Democrat Nicole Mitchell returns to Senate after arrest, casts votes on her own fate

The Woodbury DFLer voted but was silent on the Senate floor as her assigned desk was moved from the middle to the back of the chamber.

The first term DFLer from Woodbury appeared on the Senate floor Monday for the first time since she was charged with first-degree burglary seven days ago. (Minnesota Senate Media Services/YouTube)

It’s been just more than one week since police found Sen. Nicole Mitchell hiding in the basement of her stepmother’s Detroit Lakes home before dawn on April 22 and subsequently arrested her on suspicion of felony burglary.

The first term DFLer from Woodbury — who says she doesn’t intend to resign her District 47 seat — appeared on the Senate floor Monday for the first time since she was charged with first-degree burglary seven days ago.

Senate Republicans filed a motion on the Senate floor Monday contending the body shouldn’t allow Mitchell to cast a vote while her criminal case and a related ethics complaint have yet to be resolved. On Thursday Republicans filed the ethics complaint against Mitchell, but were unable to get bipartisan support from any Democrats to expedite a hearing.

While 34 Democrats and 33 Republicans assembled to take up a handful of bills (including a bill that would require businesses to disclose junk fees), they spent more than 90 minutes debating whether Mitchell should be present or cast votes.

Mitchell’s Senate floor desk moved to back of chamber

On Sunday, Senate DFL leadership announced that they will not allow Mitchell to participate in caucus meetings and said they have stripped her of her committee assignments for the remainder of the legislative session.

But Senate Majority Leader Erin Murphy stopped short of calling for Mitchell’s resignation, even as Mitchell’s desk on the Senate floor has now been moved from the middle left of the seating chart to the rear right of the chamber.

“Sen. Mitchell is entitled to vote and the people who sent her here from Woodbury … are entitled to her representation,” Murphy said Monday. Murphy claimed that Mitchell was assigned a new seat in the Senate chambers because she was previously sitting next to a member of the ethics committee.

During a 30-minute recess, TPT Almanac reporter Mary Lahammer posted on social media that she asked Mitchell “if she would comment, no response.”

At the outset of the floor session on Monday, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, offered the motion to amend Senate rules to disqualify any member charged with a “crime of violence” (listed under MN Statute 6124.712, subd 5) from participating in floor votes or related legislative activity in the Senate until a Senate ethics subcommittee has completed an investigation into the member’s conduct and submitted its findings to the Senate. That statutory list includes first-degree burglary. That committee consists of DFL Sens. Bobby Joe Champion, of Minneapolis, and Mary Kunesh, of Shoreview, and Republican Sens. Andrew Mathews, of Princeton, and Jeremy Miller, of Winona.

“Mr. President we are a divided chamber, 34 (to) 33,” Nelson said, “and it is essential that Minnesotans know under the gravity of the situation before us that we, this Senate, will stand accordingly and make sure Minnesotans know that their representatives, their senators, are indeed capable and have the judgment to make the very serious consequential decisions before this body.”

Democrats were able to successfully avoid voting directly on that motion after Sen. Ron Latz convinced Senate President Champion that the Senate didn’t have the authority to strip Mitchell of her ability to vote, via Nelson’s motion, despite Republican protest.

“There are no specific examples or citation to authority anywhere in our constitution, Senate rules or Mason’s that authorize the action that the motion before us seeks to accomplish, which is to prevent a duly-elected senator from casting a vote in this body,” said Latz, an attorney from St. Louis Park.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, introduced a motion that would have prevented Mitchell from voting while her ethics complaint is pending. (Minnesota Senate Media Services/YouTube)

The Senate twice cast roll call votes appealing Champion’s ruling that Nelson’s motion was out of order. Both of those procedural appeals were defeated on party lines, as no Democrats broke ranks and Mitchell cast votes in her own favor.

Sen. Torrey Westrom pointed out to his colleagues that Article 4, Section 7 of the Minnesota constitution gives authority to the House and Senate to set their own chamber rules and punish their members for “disorderly behavior.”

Nelson contended that in adopting such a motion, the Senate would not be assigning guilt to the criminal charges filed against Mitchell, comparing such an action to that of government agencies placing employees on administrative leave.

“Certainly what we do in this chamber must not be under the cloud of scrutiny that it was passed by one vote by a member who has not been dealt with in regard to this behavior and is so unbecoming of a senator, it is disrespectful to the people we represent, it is disrespectful to the body and it is essential that that vote not be counted until there is some resolution,” Nelson said.

Sen. Bonnie Westlin, DFL-Plymouth, expressed support for Mitchell to be able to vote on legislation in the remaining days of session, which is set to adjourn on May 20.

“We have not even had a determination of probable cause, let alone an investigation and a recommendation,” Westlin said.

“I’m a little concerned that there are members of the ethics committee sitting on this body right now hearing members making arguments on the merits of the ethics complaint, and I find that to be equally inappropriate.”

But Republicans said the criminal complaint and Mitchell’s subsequent public statements are enough to give her Senate colleagues pause on her ability to participate until an ethics hearing is completed.

“A green vote will allow Sen. Mitchell to vote just like everyone else,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater. “Members, are we really going to let a member who was accused of such an egregious crime be the deciding vote on these bills that will be passing through this body? Is the DFL majority going to let her vote?”

At the conclusion of Monday’s session, Republicans submitted a letter of protest with the president of the Senate.

“We protest and dissent against the vote on SF5289 which was adopted by the Senate with a deciding vote being cast by someone clearly unfit for office,” it says. “We believe it is an abuse of power by both Sen. Mitchell, the Senate Majority Caucus, and its members.”


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.