You don't often hear the phrase "influential minority leader," but it's an apt description of state Sen. Tom Bakk, a Cook Democrat.

If Democrats win an early February special election to replace Tony Lourey — who was picked by Gov. Tim Walz to be commissioner of the Department of Human Services — they'll again be just one vote shy of majority.

Holding together a one-vote majority will be difficult for state Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, the GOP majority leader. In 2017, for instance, when Sen. Carla Nelson had to leave the Capitol to be with her gravely ill father, Gazelka had no choice but to deal with Bakk. Gazelka will also be dealing with a restless caucus, nervously looking toward 2020, when suburban members will be on the ballot with President Donald Trump.

Bakk was his usual self after the Senate's first floor session last week.

Asked about his role this year, the former union negotiator said, "Well, I hope to be somewhat of a broker between the House, governor and Republican leadership here in the Senate."

A bit of self aggrandizement, but perhaps there is some truth to it.

What does Bakk want?

At heart, he's not a partisan. He's a regionalist. He feels the Iron Range deep in his bones, and he'll do whatever is necessary to defend the Range.

Indeed, at a Chamber of Commerce dinner last week, Bakk said redistricting is his reason for running for re-election in 2020. This must sound strange to a layman's ears, who might guess that a lawmaker would want to craft education or health policy. Not so for Bakk. Faster population growth in the metro area means that greater Minnesota and the Iron Range in particular are likely to lose legislative seats after the 2020 census — and with it, political influence. Bakk wants to stop it, if only for another decade.

Bakk praised Walz for using his inaugural speech to address the state's uneven prosperity, in which the metro has seen faster economic growth than some rural areas.

"What was refreshing to me was to hear the talk about ZIP codes," he said. "A whole lot of rural people look at what's going on in our capital city and say, 'Gee, it doesn't seem like we're even at the table.' "

Asked about Sarah Strommen, Walz's choice as commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Bakk pushed for faster permitting for copper-nickel mining that he hopes will help revive the Iron Range.

"She's talked a lot of about 'process' and 'letting the process work,' " Bakk said. "Well, process is a way of throwing sand in the gears and making sure the ball doesn't advance."

Bakk also managed to get in an endorsement of another Ranger, former state Rep. Carly Melin — currently executive director of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council — for a seat on the powerful Public Utilities Commission.

What's clear is that in the end, Bakk will again be at the table.

J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican