ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The contest among state Senate Republicans to replace fallen majority leader Amy Koch is happening behind closed doors at the State Capitol, with most of the leading candidates not willing to publicly announce their intentions as of Thursday even as next week’s election approaches.
“You’ll know we’ve chosen someone when you see the black smoke,” said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, comparing the leadership race to the secretive Vatican process of picking a new pope. Ingebrigtsen told The Associated Press he’s a candidate for the majority leader job — maybe.
Koch, of Buffalo, unexpectedly resigned the Senate’s top post last week and said she wouldn’t run for re-election next year. A day later, four of her colleagues revealed they confronted Koch the night before her resignation with allegations she was involved in an inappropriate relationship with a Senate employee. Earlier this week, Koch admitted to the relationship; she has not returned repeated phone calls from the AP.
The manner in which Koch departed has heightened the mystery around selecting a new majority leader. Two leading but publicly undeclared contenders, Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie and Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, also have not responded to AP interview requests. Both lost to Koch for the majority leader post last year, and they represent two factions of the 37-member caucus.
The somber Hann is a social and fiscal conservative known to spar with Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, including temporarily blocking the administration from receiving a federal health care grant a few weeks ago. The more jovial Senjem is a moderate known to have good relationships with Democrats. Another potential candidate is Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, who also didn’t return calls for comment.
They are far from the only possible candidates for what looks to be a demanding job.
The new majority leader must try to unite a caucus still new to the majority it captured in the 2010 election, and that’s now reeling from scandal. The Jan. 24 legislative session is approaching quickly and could be dominated by the Minnesota Vikings’ controversial push for partial public funding of a new stadium — an issue that has divided lawmakers of both parties, and on which several leading majority leader candidates have wildly diverging views.
Also on deck is the 2012 election, when all 67 state senators are on the ballot including a number of freshman Republicans from swing districts. Democrats eager to reclaim their recently lost majority are sure to remind voters of the Senate GOP’s problems.
“We have to put this behind us,” Ingebrigtsen said of the Koch matter. “And I think we have to pick someone who is in a position to put this behind us.”
Ingebrigtsen, a former Douglas County sheriff, said several colleagues called him in recent days asking him to run. He said he won’t decide for sure until he’s inside next Tuesday’s meeting, where the new leader will be chosen.
“Most members are keeping their cards close to their chest and want to see who all the players are going to be,” said Sen. Joe Gimse, a low-key, five-year Senate veteran from Willmar who said he could be among the candidates.
A few senators made news just by taking themselves out of the running. Sen. Mike Parry, a fiery right-winger from Waseca who is perhaps Dayton’s staunchest critic in the Legislature, said Thursday that despite requests from some colleagues he would instead remain focused on a recently launched congressional campaign. A day earlier, freshman Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville — another voluble conservative — abandoned a possible bid and said he agreed to support an unidentified colleague.
Thompson defended the secrecy.
“This is a position that is picked by the members, and is really not a discussion that ought to be had publicly,” he said. “There are all kinds of issues involved in such a selection process, and I think those are discussions that ought to be made by people having the decisions.”
Koch, who had been the Senate’s first-ever female majority leader, led the caucus through a rocky 2011 session marked by an agonizingly long standoff with Dayton over how to close a $5 billion state budget deficit. It culminated in a 20-day partial government shutdown. A small budget surplus heading into the 2012 session promises to make lawmakers’ jobs a little easier, but Senate Republicans will have to brace for possible continuing fallout from the scandal.
The identity of the male staffer in a relationship with Koch has not yet been publicly revealed. Koch could face an ethics committee investigation, and the GOP senators who confronted her with the allegations — Hann and Senjem among them — have faced criticism from some fellow Republicans for their handling of the situation.
Filling the majority leader job on an interim basis has been Sen. Geoff Michel of Edina, previously Koch’s deputy. While Michel was seen as a potential permanent replacement, he said he’s been too busy cleaning up the mess the last week to think much about it.
“I’ve felt a little bit like a firefighter,” Michel said. “Your job is to put out the fire, not ask who’s going to live in the house next.”
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