DFLer Susan Kent was elected Senate DFL minority leader on Saturday, toppling longtime Iron Range leader Tom Bakk to become the first woman ever to lead the caucus.

In picking Kent, a two-term member from Woodbury, the 32-member caucus is signaling a shift in direction for the party less than two weeks before the legislative session convenes. They're betting on a fresh face to maneuver in negotiations with DFL Gov. Tim Walz, the DFL-led House and Republicans in control of the Senate in a year in which a bonding bill and a projected $1.3 billion budget surplus are on the table.

They're also hoping she can lead them into victory in the 2020 election. Democrats are trying to reclaim power from Republicans who hold a narrow 35-32 majority in the Senate.

Senators debated the leadership change for nearly six hours in a closed-door meeting in the Carpenters Union Hall in St. Paul. Neither Kent nor Bakk took questions after the vote, but Kent, flanked by assistant leaders Jeff Hayden and Carolyn Laine, called it her "privilege" to be the new leader.

"This is an important year, we have a lot of important issues facing Minnesotans and we are committed to working hard to deliver for those people in our communities and to have a successful election in November," she said.

In the battle for control of the Senate, Kent's own suburban swing seat is one Democrats will have to defend this fall. She won re-election in 2016 by just 400 votes, and she's facing a challenge from former Woodbury mayor and one-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Mary Giuliani Stephens.

Kent represents a growing number of urban and suburban members of the caucus who were increasingly at odds with Bakk on issues such as mining and gun control. But some DFLers fear ousting Bakk could exacerbate a trending shift in power from Democrats to Republicans on the Iron Range, while others are worried the caucus is losing one of its most experienced negotiators and campaigners in leadership.

Bakk has led the Senate DFL caucus for nearly a decade and was first elected to the chamber in 2002, after serving in the House for eight years.

Kent grew up in New Orleans and spent time working in marketing in Texas before moving to Minnesota in the early 2000s. She got involved in politics through activism at her son's school, and made her first bid for office in her 2012 Senate run.

Her leadership challenge became public late last year when internal caucus e-mails were obtained by the Star Tribune, but senators' deliberations have been mostly private. Rank-and-file members of the Senate DFL caucus did not comment on the discussions after the meeting.

The 2020 legislative session convenes on Feb. 11.

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042 Twitter: @bbierschbach