ST. PAUL — Two longtime Minnesota state senators broke with Democratic-Farmer-Labor ranks on Wednesday, Nov. 18, to form an independent caucus.
Sens. Tom Bakk, of Cook, and David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, in a statement said they would venture out on their own after finding both political parties to be too polarizing. The Iron Range lawmakers had frequently broken with DFL party lines to vote what they felt best represented their districts.
Tomassoni was elected Minnesota Senate president last week and said he would chair a committee in the GOP-led Senate in 2021. Bakk is a former DFL Senate leader and power broker at the Capitol who has previously left then returned to the party. The pair said they would form the Minnesota Senate Independent Caucus ahead of the upcoming legislative session.
“We have always represented our districts as bipartisan and moderate members of the Legislature. Forming this new caucus is just a natural progression of aligning more with moderate than the far right or left," Bakk said in a news release. "Additionally, we will not stray from the values of Northern Minnesota and what our people are most passionate about — our economy and jobs that support our families and our economic lifeline of mining and wood products. Our natural resource-based economy is critical to our region of the state.”
Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent said in a Wednesday written statement that the Senate DFL caucus already "includes a broad spectrum of views," with members from the Twin Cities metro and suburbs, as well as Greater Minnesota — "(B)ut it does not stretch as far as those who wish to function outside of our values as a caucus."
“The Senate DFL is focused on working hard to get this pandemic under control, get Minnesotans back to work and school safely, and eradicate our state’s horrific racial disparities," Kent continued. "We appreciate (Bakk and Tomassoni's) service and look forward to working on behalf of all Minnesotans with all of our colleagues in the future.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, on the other hand, welcomed the new caucus and said Republicans would be open to working with Bakk and Tomassoni.
"I’ve worked across the aisle with Senators Bakk and Tomassoni for 10 years," Gazelka said. "I welcome their announcement and the stronger alignment we will have as a result. We share the same vision of a prosperous Iron Range and will continue to work with them to fight for jobs on the Range."
The creation of a new political division in the already divided Minnesota Legislature comes as lawmakers enter a narrowly split Senate next year. Senate Republicans had a one-vote advantage over Democrats following the election but with a new independent caucus, they could form a new alliance that makes it easier to advance key policy.
But Bakk and Tomassoni have also rejected requests to join the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus, suggesting they'll stick with DFL-ers on certain issues as well.
Both have been staunch advocates for mining projects in northern Minnesota as well as for the replacement of the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline project. The projects have forged division among Democrats with some opposing their advance over concerns about the environmental impact they could cause.
The two also joined the other members of the Iron Range DFL delegation in issuing a September joint statement condemning the DFL’s State Central Committee for adopting a resolution that calls for a moratorium on copper-nickel mining in the state.
Ahead of the election, Forum News Service asked Tomassoni if the Iron Range was still best represented by the DFL.
He said it did, adding that he was “Farmer-Labor DFLer” and “jobs DFLer."
“The DFL represents both the people of the Iron Range from the standpoint that we care about a lot of different issues that are central to the Democratic Party,” Tomassoni said in late October. “There’s undoubtedly been some rub on the environmental side and some of the frivolous lawsuits that have been coming out of the environmental organizations against jobs on the Iron Range.”
He said the people were “rightfully” getting fed up with delays to PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes, Twin Metals’ copper-nickel mine near Ely and the Line 3 oil pipeline.
“It’s a frustration of a real lot of people and people are wanting to see something change,” Tomassoni said.
Aaron Brown, a teacher at Hibbing Community College and a political blogger covering the Iron Range, noted the region is shifting to the Republican Party and said the move by Tomassoni and Bakk wasn’t all that unexpected.
“I think it was always considered a matter of time before the more conservative, moderate Range incumbents who have all this seniority would decide to cut bait … I was actually wondering to myself whether they would join the Republican caucus outright — they didn’t,” Brown said. “The ‘independent’ means that there’s a little bit of flexibility there.”
He said it gives mining companies and unions a “direct line to the Senate majority with these two people that have now switched to independent and so the most powerful people on the Iron Range are probably quite content with what’s happened here,” Brown said.
Tomassoni and Bakk did not immediately respond to interview requests Wednesday.