Senjem Returns As Senate GOP Leader

Minnesota state Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester makes a return as Senate Republican leader after an 11-hour meeting Tuesday.

The new majority leader faces some tough decisions right away.

Senjem served as minority leader until last year, when Republicans won the Senate majority for the first time in 38 years.

The Senate Republican caucus also elected Sens. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, Paul Gazelka of Brainerd, Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo and Claire Robling of Jordan as assistant Senate majority leaders.

Senators were quiet about what went on behind closed doors, planning to go in front of reporters to announce election results but not talking much about what went into that decision. They started deliberating in the wake of a scandal at 9 a.m. in a Roseville hotel and continued well after dark, only taking brief breaks but not revealing what was going on in private.

The Senate’s 37 Republicans, 21 of whom are freshmen, likely discussed a number of problems as they sifted through many candidates for their majority leader post, including: recovering from a scandal left by the past majority leader, finding $2 million to cut from their own budget, building an agenda for the 2012 legislative session and preparing for November’s election, in which every legislative seat will be on the ballot.

Reporters saw 36 of the 37 senators at the meeting, including Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, who resigned as GOP leader Dec. 15 and later admitted to an improper relationship with a Senate worker.

Throughout the GOP meeting, about two dozen reporters camped out in the Roseville Radisson Inn lobby, along with a few Senate Republican staffers, awaiting the outcome of the vote.

Tuesday’s election was forced when Koch resigned from the job, while keeping her Senate seat, saying it was time to move on to something new. The next day, four senators revealed allegations that Koch and a male Senate employee engaged in what they described as “an inappropriate relationship.”

Last week, Koch apologized for the relationship and the damage it caused.

The day the senators announced the relationship, Senate Republicans also lost their communications director, Michael Brodkorb. He was hired by Koch and a Senate official said he left when she left the top job.

Some senators have criticized five of their leaders who confronted Koch about the allegations. Deputy Majority Leader Geoff Michel of Edina learned about the allegations on Sept. 21, but most other senators did not find out until after some members of the Senate leadership team talked to Koch and she resigned.

While trying to bring Republican senators back together, the new leader also must find a way to trim $2 million from the Senate budget. That was the amount cut in July when Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP leaders agreed to a new two-year budget that ended a 20-day government shutdown.

A meeting about the Senate budget scheduled for last week was postponed until a new leader is in place.

For the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 24, the majority leader must guide the caucus toward an agenda. While the budget is solved for now, a Feb. 28 economic report could show that it needs to be revisited. Otherwise, much of the focus in 2012 is expected to be government reform.

On Feb. 21, a new map will be released showing new legislative districts, a major step in next year’s election process. Once the map is released, work will intensify on the legislative campaign. The majority leader usually is in charge of that work for the caucus.

Republican control of the Legislature is at stake next fall. The GOP took control of the Senate this year for the first time in 38 years, but only holds a slim majority.

The majority leader is one of the three most powerful state politicians, along with the governor and House speaker. The leader decides what committees deal with each bill, and can prevent bills from ever being heard, or can put bills on a fast track. The leader also makes many appointments.