Gazelka doesn’t rule out former Democrat Tom Bakk as replacement

Senate Democrats will also need to elect a new leader as Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent announced her retirement Thursday night.

Sen. Paul Gazelka holds a press conference at the state fair Wednesday. (Minnesota Senate Media/YouTube)

Sen. Paul Gazelka stepped down as leader of the Senate Republicans this week, prompting speculation about his replacement.

“Five years ago, under bittersweet conditions, I was honored to be elected,” Gazelka stated in his letter to the Republican caucus, adding that he had “those same bittersweet feelings” as he announced his “intention to step aside.”

He cited a variety of his accomplishments as majority leader before saying he “look[s] forward to letting someone else take over serving as leader while I pursue the next chapter in my political life.”

Gazelka is expected to run for governor but hasn’t made it official yet. Various reports have claimed that Sen. Tom Bakk, who is not a Republican, could possibly replace Gazelka as leader.

Gazelka didn’t rule this out when asked about Bakk at a press conference at the state fair Wednesday.

“I’m staying neutral on that. There are five or so people that I think are capable of doing the job and they want to do the job, but that’s what a caucus is about. It ends up being a closed session where people make their case about why they think they can be the best leader and may the best person rise up and be selected,” he said.

He was then asked directly if there is a chance Bakk “could run and win in your caucus.”

“That will be decided by the caucus. Sen. Bakk and Sen. Tomassoni now align with us. They were in every one of our caucuses. We didn’t hold any secrets back from them. They care about the range, I’m from the range, so it was actually really a good fit,” he said. “It’s never happened before, but they have been very powerful allies in what we do in the Senate.”

A spokesperson declined to elaborate further on Bakk’s future in the Republican caucus.

Bakk left the DFL caucus in 2020 with Sen. David Tomassoni. Both of them are technically independents but caucus with the Republicans. Bakk was endorsed by NARAL Pro-Choice in 2020 and received a 33 percent rating from the National Federation of Independent Business. Bakk did vote with Republicans last session on a bill to impose new licensing regulations for abortion facilities, according to MinnPost.

Interim leader Sen. Mark Johnson was first elected to the Minnesota Senate in 2016 and reelected in 2020, earning well over 60% of the vote in both races. He serves as chair of the Redistricting Committee and vice-chair of both the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and the Rules and Administration Committee.

A permanent leader will be elected during the next regular or special session, whichever comes first. A special session was rumored to be scheduled for September, but Gov. Tim Walz said he will not call a special session if Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm’s job is at risk, citing a senator’s comments calling for her removal.

In yet another Senate shakeup, Senate Democrats will also need to elect a new leader as Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent announced her retirement Thursday night. She will not seek reelection. This follows criticism of her handling of sexual harassment allegations.