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'End of an era': Sen. Bakk won't seek another term representing Iron Range

The longtime legislator earned praise from colleagues on both sides of the aisle as his departure contributes to a rapidly changing political landscape in Northeastern Minnesota.

Tom Bakk speaks at podium
State Sen. Tom Bakk discusses budget negotiations on April 6, 2017. The senator from Cook announced Thursday he is not seeking reelection.
Don Davis / File / Forum News Service
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DULUTH — State Sen. Tom Bakk, the influential Iron Range lawmaker who long led the DFL party before leaving it, will step down after 28 years of service in the Minnesota Legislature.

Bakk, I-Cook, will finish out his sixth term in the Senate, currently representing District 6. He also served four terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, beginning in 1995.

“Representing the people of the Arrowhead region has been one of the greatest rewards of my life, made possible by the support and patience of my family," Bakk said in a statement Thursday. "My heartfelt thanks to my constituents for entrusting me to be their voice at the Capitol for so many years. I have always tried to do my best for the people I’ve served even if it was not always easy or popular with my own political party. The friendships and the memories I have made will carry with me forever.”

Bakk, 67, served seven years as either the majority or minority leader for the Senate DFL, also seeking the party's endorsement for governor in 2010. But he has more recently aligned with Republicans, even earning the chairmanship for the influential Capital Investment Committee.

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Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk answers reporters' questions Wednesday, June 10, 2015, about a special legislative session.
Don Davis / File / Forum News Service

"One of the things that made Tom Bakk stand apart is that he knew how to gain and hold power, and he held the respect of leadership of both parties," said Sandy Layman, a Republican who served as commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and as a state representative. "He was also a labor leader all his life, but he was unique in that he considered himself a friend of business at the same time."

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Former Minnesota Lt. Gov. and state Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, of Duluth, spent nearly a decade working alongside Bakk in the Legislature as DFL colleagues. She and Mark Dayton went on to secure the party nod and win the state's gubernatorial election in 2010.

"He's a hard negotiator," Prettner Solon said. "He represented the Democrats well. He drove a hard line, but he knew when he had to give a little to get some. And he was able to keep his finger on the pulse of the district and be a great advocate and leader for his district."

Respect on both sides of the aisle

Bakk, a carpenter and labor leader by trade, began his career as a Democrat in the Iron Range region that for decades was dominated by the union-backed DFL. He ascended to minority leader in 2011 and then majority leader when his party assumed control of the Senate in 2013.

But political polarization and an urban-rural divide increasingly left Bakk at odds with his party on issues such as copper-nickel mining. In early 2020, Sen. Susan Kent, of Woodbury, wrestled Bakk's DFL leadership position away from him, becoming the party's new Senate minority leader.

The move creates a wedge in what was set to be a Senate chamber with a one-vote Republican advantage.

Alarmed by the more left-leaning elements in their party, Bakk and Sen. David Tomassoni, of Chisholm, left the DFL, declaring themselves independents. In a deal with the Republicans, Bakk was granted control of the committee that handles infrastructure, caucusing with that party in the last two sessions and bolstering its one-member majority.

"He started as a formidable opponent but in the end he became a trusted friend and ally," said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, the former majority leader who is now running for governor. "He and Tomassoni left the Democrat Party, caucused with us, came to all our meetings. We shared all the information with them because our purposes were common: protect the Northland, protect mining, protect the pipelines.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk (left) fields a reporter's question Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, at a pre-session briefing. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka looks on. Michael Brun / Forum News Service
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, left, fields a reporter's question Feb. 13, 2018, at a pre-session briefing. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka looks on.
Michael Brun / File / Forum News Service

"It was kind of a weird transition where this guy that is, in my opinion, one of the smartest political minds in the Legislature came over to our side. It really helped with how we navigate some of the thorny issues between Democrats and Republicans. I have a lot of respect for Tom Bakk."

Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, called Bakk a "valued friend."

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“His mentorship has been invaluable to me during my own public service as we’ve worked together to strengthen opportunities for folks in northern Minnesota," Ecklund said in a statement.

"The Arrowhead has unique challenges due to our geography and economic landscape, but no matter what, Sen. Bakk has been steadfast in his commitment to the region. He’s also been an unwavering champion for labor, recognizing the value that every single person should have the opportunity for a good job with fair pay, safety at the workplace, and benefits to support a family."

Competitive race expected this fall

Gazelka told the News Tribune he hoped Bakk would run as a Republican, "but I guess he's had enough." Meanwhile, current Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, told reporters he's "very confident we'll have a Republican replacement for Sen. Bakk."

Keith Steva, an environmental activist from Cook who is seeking the DFL endorsement, appeared to be the only announced candidate as of Thursday. The newly redrawn district covers all of Cook, Lake and Koochiching counties, as well as parts of Itasca and St. Louis counties, extending all the way into the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth.

The Minnesota newcomer, Keith Steva, aims to make climate change his top priority.

Cynthia Rugeley, department head of political science at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said Republicans likely see an opportunity to solidify the Iron Range and pick up two Senate seats. Tomassoni, who is battling ALS, announced last month that he is retiring.

"In a lot of ways, (Bakk) became a guy without a party," Rugeley said. "Him and Tomassoni both. The DFL, mostly in the Duluth area — I wouldn't say it was statewide — had become far, far more liberal than he is. And the Republican Party is far, far more conservative. I think if he had decided to run, whichever party he decided to run in, he would've won. But I'm just not sure there's a good fit for him anymore."

While the Iron Range has long played a sizeable role in state politics, leaders acknowledged the loss of loss of its more prominent figures could lead to waning influence.

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Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk sits in his office in the new Minnesota Senate Building on Jan. 11, 2016, with the Capitol behind him. Many senators' offices have the same view.
Don Davis / File / Forum News Service

"Bakk was kind of the leader of the Range delegation," Pretter Solon said. "He was always able to bring home the bacon to the Range, and make that Range district an area you had to deal with in order to get legislation done."

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Layman said Bakk was an advocate for "anything that could create jobs and economic development," from the taconite industry to the planned Huber Engineered Woods mill in Cohasset.

"It's the end of an era for the Iron Range," Layman said.

'Time for me to pass the torch'

Bakk did not respond to a request for further comment Thursday, but did issue a statement reflecting on his career.

“Every man and woman should be able to have a good-paying job, so they can provide for their families and every child should have the opportunity for a quality education," he said. "Driving around the state, and especially the Arrowhead region, seeing the countless projects, big and small, that I have been able to play a part in over the years is truly gratifying. It is difficult to fully reflect on the enormity of what we have accomplished.

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Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, of Cook, smiles as House Speaker Kurt Daudt, of Crown, answers a reporter's question May 15, 2015, as they announce they reached a budget deal.
Don Davis / File / Forum News Service

“There is still a lot more to be done but it is time for me to pass the torch," Bakk said. "I’m certain there are new inspiring leaders waiting in the wings. For 28 years it has been my time to serve, but now it is finally my time to retire.

Bakk lives on Lake Vermilion with his wife, Laura. He has four children and eight grandchildren.

“Laura and I are looking forward to the next chapter of our lives," he said in the statement. "It’s with excitement that we journey into the future of more soccer, basketball, baseball, volleyball, football and hockey, enjoying more time to help and watch our grandchildren learn and grow.”

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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