Susan Kent had a “whirlwind” weekend, and things aren’t slowing down for her anytime soon.
On Saturday, the DFL senator from Woodbury ousted longtime Iron Range Sen. Tom Bakk to become Senate minority leader, the first woman ever to lead the party in the chamber.
But her work is just starting: She takes over the caucus one week before lawmakers gavel in the 2020 legislative session, where a $1.3 billion projected budget surplus is on the table and the minority party plays a big part in negotiating a potential $1 billion package of construction projects across the state. She also must unite a geographically and ideologically fractured caucus on an agenda that could help them take back the majority this fall.
“If you want to find an issue where we are unified, we are absolutely unified on winning back the majority,” Kent said.
Rank-and-file senators have been reluctant to comment publicly since the vote Saturday to replace Bakk as caucus leader. Some were frustrated by the situation, while others cited rule not to talk about caucus business to outsiders.
But Republicans, who hold a 35-32 majority in the Senate, are pouncing on the shake-up, calling Bakk’s ousting emblematic of the party’s “careen way left.”
“Removing Tom Bakk as Democrat minority leader only means their party continues to lurch toward socialism, anti-mining, anti-pipelines, and anti-jobs,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka wrote in a tweet over the weekend. He was not available to comment Monday, but he made a pitch to Iron Rangers in a Facebook video that Republicans “got your back.”
Kent and other Democrats dismiss the Republican line that the DFL Party doesn’t care about the Iron Range, historically DFL-friendly turf that has been trending Republican in the last several election cycles.
“I believe that the things we are talking about — health care, schools, good jobs for everyone, safe and healthy communities — those are important to every Minnesotan no matter what ZIP code you live in,” Kent said.
But there’s no denying that the number of rural Democrats in the Senate has been decimated over the years. Now, only six out of 32 members in the caucus are from outside of the metro area. Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, wouldn’t discuss what was said in the nearly six-hour closed-door caucus meeting, but he said he supported Bakk in the leadership fight because he had a “big tent” mentality toward including rural members on the direction of the caucus.
“We are seeing more population and therefore more political influence in the Cities, and that’s a concern of mine,” Eken said, adding that he’s spoken with Kent and he’s hopeful she’ll be inclusive of rural members.
“We need to be unified moving forward,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to ensure that the rural voices are being heard in the process.”
Under Kent’s leadership, there could be more of a public push from Senate Democrats on gun control and safety measures. Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said that’s been a tension between metro and rural members in the past.
“The way that plays in Greater Minnesota is different from the direction that some in the metro want to take,” Hayden said. “She is going to bring energy around the issue of gun safety, not only the policy proposals but also the amount of energy the caucus puts into it.”
But even Bakk’s detractors recognize his assets. He’s served in the Senate since 2002 after eight years in the House and is considered a savvy negotiator at the Capitol. He became the Senate leader in 2011 and has spent nearly a decade fundraising and campaigning for its members.
Kent must immediately take over fundraising and strategy for the 2020 election, one where her own suburban seat is one Democrats will have to defend. She recently fielded a competitive challenger in former Woodbury mayor and onetime Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Giuliani Stephens. Kent won her 2016 re-election race by just 400 votes.
For his part, DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said he’s glad the matter is settled so the focus can shift to November. “Instead of having a big family food fight, we can now come together as one and work together to win the majority,” he said.