Senate Republicans oust Walz’s Labor commissioner during special session

Former Minnesota Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink.

Minnesota Senate Republicans rejected the confirmation of Gov. Tim Walz’s commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry 18 months into her term, in a show of legislative muscle that Walz called a “petty political move.”

The 34-32 vote signals Republicans’ — and their base voters’ — increasing frustration over Walz’s use of emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Walz called the special session, as required by law, after the state Executive Council granted him emergency powers for another 30 days earlier Wednesday.

“There will be a reckoning on this,” Walz said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, defended his caucus’s vote, saying Commissioner Nancy Leppink was failing in her duties.

“We need a DLI commissioner whose priority is being responsive, supportive and open to helping business, and not one who is interested in regulating, harassing or closing businesses — especially as we plan safe reopenings during COVID,” said Gazelka in a statement.

Lippink has been leading the department since February 2019, but the Republican-controlled Senate never voted to confirm her or most of Walz’s other cabinet appointments, leaving them vulnerable to later political maneuvering.

“Nancy Leppink is a champion for working families in Minnesota. Senate Republicans are putting frontline workers at risk during a global pandemic to advance a partisan agenda,” Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann wrote in a statement.

It’s uncommon for the Senate not to confirm a commissioner. The last time it happened was in 2008, when Democrats rejected Carol Molnau as Department of Transportation commissioner.

Senate Republicans also voted to end Walz’s emergency powers, but the DFL-controlled House adjourned after declining to do so, and they are likely to continue to give the first-term DFL governor broad authority to handle the pandemic over the objections of the House GOP minority.

But Senate Republicans, having waited to confirm Walz appointees, can empty his cabinet to force him to negotiate away some of his powers or relent on stalemated legislation.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, all but acknowledged the strategy in a flippant tweet:

Myron Frans, the commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget, departed the Walz administration Wednesday for a senior role at the University of Minnesota. Senate Republicans may have subjected him to the same fate had he stayed.

DFL leaders called it dirty politics.

“I wondered why the MN GOP delayed confirmations for so long. After today’s ambush of Commissioner Leppink, it seems to be about holding a sword over their heads for leverage against the Governor. That’s a terrible way to treat public servants & the Minnesotans they serve,” tweeted Julie Blaha, state auditor and former secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

Leppink is a lifelong government employee, having worked for 24 years in Minnesota government before serving in President Barack Obama’s administration as a deputy administrator in the U.S. Department of Labor. During her nearly two years at the helm of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, Leppink prioritized going after employers for wage theft and for failing to have adequate worker protections as businesses reopened during the pandemic.

The Walz administration also rounded up statements from labor groups in support of Leppink.

“Under Commissioner Leppink’s leadership, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry were able to draft COVID-19 First Responder Workman’s Comp Protection that is far beyond any other state’s,” Brian Peters of the police officers’ association said in a statement released by the governor’s office.