After decamping from Senate DFL, Bakk finds himself back in the middle of state politics

Minnesota State Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, poses for a portrait in his office at the Minnesota State Capitol Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

A year ago, state Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, found himself in the political wilderness after his colleagues elected state Sen. Susan Kent of Woodbury as leader of Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus.

He wouldn’t stay there long. 

Less than a year later, after the Senate DFL failed to reclaim a majority in the November election, Bakk jumped ship and announced he formed his own independent caucus with fellow Iron Ranger state Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. 

The abrupt move was billed as an effort to effectively advocate for their constituents, particularly since Bakk and Tomassoni were not padding GOP Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s narrow 34-33 majority out of charity. In exchange for leaving the DFL caucus, they also won gavels, becoming chairs of two influential committees.  

Bakk now chairs the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee, which considers requests from local communities for public infrastructure needs paid for with state bonds. That means construction companies and unions, state agencies, local government officials and universities — and the lawmakers who represent them — will come on bended knee to Bakk in hopes of winning funding for big projects.

Bakk, a master of the inside game honed during nearly three decades of experience at the Capitol, has always found a way to put himself at the center of Minnesota state politics and government.

And he now has an office to match. 

Bakk said in an interview that the deal he made with Republicans included an agreement to help Senate Republicans run the floor, promising to side with Republicans on procedural votes that he said would ensure efficient floor sessions. 

But he also had one more request: offices in the Minnesota Capitol — making him and Tomassoni the only senators to exclusively office in the Cass Gilbert masterpiece instead of the office building across the street. 

“I thought it would be better if we were away from both of the caucuses on our own,” Bakk said in a recent interview. “It’s an office that I actually designed for the tax chair is how I envisioned it.” (Bakk is a former chair of the powerful Taxes Committee.)

From his third-floor offices with a view of the entire Capitol campus, Bakk is back in a more comfortable place.

The 66-year-old has spent 27 years in state politics, first elected to the Minnesota House in 1994 before he was elected to the Senate in 2002. 

Rather than belong to the minority party, he is now squarely back in the fold of decision making during a consequential budget-setting legislative session, which is likely to include debate over a public infrastructure bill Bakk would play a role in crafting. A spokeswoman for Gazelka said a “small” bonding bill could be part of end-of-session negotiations. The Legislature traditionally does a much larger public works package in the even-year session. 

Bakk suggested he would side with Republicans on some of the most divisive issues at the Capitol this year, including efforts by DFL Gov. Tim Walz and other Democratic leaders to seek funding to rebuild Minneapolis-St. Paul after the George Floyd civil unrest.

“That is an awful heavy lift,” he said. “It’s unlikely that the Legislature is going to just bond for that kind of money with no local effort at all.”

He added: ”Minneapolis and St. Paul are gonna have to figure out how they put some skin in the game here. We’re not gonna pick up the whole cost of this ourselves.”

Bakk’s resistance to rebuilding efforts is unlikely to ingratiate him with his former DFL colleagues, who have come to the defense of the cities, especially since some people who were charged and convicted of arson crimes during the riots came from rural Minnesota.

Minnesota State Sen. Tom Bakk, I-Cook, shows a local stone carving of the state of Minnesota as he poses for a portrait in his office at the Minnesota State Capitol Wednesday, February 3, 2021. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer.

His standing among his DFL colleagues may not matter to Bakk, who is likely serving his last term in the Senate. Last summer he had open-heart surgery, and told the Reformer the recovery has gone well and “everything looks good.”

But don’t expect Bakk to couch himself as an outgoing Minnesota politician. 

He is still stirring the pot, saying he hasn’t ruled out another run for Minnesota governor, this time as an independent candidate.

If he decides to run for governor, it would place him at odds with yet another DFL governor in Tim Walz, who appears to be preparing to run for re-election next year, although no firm decision has yet been announced. 

Bakk feuded with former Gov. Mark Dayton over commissioner pay raises, but Bakk spoke kindly of Dayton — Bakk rarely takes things personally even if he does have a long memory against politicians who have crossed him. (Paging Rebecca Otto.) Bakk recalled that he once told Dayon that he had promised to throw his late father a 90th birthday party at the governor’s residence if he was elected governor. Dayton later called Bakk and told him he could host his father’s birthday party at the Summit Hill mansion.

Still, Bakk finds himself on the outs with the party he called home for decades. Recent campaign finance records show that Bakk donated $1,250 to the Senate GOP political campaign in 2020, giving $0 to the Senate DFL caucus, though he did give some money to local DFL units in his district. 

Kent, who successfully wrested away the job of Senate minority leader from Bakk with the support of a coterie of suburban allies, said in an interview that she is focused on representing her caucus well and working on behalf of Minnesotans. 

“Speaking for myself, I am absolutely ready to work with any member of the Minnesota Senate to deliver that,” she said. “Sen. Bakk certainly is very knowledgeable. I’ve had many conversations with him over the years about bonding,” she said, referring to the Capitol term for borrowing used to do the capital projects that Bakk’s committee has jurisdiction over. “He has the potential to be a strong and effective bonding chair, and I hope for the sake of Minnesota, we can do this.”

Asked how his relationship with Kent is, Bakk declined to disparage her but noted icily that he hasn’t had much, if any, interaction with her since she became caucus leader. 

Kent, a New Orleans native, issued a subtle, characteristically Minnesotan rebuke of Bakk’s deal to side with Republicans on procedural votes.

“I think it’s interesting if they have made a commitment, frankly, on any kind of votes,” she said. “I don’t know that any of us should be promising our votes on things on behalf of our districts without knowing what we’re voting, so I just find that interesting.”

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.