MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate showed their displeasure with Democratic Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday by ousting his commissioner of labor and industry amid a dispute over how the administration is managing the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate voted 34-32, with one Republican not voting, not to confirm Nancy Lippink, whose agency has been in charge of workplace safety during the pandemic. GOP leaders did not publicly announce their plans for the vote in advance, prompting Democratic leaders to denounce the move as a shameful political ploy.

Walz called it “political payback” and expressed fear that Senate Republicans will now go after his health commissioner, Jan Malcolm, one of his administration’s most visible faces in the fight against the virus, whose confirmation remains pending.

Nancy Lippink (credit: MN Dept. of Labor and Industry)

The vote was the most significant development in the one-day special session, which Walz was legally required to call as a condition for extending his emergency powers for another 30 days. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of East Gull Lake, brought up Leppink’s confirmation after the Senate had already voted for the third time in as many months to rescind the governor’s emergency declaration, a move the Democratic-controlled House once again blocked.

“This is something that’s been brewing since the very, very beginning of the year,” Gazelka said as he opened a contentious debate, insisting that the dispute was about her job performance. He said he would have called for the vote much earlier except for COVID-19 and the turmoil after the death of George Floyd.
“Businesses across the state need a responsive and supportive commissioner as we recover from COVID,” Gazelka said. “Leppink has instead increased regulations on business, and even been hostile to businesses.”

Walz defended Leppink’s performance at a news conference Wednesday evening and said he didn’t see the vote coming despite Gazelka’s claims that he had warned the administration. Walz said he would begin searching for a qualified replacement, but that what happened to Leppink could make that task harder.

“To have Nancy Leppink get caught in the middle of a petty political move puts Minnesotans in danger,” he said.

Democratic legislative leaders didn’t buy the GOP explanation of performance issues, either. Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, of Woodbury, backed up Walz’s statement that Gazelka gave them no advance warning.

“It is a huge loss to the people of Minnesota that the Senate Republicans are not taking the pandemic seriously once again, and would use this kind of just petty political maneuver for no real good reason other than partisanship,” she said.

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