A governor publicly dismisses the Legislature as a “circus.” The Senate majority leader, a fellow DFLer, shoots back that the governor is “dictatorial and unfocused.” The House speaker piles on, saying the governor has done “severe and lasting damage” to his relationship with lawmakers.
Just another day at the Minnesota Capitol, rocked by the recent war of words between Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk? No, those quotes are from a June 1989 Star Tribune story about a bitter dispute that erupted among Gov. Rudy Perpich, Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and House Speaker Robert Vanasek — all Democrats.
The feud revolved around Perpich’s veto of a major DFL tax bill because of disagreements over property tax relief, and has been recalled recently by participants in and observers of the current drama.
“This is not the first time there’s been a dust-up between legislative leaders or DFL caucuses and their governor,” Bakk told reporters last week, the hint of a smile on his face. “You can look back at some of the history of when Gov. Perpich was here, and Democrats controlled the Senate.”
In the frenzied, final days of the ’89 session, the Legislature sent Perpich a tax bill that he said failed to sufficiently simplify a complicated property tax system, even though it did include significant relief for homeowners.
“We thought it was a good bill on the political side of things, and we felt the governor wasn’t getting the best political advice,” Vanasek recalled. At the time, Perpich was nearing the end of his third term, and legislative leaders saw him as increasingly isolated from the rest of the DFL. Perpich lost his 1990 re-election bid to Arne Carlson, and died in 1995.
“I warned the governor in a letter that if he vetoed the bill, I would blast him at a news conference,” Vanasek said. “And he vetoed the bill, and I blasted him at a news conference.”
With a chuckle, Vanasek also remembered another small twist of the knife he made. “I ordered them to lock the front of the House chamber so it would be harder for the governor’s people to deliver his veto letter to the House.”
The major players in the current drama have their own ties to the earlier generation of leaders. Dayton worked for Perpich, briefly in the ’70s and again in the ’80s, and frequently mentions Perpich’s governing style as an inspiration. Dayton brought up Perpich several times in relation to the issue that prompted his falling-out with Bakk: pay increases for cabinet commissioners.
“Governor Perpich used to say, if you don’t stand with your good people, you can’t expect your good people to stand with you,” Dayton said.
Bakk learned his negotiating skills at the foot of former Sen. Doug Johnson of Tower, who chaired the tax committee in the ’80s. .
Moe, who served as Senate majority leader for more than two decades, said policy disputes at the highest levels of state government easily become personal, even rancorous.
“I always refer to politics as a social sport,” he said. “It’s one of the most human processes ever designed. Do personalities get involved? Absolutely.”
These days, Moe and Vanasek are registered lobbyists, and still regulars at the Capitol. Last week, as Moe sat with a reporter reminiscing about the Perpich days, his cellphone rang. It was Vanasek.
After Perpich’s veto, the DFL leaders quietly negotiated a new tax bill, finally reaching agreement in late September. The three men buried the hatchet publicly on stage at an AFL-CIO convention in St. Paul. Moe now speaks of Perpich with great fondness.
“One of the more personable people I ever dealt with in this business,” Moe said. “Gregarious, very optimistic. Nothing was ever too big a problem it couldn’t be handled.”