Senate GOP ousts second Walz commissioner in 4th special session

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, in September speaks after the Senate voted to oust a second member of Gov. Tim Walz's cabinet. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Senate Republicans on Friday ousted a second member of Gov. Tim Walz’s cabinet, voting 31-33 to reject the confirmation of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley.

The rare action ratchets up the tension between the Democratic-Farmer-Labor first-term governor and GOP Majority Leader Paul Gazelka of East Gull Lake. Last month, Senate Republicans abruptly ousted Nancy Leppink, then-commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry.

Republicans are using the commissioner confirmation process as political muscle in an ongoing battle to get Walz to relinquish the emergency powers he has adopted to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The conflict comes less than two months before all 201 legislative districts will be on the November ballot, determining whether Senate Republicans will hold on to their narrow 35-32 majority. 

Leading up to Friday’s special session, Gazelka had not given any public indication whether his caucus would hold a confirmation vote on Kelley, after Senate Republicans held a hearing on Kelley’s job performance. 

Kelley, a former DFL state senator, has come under criticism by Republicans who opposed his decision to join a lawsuit to block Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota. 

Republicans, and some northern Minnesota DFLers, say the pipeline project is a job creating project that will replace a failing pipeline, freeing up rail traffic and improving safety. DFL Sens. Tom Bakk of Cook and David Tomassoni of Chisholm also voted against Kelley. State Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, was the lone Republican to vote to confirm him.  

Walz appointed Kelley in 2019; Kelley served 10 years in the Minnesota Senate and two terms in the House.

In brief remarks after the special session adjourned, Gazelka said Kelley’s removal had long been planned, insisting his ouster was not related to Walz’s emergency powers. 

“I did approach the governor about Commissioner Kelley, not just February, but (other) times along the way,” Gazelka said. 

Walz told reporters after the Senate confirmation vote that the removal of his commissioners during a pandemic hinders the state’s ability to provide government services. Walz said the Commerce Department helps protect senior citizens from financial fraud, among other essential duties. 

“I’m certainly frustrated,” he said. This “certainly doesn’t help” his relationship with Gazelka, which had been strained by the surprise vote to remove Leppink on Aug. 12.

Walz indicated Republicans might also take aim at other members of his Cabinet, including Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. 

Both agencies have played key roles in the state’s response to COVID-19, directing the state’s public health response and administering unemployment insurance to those without work because of the pandemic. 

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, criticized the ouster. 

“Gov. Walz and his administration are trying to combat a global pandemic and instead of working with him, Senate Republicans are actively making it harder to fight this virus,” Hortman said in a statement. “It’s irresponsible for Republicans to continue to target individuals over a political disagreement with the governor.”

The special session on Friday is the fourth of the year, triggered by Walz’s 30-day extension of the peacetime emergency. Senate Republicans on Friday also voted on a resolution to end the governor’s peacetime emergency, but House DFLers have sided with Walz, ensuring his emergency powers stay in place. 

Early speculation about a replacement for Kelley include former Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman; John Reich, who is director of government relations at Winthrop and Weinstine and previously held key jobs at the Department of Commerce; and Prentiss Cox, a University of Minnesota Law School professor and expert in consumer protection law.