Two northern Minnesota senators are leaving the DFL Caucus to form a new Independent Caucus.
Sens. Tom Bakk of Cook and David Tomassoni of Chisholm announced the move Wednesday morning, saying doing this presents an opportunity to chair committees and helps them better serve their districts within the legislative framework.
"People are going to wonder why I'm doing this – and to be honest, there are several reasons. I'm very disappointed by the extreme partisanship going on nationally and right here in Minnesota," Sen. Bakk, a former DFL leader in the Senate, said in a statement. "Both political parties are to blame. The constant negative and sharp rhetoric is undermining voters' confidence in our public institutions. It doesn't have to stay this way."
Prior to Bakk and Tomassoni's announcement, the GOP was going into the 2021 legislative session with a 34-33 majority in the Senate (the DFL controls the House). Now Republican's margin will be 34-31-2. On some issues, Bakk and Tomassoni will vote with Republicans, giving the GOP a 36-31 majority.
Bakk noted that he and Tomassoni have worked across party lines throughout their careers and "have always represented our districts as bipartisan and moderate members of the legislature."
"Forming this new caucus is just a natural progression of aligning more with moderate than the far right or left," Bakk said. "Additionally, we will not stray from the values of northern Minnesota and what our people are most passionate about – our economy and jobs that support our families and our economic lifeline of mining and wood products. Our natural resource-based economy is critical to our region of the state."
This comes at a time when the Iron Range is seeing a shift from blue to red. It was once a DFL stronghold but in recent years it has shifted to favor Republicans in federal races and some state races.
"People in the last election made it pretty clear that they wanted us to work together. For me, that means a path forward to solving our economic and pandemic crisis in a bipartisan fashion," Tomassoni said.
Bakk, who's served in the Senate since 2002, including seven years as the DFL leader until Sen. Susan Kent was elected to the spot earlier this year, left the Senate DFL Caucus once before, in 2003, but returned and climbed his way to the top, MPR News reports.
Tomassoni, who was first elected to the Senate in 2000, was elected Senate president in the Republican-controlled chamber last week. This marked the first time in Minnesota history that a minority party member was elected president of the Senate.
Tomassoni's election to Senate president was initiated by Republicans in the event U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar takes a post in President-elect Joe Biden's administration. If that were to happen and Gov. Tim Walz appointed Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan to fill the U.S. Senate seat, the Senate president is then elevated to lieutenant governor. Republicans elected Tomassoni as to not lose a GOP seat – and the Republican majority – in the Senate when, at the time, it held a single-seat majority.
Both Bakk and Tomassoni expect to be named chairs of a Senate committee in the upcoming legislative session. However Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, hasn't confirmed this.
"Serving as chair of a Senate committee will allow me to better serve my communities and deliver results for my district," Tomassoni said in a statement.
He added, “If we expect to actually bridge the partisan divide, someone must take a proactive step to build such a bridge. I consider this to be a positive approach in an attempt to move away from the negative and partisan rhetoric while continuing to fully support our way of life on the Iron Range.”
Reaction from lawmakers
Senate DFL Leader Susan Kent released a statement on Bakk and Tomassoni's departure from the Senate DFL Caucus, saying:
“The Senate DFL caucus includes a broad spectrum of views, especially as the only senate caucus with members from urban, suburban, and greater Minnesota communities, but it does not stretch as far as those who wish to function outside of our values as a caucus. The Senate DFL is focused on working hard to get this pandemic under control, get Minnesotans back to work and school safely, and eradicate our state’s horrific racial disparities. We appreciate their service and look forward to working on behalf of all Minnesotans with all of our colleagues in the future.”
Minnesota Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said in a tweet that the "DFL's left wing forced this on" Bakk and Tomassoni, noting if the DFL "continues to block and delay mining and infrastructure projects in northern Minnesota, we can expect more to follow their lead."
Garofalo hopes though that this will lead to "more legislators from both parties working together," noting "Minnesotans are screaming for the type of pragmatic, reasonable leadership we are seeing from Senators Bakk and Tomassoni."
However, at least one Democrat in Minnesota's Legislature says this isn't about ideology at all.
"This has more to do with loss of power than ideology. It wasn’t about ideology when Bakk held up minimum wage for more than a year to get a new building. Now he doesn’t like which office he gets so he’s grasping for relevance. That’s what this is about- egos of Grumpy Old Men," Rep. Mike Howard, D-Richfield, tweeted.