Minnesotans are witness this week to a highly unusual political shuffle, even for these precedent-shattering times. Tuesday brought the resignation of Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken in the face of a spate of allegations of inappropriate behavior with women. On Wednesday, Tina Smith, Minnesota’s DFL lieutenant governor for the past three years, is due to be sworn in to take his place. Smith’s resignation as lieutenant governor was timed to go into effect at midnight Wednesday.
That means that as of 12:01 a.m., Minnesota’s lieutenant governor is Republican Michelle Fischbach — who may or may not also still be a state senator from District 13 northwest of St. Cloud, and may or may not still be the president of the Minnesota Senate. Fischbach says it’s constitutionally permissible for her to play all three roles. DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office has issued an opinion saying that it is not.
That disagreement now seems likely to land at the Minnesota Supreme Court. That’s fitting. It’s the body that’s constitutionally tailor-made to resolve conflicts such as this one.
Yet we wish DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and state legislative leaders would have opted for a different resolution. Dayton would have done well to accept a proposal from Republican legislative leaders to call a special session of the Legislature and elect a new Senate president — a DFLer from a reasonably safe DFL seat — before the midnight transition in the lieutenant governor’s office occurred. That new Senate president would then have succeeded Smith as lieutenant governor, allowing the Senate to then re-elect Fischbach as Senate president if it wanted to keep her in the presiding officer’s chair.
That special-session maneuver would have kept Fischbach in the Senate, where she says she prefers to remain. It would have put a DFLer in line of succession for a DFL governor, in keeping with the outcome of the 2014 gubernatorial election. But it also would have led to a vacancy in a Senate seat occupied currently by a DFLer, not a Republican. That did not suit Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, who heads a DFL caucus that’s just one seat short of majority status in the 34-33 Senate. He’s keen for an opportunity to flip those numbers in his favor.
Dayton stuck with his usual formula for special sessions, requiring prior agreement on the session’s work plan from all four legislative caucus leaders. Bakk thus appears to have been able to scuttle a reasonable plan for avoiding weeks of uncertainty and expense as an expected lawsuit over Fischbach’s status winds through the courts. Without a special session, the Senate has no opportunity to elect a new president until it reconvenes in regular session on Feb. 20.
Today is a day for thanking Franken, both for nine-plus years of U.S. Senate service and for recognizing that his effectiveness had recently been sorely damaged. He did well by opting to resign for Minnesota’s sake. It’s also a day for good wishes for Smith as she brings her extensive experience in public service to bear in a new role.
And it’s a day to urge an early and decisive determination about the Minnesota Senate status of the new lieutenant governor. With the state Senate’s narrow divide, much more than Fischbach’s political career could hinge on that call.