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Newly elected Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem of Rochester says he sees little change in Minnesota Senate Republicans' approach to issues under his leadership. Fellow Republicans elected him leader Tuesday night. At left, Assistant Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, looks on. (Don Davis/Forum Communications Co.)

Minn. GOP senators choose Senjem as leader

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ROSEVILLE -- Minnesota Senate Republicans promised a fresh start Tuesday night, putting a scandal behind them and spending 11 hours picking Sen. Dave Senjem as their new leader.

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The senators also elected a new slate of assistant leaders during their closed-door meeting.

"No more looking backward," the Rochester Republican said when he was introduced as the majority leader.

Senjem returns to the chief Republican post after a year as an assistant leader. Before that, as minority leader he helped orchestrate the first GOP Senate majority in 38 years.

Tuesday's election was forced when Sen. Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, resigned from the job on Dec. 15, while keeping her Senate seat, saying it was time to move on to something new. The next day, four senators revealed allegations that Koch and a male Senate employee engaged in what they described as "an inappropriate relationship."

Senjem led Senate Republicans as minority leader four years before Koch took over a year ago.

"This is a fresh start, this is a new day for us," said Sen. Ted Lillie of Lake Elmo, one of four newly elected assistant majority leaders.

The caucus also elected Sens. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes, Paul Gazelka of Brainerd, and Claire Robling of Jordan as assistant Senate majority leaders. Senjem will pick two more assistants, including a deputy leader, in the next week.

The new slate of leaders came after existing assistant leaders and acting Majority Leader Geoff Michel of Edina resigned their posts Tuesday.

"Sen. Senjem is a great collaborator," Robling said.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, out of state to attend a son's wedding, issued a statement: "I have placed a telephone call to Sen. David Senjem, to congratulate him on his election as the Senate's new majority leader. I look forward to a constructive working relationship with him on behalf of the people of Minnesota."

Senjem, a former Rochester City Council member and Mayo Clinic official, first was elected senator in 2003. In the past year, he was chairman of the committee that deals with public works projects as well as an assistant majority leader.

"I'm excited," Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said about the election.

He said two people were considered for majority leader, but no one would name the second one.

Ingebrigtsen himself had expressed interest in the job to help rural Minnesota, but said after the vote that he was not one of two nominated for the top post or one of 10 or 11 nominated for assistant leadership roles. Still, he said that he thinks Senjem will do well for rural areas.

Among the leaders who resigned was Sen. Doug Magnus of Slayton, who is Agriculture Committee chairman. He prided himself on representing rural issues among the leadership.

While some have criticized Senjem as nice but weak, Ingebrigtsen said he has confidence the new leader will carry the Republican message in negotiations with Dayton. "At the end of the day, he is going to represent us."

Senjem said he sees no significant change in the GOP's message from the Koch administration. He did not talk specifics, including about a Vikings football stadium. He supports adding a casino to the state's two horse-racing tracks, with some profits going to help build a new stadium.

Senators said little about their 11-hour day, but indicated they spent little time on the Koch scandal. Senjem said they only took one vote for majority leader.

"We certainly had a lot of discussions," he said, but came out of the marathon meeting united.

It appeared that all 37 Republicans were at the meeting, although Republicans would not confirm that or reveal the vote by which Senjem won.

Last week, Koch apologized for the relationship and the damage it caused.

While trying to bring Republican senators back together, the new leaders also must find a way to trim $2 million from the Senate budget. That was the amount cut in July when Dayton and GOP leaders agreed to a new two-year budget that ended a 20-day government shutdown.

For the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 24, the majority leader must guide the caucus toward an agenda. While the budget is solved for now, a Feb. 28 economic report could show that it needs to be revisited. Otherwise, much of the focus in 2012 is expected to be government reform.

On Feb. 21, a new map will be released showing new legislative districts, a major step in next year's election process. Once the map is released, work will intensify on the legislative campaign. Senjem said elections are the majority leader's most important task.

The majority leader is one of the three most powerful state politicians, along with the governor and House speaker. The leader decides what committees deal with each bill, and can prevent bills from ever being heard, or can put bills on a fast track. The leader also makes many appointments.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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