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Pressure is on senator who represents Osakis

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, was first elected majority leader by his peers in 2016 and was re-elected following November’s election, in which only one Senate seat was on the ballot. (Dave Orrick / Pioneer Press)

By Dave Orrick

St. Paul Pioneer Press

The difference between divided — some might say balanced — government in Minnesota and Democratic domination will be one vote for the next two years.

And the man responsible for keeping it that way is Sen. Paul Gazelka, a mild-mannered insurance agent from Nisswa, who represents District 9, which includes the Osakis area.

Gazelka is the majority leader of the state Senate, the only part of state government not controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

And just so the math is clear: That majority is 34 Republicans to 33 DFLers.

When the Legislature reconvened Jan. 8, the DFL held a firm grip on the House, 75-59. Gov.-elect Tim Walz and Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan are Democrats. Four of the seven state Supreme Court justices were appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat. And all the other statewide elected offices — attorney general, secretary of state and state auditor — will be held by Democrats. And those Democrats won by comfortable margins in November.

Of relevance to Gazelka's majority: A number of suburban Republican senators now represent areas where Democrats were elected to the House. Democrats smell blood in the political water, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, a veteran tactician, is expected to try to pry those Republicans away from Gazelka's camp with sticky issues for Republicans from moderate districts, such as strengthening background checks for gun sales.

The pressure on Gazelka will be big. Last year, Dayton and Republicans in the House and Senate did not reach an agreement on a supplemental budget plan, and the result was scores of initiatives of little controversy did not happen. If Walz and lawmakers can't agree on a two-year state budget by May, much of state government will shut down.

"Yep. Yep," nodded Gazelka days after the election, when these facts — obvious to him — were served up to him for comment. "Minnesotans seem to like divided government."

That accurate-yet-measured, if not understated, response is the type of rhetoric those in the Capitol have grown accustomed to hearing from the 59-year-old, who is known as both a champion of his conservative caucus and a builder of consensus who garners a level of personal respect not always afforded partisan leaders in the modern sport of politics.

Gazelka was first elected majority leader by his Senate peers in 2016 and was re-elected following November's election, in which only one Senate seat was on the ballot.

His secret, says Gazelka and those around him, is a code of conduct that's more "Little House on the Prairie" than "House of Cards."

"He's a steady hand," said Sen. Michelle Benson, a Republican from Ham Lake who serves as part of the GOP caucus leadership team. "He listens well and connects with people on a personal level. ... That kind of sincerity makes a difference."

'Guiding Christian principle'

"My faith is inseparable from who I am," Gazelka said in a recent interview with the Pioneer Press.

One of 10 children, Gazelka was born in Arden Hills to a Catholic family with roots in northern Minnesota's Iron Range. The family moved to Virginia, Minn., when he was young, and he attended Catholic school until he was 15, when his parents became Protestants.

In a quick narrative, Gazelka traces a line from Thomas Jefferson's respect for religious freedom to his own leadership style.

"I treat people the way I want to be treated. That's a guiding Christian principle, and it's probably the most valuable thing I have building consensus with the House and governor. That's what people are looking for: They just want to be respected."

Gazelka spoke in his third-floor corner office of the Minnesota Senate Building overlooking the Capitol.

His belief in the connections between American government and faith are as obvious as the largest framed prints adorning the walls. Above his desk is "The Prayer at Valley Forge," an image of George Washington knelt in the snow in prayer during the American Revolution. On another wall hangs a replica of the Pine Tree Flag, a banner designed under Washington's command with the words "An Appeal to Heaven."

Political rise

Politics wasn't preordained for Gazelka.

His father ran an insurance office, and he followed his dad into the insurance business. "I really wasn't looking to get into politics," Gazelka said.

That was his mindset in 2004 when state Rep. Dale Walz, a Republican police captain from Baxter, Minn., decided not to run for re-election and approached Gazelka.

"After a lot of thought and prayer, we said, 'Let's do it,' really not knowing how much work it was," Gazelka said, referring to himself and wife Maralee.

The area, which includes Brainerd, was a swing district at the time, and Gazelka, who said he struggled to balance the demands of the Legislature in St. Paul and his home life, lost the election two years later.

"I sat out the next few years, and that was actually good. I knew what I was getting myself into when I ran for the Senate."

In 2010, Gazelka challenged incumbent Paul Koering, the only openly gay Republican lawmaker at the time. Gazelka won his party's endorsement and defeated Koering, who made headlines in the socially conservative district when he dined with a gay porn star. Gazelka won the primary and general election, returning to St. Paul as Dayton was taking office with a Republican-controlled Legislature.

Overture to Dayton

While Dayton's eight years as governor were marked by repeated clashes with Republican leaders, many have noted the Gazelka-Dayton relationship has been characterized by frequent disagreements over policy — but never personal accusations.

That's no accident.

Early in his Senate tenure, Gazelka, a freshman in the body, and his wife invited Dayton for coffee at a Caribou Coffee in Baxter. It was just the three of them, no aides.

"I said to myself, 'He probably needs a Republican friend,' " Gazelka recalled. "That was building bridges. It's a pretty heavy contact sport here, but you have to start with putting your best foot forward."

Nonetheless, Gazelka and then-House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, failed to reach an accord with Dayton at the end of last session, and Dayton's veto of the massive package the Legislature approved meant that little was accomplished.

Gazelka said it's one of the regrets he has about his tenure — although he's not taking the blame for what happened. "I wish we'd had more time to discuss with the governor that last spending bill," he said. "I just felt like we ran out of time."

It was an outcome for which no one could claim victory, but Benson said Gazelka showed his mettle during the tense negotiations, both with an understanding hand and a firm one when needed.

"There was no sort of 'aha!' moment," said Benson. "It was just the thoughtful way he walked us through, particularly at the end of last session. He understood the governor's position and of course he understood ours. ... There were times we had to lay out a firmer line, and he would say, 'This is just the way it has to be for now. You're going to have to trust me.' And because of the way he treats people, they trust him."

Benson said confidence in Gazelka remained high among Republicans, and he was handily re-elected as majority leader.

"We really think he did the best he could with what he had," she said.

'Mystique,' but ...

To Gazelka's adversaries, there's consensus that the man is as he appears.

"Paul is a nice family man," said Sen. Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis Democrat and assistant minority leader. "I don't have anything bad to say about him as a person. I don't know if he is actually a pastor but it seems like it, the way he is."

But Hayden sees a contradiction.

"When it comes down to it, he's like us all: He believes in what he believes in. I think there's a mystique about this pastoral element, but really, Paul is a conservative Republican," Hayden said, before listing a number of policy matters that Gazelka and his caucus have supported, such as cutting funding for social-welfare programs and requiring drug testing of welfare recipients, which Hayden said "gives the impression that they're lazy and don't want to work."

"Those things don't mesh with the persona of being a good Christian — but I want to be careful because I really don't want to attack his character," Hayden said. "I believe he is a man of character, but these principles are at odds with that."

Misunderstanding?

Gazelka has heard that criticism before — and he said he knows it's an obstacle.

"Being misunderstood," he said, is something that nags at him.

"Republicans have deep, caring hearts, and sometimes we have a hard time communicating that. But we really do care."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum Communications, which includes the Osakis Review.