Senate Republicans capitulate on Walz’s emergency powers; Democrat Tomassoni elected president of the Senate

State Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, addressed reporters on Oct. 19, 2020, urging Gov. Tim Walz to reduce COVID-19 regulations. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Update: State Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester told Fox9 reporter Theo Keith that he has tested positive for COVID-19 and may have exposed other Republican senators — while asymptomatic — at a caucus meeting last week. 

In an abrupt reversal, state Senate Republicans on Thursday opted to let Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz keep his emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, foregoing a vote to signal their disapproval. 

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, told MPR News early Thursday that a Senate vote to rescind Walz’s emergency powers declaration was not necessary, although he continued to insist Walz has overstepped his authority.

“I think we’ve made it pretty clear that we don’t think that you need emergency powers to deal with the virus,” said. He added, however, that Senate Republicans have not downplayed the virus. “We’ve always said the virus is serious.”

Just weeks ago, however, Gazelka and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, gave a news conference in which they said the state should lift most restrictions, including on schools and businesses

Earlier, Gazelka sent an Aug. 28 letter to Walz asking for criteria for when a peacetime emergency declaration would be rescinded. He wrote: “There is no longer an emergency,” pointing out that hospitals had sufficient supplies, and no Minnesotans had been denied medical care.

Gazelka’s sunny assessments have been swamped by a brutal wave COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. 

Walz’s peacetime emergency powers give him wide latitude to deploy resources and ban certain activities that are believed to spread the virus, like late nights at bars, for instance. 

While he has frequently called it a “serious” problem, Gazelka and his Republican colleagues have also tried to undercut Walz’s pandemic response. In addition to multiple votes to overturn Walz’s emergency powers, Gazelka and Senate Republicans have rejected the need for a statewide mask mandate and criticized other efforts like the Walz administration’s decision to purchase a $5.5 million temporary morgue. 

Senate and House Republicans have argued Walz should collaborate with them more as he issues executive orders governing the state’s pandemic response. This week, Walz issued new restrictions aimed at stemming the continued spread of the virus, ordering bars and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. for in-person service. He also issued guidelines calling for social gatherings to be limited to 10 people from no more than three households. 

Even as he declined to schedule a vote to again try to strip Walz of his emergency powers, Gazelka was still attacking Walz Thursday: “The Senate can move quickly again to address a covid crisis but continued emergency powers leave the decision-making to one man only.”

Thursday’s Senate floor session was brief, but lawmakers did take a vote to install a new Senate president: state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. He replaces state Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona. 

On a 63-4 vote, Tomassoni became the first Senate president of the opposing party to serve in the role, a move motivated by Republicans’ desire to guard their one-seat majority.

The preemptive move is based on speculation that Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar might be named to a cabinet post in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, necessitating Walz’s appointment of a replacement to finish Klobuchar’s term.

Among the names floated to possibly replace Klobuchar is Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, triggering a vacancy in that office and the automatic succession of the Minnesota Senate president to that role, under Minnesota law.

Under that scenario, Tomassoni would become lieutenant governor and vacate his Senate seat, triggering a special election.

Republicans are more confident they could win a race in Tomassoni’s Iron Range district, which has trended more Republican in recent years, compared with Miller’s swing district in southeastern Minnesota.

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said Thursday that the move was based on a number of hypothetical factors but said it could potentially help bring clarity to the state’s automatic succession law. 

“What this points to is how disruptive it is to have this automatic succession to fill a vacancy at the lieutenant governor level… and we need to address that,” she said. 

The question came up in 2017 after a skirmish erupted when former Gov. Mark Dayton appointed then-Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to fill out the rest of Sen. Al Franken’s term when he resigned. 

Michelle Fischbach, now Congresswoman-elect of Minnesota’s 7th District, was Senate president at the time. She refused to vacate her Senate seat, saying she could serve both roles because the lieutenant governor doesn’t have official duties. 

A 2018 lawsuit was filed and dismissed, leaving the matter unresolved. Fishbach did eventually resign from the Senate and formally took on the lieutenant governor role in May 2018.  

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.