A governor, as head of the executive branch, appoints commissioners who are committed to carrying out his or her agenda. The state Senate holds the power to confirm or reject those appointments. It is part of a delicately balanced system of checks and balances, and a safeguard against unqualified appointees.
That balance is at risk now, in an increasingly tense relationship between DFL Gov. Tim Walz and a Republican-controlled Senate led by Majority Leader Paul Gazelka. The latest escalation was the torpedoing of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink, who 19 months into her job found herself sacked by a Senate that exercised its option to reject her confirmation, forcing her immediate departure from Walz's cabinet.
Gazelka has let it be known that other commissioners are in the Senate's sights, including Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley and Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove.
Gazelka told an editorial writer that his members have concerns those commissioners are not doing their jobs appropriately. Regarding Leppink, he cited several instances in which businesses complained about what they considered overzealous regulation. Meanwhile, Kelley opposes Enbridge's proposed Line 3 oil pipeline, in accordance with Walz. Line 3 is a GOP priority. "If they're not doing their job, the Senate is responsible for holding them accountable," Gazelka said.
But there is a fine line between providing accountability and attempting to subvert policy goals with which you disagree. Walz has said he is satisfied with his commissioners' work. No one has contended the commissioners lack the basic qualifications for their positions. There have been no official findings of actual wrongdoing. Leppink appears to have defined her job in a way that differs from the GOP-controlled Senate's conception. The Senate should take care that its accountability role does not morph into a weaponizing of the confirmation process that attempts to control the executive branch.
Gazelka has said that is not his intent. He said he made his concerns known to Walz as far back as February, to little avail. Commissioners were unresponsive to Republican senators, he said, and under Walz's emergency powers during the pandemic, "We're not in the loop on anything." Gazelka noted that his caucus has not decided whether to act on other commissioners. He did say that "we did want to send the message that it's not OK to do everything on your own."
Walz, too, is frustrated. In a recent news conference, he called Leppink's firing "a terrible thing" and said "I'm trying to figure out a way to get us back to the table. We are going to have disagreements. If you don't believe in climate change — and my commissioners do — you can disagree with them, but that's not a reason to throw them out. I was elected. I put a group of competent people around me to serve Minnesotans."
Minnesota should be able to attract top candidates to lead its agencies. That task will be harder — for any governor — if a majority of senators can remove them to make a political point.
Walz and Gazelka should regroup and navigate a path that preserves Walz's commissioners but makes room for Gazelka to voice his concerns. Minnesotans will not look kindly on attempts to dismantle the administration of the governor they elected commissioner by commissioner.