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All his life, Tom Bakk has built things — from carpentry projects he worked on alongside his father on the shores of Lake Vermilion, to relationships that facilitated his ascent to one of the most powerful perches at Minnesota’s Capitol.
Now the majority leader of the state Senate’s strong support for a controversial building project on the Capitol grounds is chipping away at the foundation of unity among Democrats in a pivotal moment for the party.
Bakk has been the most vocal advocate for a new $63 million office complex, across the street from the Capitol, proposed to house senators during and after an ongoing renovation of the domed Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton, facing a difficult re-election, calls the embattled project a political liability. A House committee has plans to review the proposal Friday morning.
The building plans have strained Bakk’s relationship with House Speaker Paul Thissen as the two men try to negotiate a harmonious finish to a legislative session that could determine whether Democrats maintain full control of state government.
It’s a session that has seen alliances between Democrats tested, not just over the office project but in the ongoing effort to raise the state minimum wage from $6.15 to $9.50 an hour. What seemed like a slam dunk for the party has again divided Bakk from Dayton and Thissen, as the majority leader pushes back against longtime allies in labor and angers party activists who seek not just a wage hike, but an automatic tie to inflation.
“I’m just trying to take a thoughtful approach on this, and the idea of putting minimum wage increases on autopilot, I think, puts some of our business community at risk,” Bakk said in an interview. “I realize that’s not where labor wants to be. But it’s the thoughtful approach.”
In November both Dayton and House Democrats will face voters. State senators won’t be on the ballot until 2016, making Bakk the only leader who can count on being back in power next year. The tension that has generated exploded publicly last month, when Dayton and Thissen called Bakk out for moving slower than they wanted on a tax-cut package that benefited more than a million Minnesotans.
“I don’t like to call out my friends or allies publicly, but I didn’t see anywhere else to go,” Dayton told the Star Tribune. “What I was trying behind the scenes wasn’t effective, so I had to try another approach. It was a very important part of my agenda.”
After a news conference where Dayton publicly accused DFL senators of linking the fate of the office building to the tax cuts, Thissen quickly summoned reporters and made the accusation even more explicit: He said Bakk had demanded the House give final approval to the building in exchange for a Senate vote on the tax cuts.
Following the blowup, the Senate quickly passed the tax cuts, which will send $444 million in tax relief to Minnesotans this year and more than $1 billion in the following two-year budget cycle. While he voted for the bill, Bakk suggested labor’s focus on minimum wage inflation indexing over tax policy was a misguided use of available state revenues.
“Now a billion dollars is gone, and I tried,” Bakk said. “I tried to hold up for a couple of weeks to see if labor and other Democrats would say ‘Hey, hey, don’t put us back where we were under Ventura and squander a balanced budget by giving it away with a huge tax cut bill.’ No one stepped up.”
Speculating on the nature of the Bakk-Thissen relationship is a popular pastime at the Capitol. The two cut very different figures: Bakk, hailing from northeastern Minnesota, is a burly union laborer, gregarious and blunt. Thissen, who grew up in the suburbs and represents southwest Minneapolis, is a lanky attorney, reserved and professorial.
“I don’t think they understand each other very well,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, the House’s chief negotiator on the minimum wage bill. He said House Democrats are frustrated that Bakk has insisted on concessions in order to pass policy goals widely supported by the Democratic base.
Even though the House and Senate are controlled by DFLers, “Last session and this session have been very transactional, and very few things have happened without some price being paid for it,” Winkler said.
Bakk and Thissen downplay disagreements; both insist they have a fine working relationship, and chalk up differences to tensions inherent in divided government.
“You know, I remember when I was in the House. We all liked to gripe about that sneaky Roger Moe and what is he up to now?” Bakk recalled of one of his predecessors as Senate majority leader. Bakk served four terms in the House before switching to the Senate in 2002.
Still, the usually reticent Thissen has grown less tempered in recent remarks about Bakk and his fellow Senate DFLers. Last month, Thissen unloaded over the stalled minimum wage bill: “The bottom line, to me, if the Senate wants to kill the bill, they should just tell Minnesotans directly and stop playing games with it.”
Even as Democrats war over minimum wage, Republicans have been hammering on the Senate office building. Dayton himself has been a critic, saying it could cost Democratic candidates votes over the impression that it’s lavish — another example of politicians feathering their own nests.
House could pay the price
“They could lose the majority over it,” said House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt of his Democratic colleagues. “I think it could be a paramount issue for the election cycle. The Senate wants it, the House may pay the price for it.”
Bakk insists that building the new complex is a sensible option. The Capitol renovation will force senators completely out of the building after next year’s session, meaning they need a place to temporarily house those senators whose offices are there and a spot to hold floor sessions and committee hearings for a couple of years. Investing in permanent space is more cost-effective than leasing temporary space that eventually would be abandoned, Bakk said.
In the remaining weeks of session, Democrats must juggle disagreements over both the Senate building and minimum wage indexing, with the acute awareness that November could bring an end to their first-time-in-a-generation full control of the Capitol. Labor and its allies, for whom an indexed minimum wage increase is the top priority, are watching a window of opportunity that soon may close.
Bakk’s own background is in organized labor. Now retired, he was a business agent for the Carpenters Union for many years and frequently refers to his “37-year-old union card.” Labor leaders are quick to call him a friend and ally, but admit to growing angst over his opposition to inflation indexing.
‘The L stands for Labor’
“I’m not a Pollyanna. We know that things get bargained up here,” said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5, the state’s largest public worker union. “But ... it’s a DFL House, a DFL Senate, a DFL governor. The ‘L’ stands for labor.”
Bakk has said he personally could support the inflation measure, but that it lacks sufficient support from the DFL senators he leads. Some insist it’s his job to build that support. “When he decides to do this, it will get done,” said Dan McGrath, of TakeAction Minnesota.
But fellow senators say Bakk’s gruff demeanor leads many to the erroneous conclusion that he’s an arm-twister.
“I think he’s one of the best listeners I’ve ever seen in this building,” said Sen. Dick Cohen of St. Paul, one of the Capitol’s most senior Democrats. “But physically, Tom can be a little intimidating.”
Bakk, 59, said he’s found it increasingly important to divide his life from his work. He jokes that his favorite view of the Capitol is in his rearview mirror as he heads north. He rarely answers his cellphone on weekends, preferring to ride his snowmobile or take in a movie with his wife.
Bakk, who has served in the Legislature since 1994, said he’s recently started thinking about his legacy as a leader.
When many in his caucus were reluctant to vote for last year’s controversial legalizing of gay marriage, Bakk didn’t force the issue. Instead, he invited former Vice President Walter Mondale to talk to them about how he arrived at some of the toughest votes of his political career. In the end, only three Senate Democrats voted no. The bill passed.
“I don’t want to be remembered around here as a heavy-handed leader who had to break arms to get things done,” Bakk said. “Everything gets negotiated, and in two years you’re going to be working with the same people on a different issue. If they’re still feeling a sting from last time, that makes it a little harder.”