Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is said to be hankering to be governor in 2023. I'm not sure I buy it.
What politician who aspires to serve as this state's chief executive would intentionally make more difficult one of the most important tasks a new governor must undertake: the recruitment of top talent to head state agencies?
That's the handicap Gazelka and his Republican majority have inflicted on future governors. It's a sure consequence of the Senate last year voting out of office two able commissioners appointed by DFL Gov. Tim Walz, then last week announcing their intention to do the same to Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop.
Bishop, a former Best Buy executive, resigned Tuesday when she got word that she was about to be dumped. Evidently satisfied — for now — Gazelka and Co. then backed off their threatened assault on several other Walz commissioners. (This gang is due back in session in a few months. Stay tuned.)
To be sure, Republicans likely weren't the only senators who were willing to play this game last week. DFL-turned-independents Tom Bakk and David Tomassoni, who hail from the Iron Range, were in league with the GOP last year in the ouster of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley and were expected to vote against Bishop's confirmation, too. State pollution regulators typically are not beloved figures Up North.
Further, the Senate GOP caucus likely wasn't unanimous. Rochester Republican Dave Senjem was a "no" vote on the motion to fire Kelley, and likely wasn't going to play along this time either. His party's beef with Bishop was mostly about the Walz administration's push for a "clean car rule" to combat climate change. Senjem is a rare Republican who takes climate change seriously.
Minnesotans might chalk up this latest personnel episode to politics as usual in a divided government, which has persisted for so long (30 of the past 32 years) that it has to be seen as the default condition of this state's government.
Voters have indeed seen this plot before. Both parties helped turn the confirmation of state agency heads into a blood sport. A DFL-controlled Senate removed two of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's commissioners, in 2004 and '08 — and in '12, a Republican Senate retaliated by voting out an appointee of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
But this is a case in which familiarity ought to breed contempt. The latter-day Senate isn't using confirmation as a check on the suitability of a governor's appointees, as was traditionally understood to be the intent of the "advice and consent" language in the state Constitution.
Rather, when the Senate is controlled by the party opposite that of the governor, senators have come to view the denial of confirmation as "their one chance" to strike a partisan blow. Confirmation — or more accurately, the lack thereof — has been used repeatedly to remove capable commissioners who are competently implementing gubernatorial policies with which the Senate majority disagrees.
The tradition of addressing confirmation early in a gubernatorial term is out. Today's Senate brings up confirmations at a time chosen for maximum political impact. In Bishop's case, the matter arose a full two and a half years after she took her post.
The goal, apparently, is to keep governors off balance and commissioners nervous about acting on policies the opposition dislikes. At that, senators may be succeeding.
But they are also doing a great job of making state-agency executive positions unattractive to top talent. In a state that relies on a high-functioning state government, that's no small matter.
More than is often acknowledged, the quality of the governance produced by this representative democracy depends on the caliber of the people who serve within it. Yes, government's design is important. So is a watchful and engaged citizenry. But the goodwill and good work of the people willing to devote themselves to public work are crucial to its success.
If administrative talent shies away from state government service, this state will suffer. In the wake of the ousters of Bishop, Kelley and Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink (in August 2020), the word is assuredly out that in Minnesota, state agency heads are used for political target practice. Commissioners in this state can be abruptly removed precisely because they are good at implementing the policies of their boss.
That message will further damage the appeal of jobs that already can be a tough sell, particularly to prospects from outside state government. Commissioner positions typically pay about $150,000 a year. Comparable private-sector jobs often pay much more and don't bring the added burden of fishbowl visibility and partisan hostility.
Securing and retaining a best-and-brightest workforce is a critical responsibility for state government's elected stewards. It's a shared responsibility, borne by legislative leaders as well as the governor.
One legislative leader has shown that he's quite willing to put the quality of state government's executive talent pool at risk. That might look like toughness in the eyes of the Republicans who will decide a 2022 gubernatorial primary fight. But it doesn't signal that Paul Gazelka is thinking like a governor.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.