AP NEWS

New top Senate Democrat makes public debut at Capitol forum

February 6, 2020 GMT
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, from left, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, Gov. Tim Walz, House Assistant Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent gather for a forum with media at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP)
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, from left, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, Gov. Tim Walz, House Assistant Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu and Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent gather for a forum with media at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The new top Democrat in the Minnesota Senate said Wednesday that she’s committed to making sure “that every voice has a place at the table” as she works to unify her caucus ahead of the 2020 legislative session and the November elections.

Sen. Susan Kent, of suburban Woodbury, was named minority leader by her fellow Democrats on Saturday. She overthrew Sen. Tom Bakk, of Cook, a longtime political power from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, just over a week before the session opens Tuesday.

Kent’s appearance at a forum for political leaders and journalists sponsored by Forum News Service amounted to her public debut as minority leader after a bitter fight behind closed doors that highlighted the shifting balance of power among Minnesota Democrats toward the suburbs.

“What we want to make sure is that every voice has a place at the table, that everybody’s heard, that all of these issues get fair discussions and hearings, and then it’s about really focusing on the basic priorities that we hear from Minnesotans,” Kent said. She said the priorities that unite Minnesotans no matter where they live are access to affordable health care, good jobs and great schools.

The second-term senator also affirmed her commitment to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz’s signature theme of “One Minnesota.”

Seated down the table from Kent, Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, of Nisswa, noted that many northern Minnesotans are feeling at odds with Twin Cities liberals and their growing influence among Minnesota Democrats on oil pipelines and other issues on which Bakk defended regional interests.

“I think they are frustrated seeing their senator removed from power,” said Gazelka, who’s heading into the session and the election season with a narrow three-vote majority.

But Gazelka said he’s already reached out to Kent.

“My plan is that we’re going to work together in the Senate,” Gazelka said. “Senator Bakk and I, we worked really well in the Senate, and there’s no reason that Senator Kent and I cannot do the same.”

Seated in the middle of four House and Senate Democratic and Republican leaders, Walz congratulated Kent for being the first woman to lead her caucus and noted that she’s part of a trend of growing Democratic strength in the Twin Cities suburbs that were once Republican territory.

Walz noted that he was the newcomer to the top leadership at the Capitol last year. He was elected in 2018 after 12 years of representing southern Minnesota in Congress.

“We were able to make government function,” Walz said of the 2019 session. “We debated strongly, and differed on issues that were core values of ours, but we got those things done. ... We know we have to work at this, and those realignments happen. I feel confident that this caucus will come together, that the leadership of Senator Kent will be part of this team up here.”

The governor noted that the forum took place amid the Senate’s rancorous vote to acquit President Donald Trump on articles of impeachment. He said the leaders at the table from both parties, by contrast, “still have what I believe is a true sense of collaboration and friendship to get things done despite their ”very passionate ideological and philosophical differences.”