Animosity between Walz and Senate GOP leader grows after second commissioner ousted

Gov. Tim Walz and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, reacted after the Minnesota Senate ousted a second Walz commissioner on Friday, Sep. 11, 2020. Photos by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

The state Senate’s ouster of a member of Gov. Tim Walz’s cabinet for the second time in a month has dealt a severe blow to the relationship between the first term Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

Gazelka, who opposes Walz’s policies to stem the COVID-19 pandemic like mandatory masks and targeted closure of high risk businesses and some schools, has pushed the Republican caucus leads to use their power to confirm Walz appointees — or to sack them.

With little notice to Walz, Senate Republicans on Friday fired Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley, after voting down the Department Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Lepink last month. Both were on the job 18 months but had not yet received an up or down vote from the Republican-controlled Senate.

“It’s gotten more personal,” said Amy Koch, a political strategist and former GOP Senate majority leader. “It’s obviously gotten more difficult. Maybe after the election, that goes away, but if the Senate holds Republican, they’re gonna have to figure out something.”

Asked how Kelley’s ouster affects his relationship with Gazelka, Walz said: “It certainly doesn’t help.”

Gazelka said the decision to oust Kelley was not partisan but due to disagreements on policy issues like Kelley’s continued fight against approval of the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota.

“On my part, I’m going to continue to reach out to the governor. He knows that I don’t like many of the decisions he’s made related to closing schools and forcing masks versus strongly recommending them,” Gazelka said. “It’s just things that I disagree with that makes it a little more difficult to try to work together. But next year is about the budget and that is something we both have to work on to make it work.”

As Gazelka suggested, the escalating conflict between the two men threatens to bring state government to a grinding halt at a moment when Minnesotans will rely more on St. Paul in the coming year than at any time in recent memory.

The pandemic, the racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd and an emerging budget crisis that threatens to slash school and safety net spending all cry out for broad-based solutions and compromise, especially if Gazelka and Republicans remain in control of the upper chamber.

But that’s an open question, and both men know it.

Gazelka’s party is defending a 35-32 majority in the November election, with a bevy of suburban districts in play that could decide who controls the Legislature next year.

And that’s not the only political consideration — Gazelka and Walz could be running against each other in 2022. If he can keep the Republican majority, Gazelka will immediately be mentioned as a potential candidate to run against Walz, who is up for reelection in 2022.

“Every House member and every Senate member looks in the mirror and sees a governor,” Koch said.

These political factors might explain the increasing acrimony. In a time of political polarization and negative partisanship — when loathing of the opposition is often the greatest motivator —  the greatest risk to Gazelka’s political standing would be the perception that he is in any way conciliatory to Walz. Likewise a depressed GOP base could hand the DFL the majority.

Though he comes from the conservative Christian wing of the GOP, Gazelka has also long been viewed as soft spoken and capable of building consensus — both in his own caucus and among his opponents.

During Walz’s first year in office, Gazelka struck a budget deal with him and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, that cut income taxes slightly but also kept in place a significant levy on medical services that was set to expire and blow a hole in the state’s health care budget.

This summer, he worked with Walz and the DFL majority in the Minnesota House to pass a package of police reforms his caucus could support.

The Minnesota Business Partnership, led by Charlie Weaver, former chief of staff to GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, urged Senate Republicans to compromise on the issue, particularly after a number of Minnesota’s largest businesses, including Target Corp. and others, called for the reforms.

More recently, however, Gazelka has turned up the heat on Walz. He gives a regular tally of how long Walz’s pandemic emergency powers have been in effect, often with accompanying commentary on alleged Walz and DFL failures:

“Day 180 of emergency powers. Right now, 1 person has total control of MN government,” he wrote recently. “Imagine if Democrats…have total control of government in January.”

Walz has responded in kind.

After Gazelka sent an Aug. 28 letter to Walz asking when he would ease his use of emergency powers, Chris Schmitter, Walz’s chief of staff, returned a blistering letter, later released to reporters, that took Gazelka to task for his absences at COVID-19-related meetings. The letter represented a breach of decorum at the Capitol where such missives are typically lobbed between leader and leader, not leader and aide.

State Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, has known Gazelka for 16 years. Both men were elected to the House in 2004 before Gazelka won his 2010 Minnesota Senate race. He said Walz, who served in the U.S. House for a dozen years, comes out of the culture of D.C. politics, where conflict is the norm.

“The conflicts that you’re seeing between Gazelka and Walz, they have a lot more to do with lawmaking culture,” Garofalo said. “Walz spent the last 14 years in D.C., and there’s a certain set of protocols they follow out there. Gazelka has been in Minnesota, and we do things differently here than they do in Washington.”

State Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who once had a very public spat with former DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, said lawmakers feel the need to defend legislative prerogatives: “We’re a branch of government — a co-equal branch, but sometimes it’s a little hard for governors, I think, to accept that because they get elected statewide. So they think of themselves a little differently than a bunch of disjointed legislators from all over the state.”

In 2017, Gazelka and then-House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, wound up in a lawsuit with Dayton when he vetoed the budget that pays for their staff and other operations of the Legislature. Dayton won the lawsuit but capitulated.

Ultimately, the relationship between Walz and Gazelka and the future course they plot will largely be decided by the voters.

Absentee balloting begins Friday.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.