last election.
“We all have some things that are important to us, but at the end of the day, nobody is going to run the table here,” Bakk said.
He stressed to the governor that he is adamant about the sales tax expansion.
“The governor was a little upset about that,” said Bakk, who said he then told Dayton, “ ‘We are all going to get a little something here, but this can’t get done without that piece.’ That kind of calmed the waters a little bit.”
Dayton told the Star Tribune recently that he is firmly opposed to any sales tax expansion that incudes consumers and not businesses. He did not embrace Bakk’s income tax proposal, either.
Bakk said he’s always viewed negotiations and his work around the Capitol like carpentry.
“Carpenters solve problems. Because if you don’t, nothing gets built,” he said. “That’s why I am so stuck on tax reform. I want to fix this. It’s part of the fabric of who I am.”
Several Senate Democrats say they strongly support Bakk and credit him with corralling a diverse coalition of rural and Twin Cities lawmakers with divergent views on issues such as same-sex marriage and the environment.
Bakk’s strength comes from years of building a political foundation at the Capitol. He helped orchestrate dramatic Democratic victories around the state in the last election, putting them squarely in the majority.
He also developed a reputation as a savvy negotiator.
“Tom is an incredible strategist, and thinks multiple moves ahead,” said Tom Hanson, budget chief under former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “He’s also not afraid to be tough.”
Senate Democrats say they have never seen Bakk resort to arm-twisting. Even the governor’s staff say he is known for sitting in important meetings, absorbing what is being said by all sides and not saying a word.
“He’s someone that just by physical stature could be that kind of old-school Range stereotype, but that’s not his style at all,” said Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. “I have never seen him say, ‘I am leader and this is how it is going to be.’ Never once.”
Charlie Weaver, executive director with the Minnesota Business Partnership, said he has tangled with Bakk over campaigns and other issues.
“People know Tom is fearless and they know he’s not afraid to go to the mat, or go into special session, to get what he wants,” Weaver said. “He’s a very effective negotiator, and I always check to see if I have my wallet when I leave the room.”
Bakk has one key leverage point that neither Dayton nor Thissen have this session: They face re-election next year, but the Senate isn’t up for four years, allowing time for stormy political waters to settle.
Bakk takes pride that every union contract he negotiated never resulted in a strike.
“At the end of the day, you have got to be fair,” he said. “Everyone has to get something, because next session we will be back here with [Thissen] and the governor. None of us should leave angry.”