Senjem and Seifert approach new roles in the House with vastly differing ideals

Editor's note: This is the last of three stories profiling the new leadership taking over in the Minnesota Legislature in 2007. ST. PAUL -- Republicans were divided over a transportation bill last year and wanted to recess House proceedings for a...

Editor's note: This is the last of three stories profiling the new leadership taking over in the Minnesota Legislature in 2007.

ST. PAUL -- Republicans were divided over a transportation bill last year and wanted to recess House proceedings for a closed-door meeting on the matter.

But Democrats refused to go along, forcing the House to stay in session. Rep. Marty Seifert arose and began talking about how important transportation is to his southwestern Minnesota home of Marshall. He talked and talked and talked, buying fellow Republicans 40 minutes to slip away to privately debate the issue.

When other Republicans returned and Seifert relinquished the microphone, even Democrats applauded the rare Minnesota House filibuster.

When legislators return to St. Paul on Jan. 3, Seifert will have the opportunity to use the microphone much more often now that he has been elected House minority leader, House Republicans' chief spokesman.


Down the state Capitol hallway in the Senate chamber, the Republicans' new leader probably has not talked for 40 minutes in his entire legislative career. Dave Senjem of Rochester, getting ready to start his second four-year term, is a quiet senator, who one colleague called a "teddy bear."

While Seifert can be sharp-tongued one minute and conciliatory the next, Senjem has been the example of steady -- and quiet -- calm.

Welcome to the new world of Minnesota Republicans.

Democrats won most every prize except the governor's office in the Nov. 7 election. That relegated House Republicans to a minority status they have not known since 1998. A dozen GOP members lost re-election bids.

The Democratic-Farmer-Laborite margin in the House will be 85-49 next year.

In the Senate, seven Republicans failed to be re-elected, as the party dropped to just 23 of 67 senators.

"What do you do when you are 23?" Senjem lamented in his State Office Building digs. "We will distinguish ourselves, but in a studied sort of way."

Senjem is a 63-year-old Mayo Clinic administrator in charge of making sure the Rochester facility complies with environmental laws. He talks about retiring from Mayo soon, something that appears more likely now that he holds one of the top four legislative leadership posts.


A minority leader generally has two jobs -- serve as the loyal opposition to the majority party and to elect more of his party in the next election.

After the GOP's Nov. 7 problems, Senjem said he has a question to answer: "How do we come back, if we ever do?"

Unlike many minority leaders, Senjem doesn't talk about taking the majority any time soon. During a recent interview, he pulled out a piece of paper that showed Republicans losing ground in even their former suburban strongholds. That leaves only western and southern Minnesota as Republican-dominated -- and there are holes in GOP control there, too.

"We have to stake out some Republican identity, or restake," Senjem said. "That will happen with good candidates and a good message."

Senjem said he gets along well with incoming Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, a controversial Minneapolis lawmaker. The Republican leader said that even if many of his fellow party members don't trust Pogemiller, he has a philosophy: "If you give trust, you get trust back.

"We're at the beginning of this little honeymoon," Senjem added.

Seifert also sounds like he wants to work with his Democratic counterpart -- House Speaker-designate Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

But in a recent joint radio appearance with all four legislative leaders, the Marshall Republican showed the most spark, the most willingness to fight.


"We want to give peace a chance," Seifert said.

Seifert said Republicans will not push so-called wedge issues -- social stances such as fighting gay marriages -- but he dropped a thinly veiled threat that Republicans will fight any efforts by Democrats to roll back income tax breaks passed the past eight years.

The new House minority leader is an admissions counselor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. He will start his sixth two-year term in January.

Seifert, 34, beat out other competitors, including out-going Majority Leader Erik Paulsen of Eden Prairie. Seifert was majority whip in recent years when Republicans were in control and was a go-to orator when Republican causes needed defending.

After Democrats elected Pogemiller and Kelliher, both Minneapolis residents, as their leaders, many rural lawmakers were concerned their needs would be ignored.

"My election as minority leader provides the necessary balanced leadership in the Minnesota House," Seifert said.

Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton said the 49-member House Republican caucus considered that the other new legislative leaders represent Twin Cities, northern Minnesota and Rochester districts. The House GOP was concerned "rural Minnesota's not going to be at the table," Magnus said.

Seifert understands the strengths of his caucus members and is skilled at House floor debates, Magnus said.


"He knows the process and he's articulate," he said.

-- Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

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