Sen. Paul Gazelka stands before his colleagues after being elected Majority Leader in November 2016. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
This week’s topics: Gazelka bows out; Republicans for governor; opioid settlement
Query 1: Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who likely will run for governor though he has yet to announce, has stepped down from his role as Senate Majority Leader. Who do you think should replace him in that job?
Fritz Knaak, attorney, former GOP state senator: I still think it should be [Sen. Julie] Rosen [R-Fairmont]. I don’t know whether she would want the job or not, but I think that she would be a superb choice. She has got seniority, she’s not metro and she is very, very smart. That’s the advantage that women have an elected office very often—being underestimated. She is very good and I think she comes across very well in public. I think she’s got the kind of consensus leadership skills that are needed. Of that whole group, she’s the one that really kind of pops out at me. Plus, the optics would be just excellent for the Republicans, to have a another woman majority leader.
Melisa Lopez Franzen, attorney, DFL state senator: There are rumors that it’s [Sen. John R.] Jasinksi [R-Faribault] or [Sen. Jeremy] Miller [R-Winona]. I think either of them would be great to work with and hopefully we’d get some more stability in that caucus. [Sen. Mark] Johnson [R-East Grand Forks] is another option. But I think Miller [the current Senate president] has the institutional knowledge. He knows the members and has been there in leadership the longest. So I think he’s ready for something like that.
Brian Johnson, GOP House member, retired law enforcement officer: There are a couple of good possibilities. But I don’t really know who would do it. It’d be interesting if Senator [Tom] Bakk [I-Cook] were to take that spot. He is good at holding people together and getting things done.
[Editor’s note: Sen. Bakk has previous experience as a Senate majority leader—albeit as a former Democrat.]
Jeff Hayden, government relations, Fredrikson & Byron, P.A.; former DFL state senator: I think it’s probably Jeremy Miller’s job if he wants it. But in case Jeremy doesn’t want it, I’d probably put my money on Senator Bakk. My understanding is that he is really well liked in that caucus. He’s a skillful negotiator, he knows the place like nobody else around there and he has developed some deep relationships with the members of that caucus in a pretty short time.
Erick Kaardal, government watchdog attorney: I think a good, safe choice would be Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer [R-Big Lake]. I think she did good service as Secretary of State and she would be a good Senate majority leader. I think election reform is going to be an important topic. She has chaired that committee and she has formerly been Secretary of State. I think it’s really important to restore bipartisan confidence in our elections and so I think Kiffmeyer’s election as majority leader would be a step in that process, to ensure that election reform is prioritized.
[Editor’s note: The GOP Senate caucus announced on Thursday that Sen. Mark Johnson has accepted the majority leader’s role on a interim basis, but only until the caucus holds an election to fill the post in a few weeks.]
Query 2: If Sen. Gazelka runs for governor, he’ll join a field that as of this week includes fellow Sen. Michelle Benson, ex-Sen. Scott Jensen, Lexington Mayor Mike Murphy, businessman Mike Marti and dermatologist Neil Shah. Who among that slate of hopefuls has the best shot of unseating incumbent Gov. Tim Walz?
Knaak: There are several that I like, personally. But my own read at this point would probably be the woman candidate, whomever she may be. That’s Michelle Benson for now, but I’m really wondering whether we’re going to see more. It probably would be Benson and Gazelka right now. Either one of them could do it. I’m really kind of liking the idea of a woman candidate this year; this would be a good year for the Republicans. I think she would be a strong one. I’d like to see that. But apart from her, I think Gazelka has risen above his peers in how he’s handled his job. Whether that’s going to be enough? Hmm…. I don’t know.
Franzen: None of the above. [Laughs.] I just think that Governor Walz has done a great job with the pandemic. And whether or not you agree with his positions, he has shown that he can lead in crisis. I think we should keep a continuum of leadership until we’re out of this, then focus on the bread-and-butter issues that Minnesota had elected him to do.
Johnson: I’m not sure who has the best shot. I think Gazelka is a good possibility. But no matter who is the endorsed candidate, it’s gonna be a tough road.
Hayden: I think that Dr. Jensen has the far right. He has a lot of the Trump crowd and certainly he’s got the anti-vaxxers and the anti-masker crowd. I don’t know how many of those people are out there, but he’s got them. That seems to be on the fringe of the party, but he also has some money. I think Michelle Benson, though conservative, she is pretty smart and she is a hard worker. We’ll have to see if that resonates with voters. Senator Gazelka is the odds-on favorite going in, but I think he’s got to figure out how to pick up those Trump folks. He’s in an unenviable position of being a leader in an environment where you have to compromise. And there was so much federal money that he had to kind of get his caucus to approve. I wonder if that doesn’t come back to bite him. It’s not that Senate Gazelka’s isn’t conservative. But he had a mandate to spend money to help people that I think he had to go along with. I think his opponents might use that against him.
Kaardal: Only time will tell. The Republican Party’s candidates have to go out and meet all the rank-and-file Republicans, because the endorsing convention is very important in that process. So I think that the two sitting senators and former Sen. Jensen are going to be neck and neck going into the endorsing convention. I predict multiple rounds at the endorsing convention. There won’t be a first-ballot winner.
Query 3: A federal judge has given conditional approval to a legal settlement that ends the massive opioid lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. It forces the company’s owners, the Sacklers, out of the business but it shields the family from any future lawsuits. Are you good with that outcome?
Knaak: As a licensed lawyer in three states, I’m sworn to uphold the Constitution, the laws and legal systems of all of the states and the federal government. So from that context, there has been a decision. They are shielded, but it costs them $4.5 billion and that should be the end of that. Because at some point, you’ve got to get some resolution. Having said that, however, I’m on the board of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. I’ve been actively involved in chemical dependency issues, really, for 40 or 50 years. I look at this and I’m thinking they should hang these people. These people should be in prison. Not only them but any of a fair number of corporate executives who knew what was going on. They not only didn’t do anything to stop it, they actually fed the addiction like a bunch of pushers—which is essentially what they were. So I get it. The system is supposed to come up with resolution and this is not unreasonable on the face of it from what I’ve seen. I mean, $4.5 billion sounds like a heck of a lot of money even for that family. But having said that, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I think it’s very unsatisfying.
Franzen: I briefly saw that in the news today and I am troubled by it. I think there has to be deterrence for bad actors and I think there should be some criminal liability. I certainly think that it’s the work of good, high-paid lawyers. I mean, I’m glad we have good lawyers, but that at the end of the day justice has not been served for all the families that suffered.
Johnson: I don’t have all the information to really understand what happened. But we do have an opioid issue. In part, the Legislature may have caused it, by not attacking all addictions and just targeting one thing before shifting over to another. In my law enforcement career, when they put the Sudafed behind the counter, all of a sudden cocaine came back and heroin came back. Meth is coming back again now. These people with addictions, they’re going to be addicted—they need something to get their high. If they can’t get what they normally take, they’ll find something else to get that high. So we have to attack it not just as one thing at a time, we have to tackle addiction as a whole.
Hayden: I think that’s the best that we’re going to get. There were some really good lawyers that worked on this issue. I’m not a lawyer, but I think that the alternative is that they would kind of play this thing out and nobody gets anything. I think this is a really good settlement, but then I think the devil’s in the details. On a personal note, I’d really like to make sure that enough of that money got into communities of color who have disproportionately been dealing with opioid addiction. “Heroin addiction” is what we’ve called it for the last 40 years or 50 years.
Kaardal: My view is that the settlement reflects an excellent exercise of attorney generals’ powers regarding consumer fraud and deceptive trade practices. I think that the settlement agreement waiving personal liability of the owners is something that really is a discretion decision left to those who are litigating the case. I would trust the government on this one—that this was the wisest thing to do and the wisest settlement. I’m just happy the government accomplished what it did. That’s pretty good for the government! [Laughs.]