In record sixth special session, Senate GOP considering electing new president, sides with Walz on pandemic

    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 Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, on Thursday hinted that a new Senate president may be installed when the Legislature convenes for a record sixth special session this year.

    Lawmakers are returning to St. Paul after Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Tim Walz this week issued a 30-day extension of his emergency powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Speaking on MPR News’ Morning Edition, Gazelka addressed speculation that DFL state Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm might replace Senate President Jeremy Miller, a Republican from Winona.

    The preemptive move is entirely 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.

    “Stay tuned, and watch,” Gazelka told host Cathy Wurzer, declining to confirm whether Tomassoni would be voted into the role. “We’re going to take preemptive steps.”

    The move by Republicans is intended to blunt the impact of potentially losing a GOP member because their 34-33 majority became more slim in last week’s election. 

    Republicans are seemingly more confident they could win a special election 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 in an interview on 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 for Minnesota’s 7th District, was Senate President but 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 and eventually Fishbach formally took on the role in May 2018.  

    Gazelka on Thursday also said it was unlikely that Republicans would take a vote to end Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency powers, a major reversal on their past votes. 

    “I don’t think we’re going to take a vote on that today,” Gazelka said. “We’re really just trying to get in and out of this special session.”

    Remarking on past votes, he said: “I think we’ve made it pretty clear that you don’t need emergency powers to deal with the virus.”

    Kent said that Gazelka’s plan to not hold a vote surprised her.

    “I’m surprised based on history and based on my conversation yesterday with Sen. Gazelka,” she said. “On the other hand, given how severe covid is right now is in Minnesota, I’m very relieved.”

    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.