Two influential state senators from the Iron Range are leaving the Minnesota DFL to form an independent caucus in the already narrowly divided Senate of the nation’s only split-party state government.
The move by Sen. Tom Bakk of Cook and Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm changes the political makeup of the Legislature, where they could create an often-changing dynamic at the Capitol next year, where an already-tight majority for Senate Republicans is now expected to expand on a number of issues. GOP senators exited the 2020 election with a 34-33 majority, but the decision by Bakk and Tomassoni to shed their DFL labels for the Minnesota Senate Independent Caucus shifts the balance to 34-31-2.
In a joint announcement Wednesday, the two senators cited increased partisanship from both parties as part of their reasoning and said the split “makes sense to better serve their districts within the legislative framework.”
But in a Senate structure where Bakk and Tomassoni have found themselves more on the outside looking in on key decisions and cutting deals, their decision to shake up the political landscape could work to their advantage.
They intend to seek committee chair seats as independents. KSTP reported that likely landing spots for Bakk and Tomassoni were chairing the prominent capital investment (bonding) and higher education committees. Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is charged with appointing committee chairs.
“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,” Bakk, who left the DFL caucus once before in 2003 and returned, 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.”
Bakk and Tomassoni won re-election in their respective districts on Nov. 3, sending the longtime legislators back to St. Paul for another four years. Bakk defeated Republican challenger Chrisopher Hogan by almost 5,100 votes, accounting for a 10.5-point victory. Tomassoni performed strongly in defeating Republican John Moren by more than 3,300 votes and 14.21 points.
Tomassoni, who has served in the Legislature since 1993 and the Senate since 2001, was recently voted in as the temporary Senate president in an effort by the GOP to protect its majority. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a candidate to join the Biden administration cabinet, and early speculation is that Gov. Tim Walz would appoint Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan to her seat. In that case, Tomassoni would become the new lieutenant governor and open his Senate District 6 seat to a favorable special election.
It was the first time a minority party member was voted in as president and the Chisholm senator urged bipartisanship from legislators moving forward. In Wednesday’s press release, Bakk and Tomassoni noted their willingness to work and vote across party lines, something they’re expected to do more frequently as independents.
“If we expect to actually bridge the partisan divide, someone must take proactive steps to build such a bridge,” Tomassoni said. “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.”
There’s been speculation among Iron Range political operatives about Bakk and Tomassoni cutting their DFL ties dating back to earlier this year, when Bakk was challenged by Woodbury Sen. Susan Kent for leadership of the DFL caucus. Kent was voted into the job in February, ending a 10-year reign for Bakk, a former majority leader, prolific fundraiser and one of the most powerful dealmakers in St. Paul.
Further divisions were sowed between the DFL and Iron Range in mid-August when the Walz administration appealed approval of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline. The move to overturn the state Pollution Control Agency’s decision was filed by the Minnesota Department of Commerce and inflamed the tempers of Range politicians who supported the project.
In early September, the DFL Central Committee narrowly approved a platform against copper-nickel mining in Minnesota, an effort rural Democrats had fended off for several years. A few weeks later, Bakk and Tomassoni broke rank with the DFL caucus and voted to oust Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley a month after he led the Line 3 appeal.
Gazelka, a Republican of East Gull Lake, said in a statement that he embraced their latest decision and “the stronger alignment we will have as a result.” He continued: "We share the same vision of a prosperous Iron Range and will continue to work with them to fight for jobs on the Range.
Kent, the DFL Senate Minority Leader, said in a statement that she appreciated their service and looked forward to working with them in the Legislature next year.
"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," she said.