Minnesota state Sen. Tom Bakk, an Iron Range stalwart and one of the Capitol’s most powerful DFL lawmakers, is facing a rare internal challenge from a fellow Democratic senator for the post of minority leader.
The looming showdown between Bakk and his new challenger, Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury, was expected to play out in a DFL caucus meeting scheduled for Tuesday. Bakk, however, acted Thursday to postpone the meeting, which could turn into a clash between the party’s liberal metro lawmakers and its more conservative outstate wing.
Kent, an assistant leader of the caucus, announced her intention to run against Bakk in an e-mail to fellow DFL senators on Wednesday.
“I’m writing to let you know that during our December 10th caucus meeting, I intend to run for minority leader,” Kent wrote in the brief e-mail. “I look forward to the caucus discussion.”
Bakk, from Cook, sent his own e-mail to the caucus Thursday postponing the meeting, saying not all DFL senators would be able to attend.
“Sen. Kent’s e-mail request for a new leadership election is a serious matter and it’s important to have full caucus participation in that discussion,” Bakk wrote. “Given the gravity of Sen. Kent’s request, we will postpone Tuesday’s caucus until a date when we can accommodate all 32 Senate DFL members.”
Kent, reached by the Star Tribune, declined to discuss her plans.
“Really, in our caucus we’re a family and I never talk about family,” Kent said. “Families have discussions and that’s where I’m going to leave it today.”
Bakk, through a spokeswoman, also declined to comment.
Bakk has led state Senate Democrats, both as majority leader and minority leader, since 2011. First elected to the Legislature in 1994, he is known around the Capitol as an expert at the legislative process, a savvy negotiator and a zealous advocate of Iron Range political interests in St. Paul.
Kent was elected to the Senate in 2012. She is the lead Democrat on the Senate’s Education Policy Committee, and has been an assistant leader of the caucus since 2017.
Bakk has clashed frequently with more liberal members of the Senate Democratic caucus, which has grown increasingly more populated with members from the Twin Cities area.
In particular, Bakk’s positions on northeastern Minnesota mining issues have run afoul of environmentalists who are an important part of the DFL coalition. Kent’s challenge came to light days after Bakk came under fire from environmentalists for telling a group of business and political leaders in Ely that the controversial Twin Metals copper-nickel mine proposal on the Iron Range will not be stopped by a state environmental review. “Now it might take a decade or more,” Bakk said, “but the process isn’t intended to stop projects.”
Bakk’s opposition to stronger gun laws also put him at odds with colleagues from Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs, deepening a long-simmering intraparty rift. Bakk has long been a fixture in the politics of northern Minnesota, a region that was once a DFL stronghold and which has drifted increasingly toward the Republican Party in recent elections.
Bakk survived an uprising by some in his caucus at the end of the 2015 legislative session, after he got in a very public spat with then-Gov. Mark Dayton, also a Democrat.
The brewing leadership fight has played out largely out of public view, with several DFL senators declining to comment publicly for this story. It comes as Senate Democrats prepare for a 2020 election cycle in which they will attempt to overturn Republicans’ current 35-32 majority.