GOP leaders ready to defend against DFL agenda at Capitol

Published 6:40 am Thursday, December 29, 2022

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By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

When Minnesota House Republicans weighed who should lead them into 2023, Rep. Lisa Demuth asked them to consider her qualifications — not her background — as they cast their votes.

Demuth is set to become the first woman to lead House Republicans and the first Black Minnesotan to lead any caucus at the Capitol when members of the 2023 Legislature are sworn in next week.

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The Cold Spring small business owner and former assistant minority leader said she didn’t know she was breaking a glass ceiling when she got elected to lead the caucus. And that won’t influence her path forward, she said.

“That was never my intent. It is something that I’m not ashamed of in any way. But I would never lead with that. I’m here to do the job,” Demuth said of her race and gender in a November interview. “The fact that this is technically history making, I won’t shy away from that, but that doesn’t change how I’m going to do things.”

After surprise losses in November, Republican legislators chose new leaders to represent their caucuses in St. Paul. And in both the House and the Senate, they picked small business owners.

Demuth, a former Rocori school board member and property manager, bested former Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, and Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, took over after outgoing Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, decided not to run again. Johnson runs a family construction business and co-owns a law firm.

“I like to say I’m kind of like Ronald Reagan, except for I don’t have the personality, charisma or good looks, but I have the belief and conservative values,” Johnson said in an interview with MPR News.

With slim margins between Democrats and Republicans in each chamber, Johnson and Demuth could play a role in shaping budget decisions, as well as picking off DFL support for potentially controversial legislation.

“There are a number of those types of issues where overreach could actually end up really hammering on our communities, our families,” Johnson, the former deputy majority leader, said. “So we’re going to make sure that we hold Democrats accountable going forward.”

Both Demuth and Johnson have navigated bipartisan deals at the Capitol and said that going into 2023, they feel confident about their ability to work across the political aisle and to hold their members together.

“My approach is maybe a little softer, if I had to describe it that way,” Demuth said, comparing her style to Daudt’s. “But yet I am not afraid to get in and tackle hard issues and be the voice when that needs to happen. I do think that I’m a little bit more collaborative and I look forward to making sure that all 64 of our voices are going to be heard.”

Johnson also said that he hopes to run a caucus where all 33 members feel like their voices are heard.

“I’m from a family of five kids, so very much used to the large groups, how do we make a large group decision? And I do not like closing the door and then being an island,” he said. “If you’ve got to bully ideas through a caucus, they’re probably not good ideas.”

Many Republican priorities will stay the same in 2023, Demuth and Johnson said. GOP lawmakers will work to send surplus funds back to taxpayers, boost funding for local law enforcement, seek to increase penalties for repeat violent offenders and those who distribute fentanyl, and raise questions about fraud and abuse in public programs.

They said they would also push back on efforts to lift restrictions on abortion and to impose new restrictions on firearm sales.

After working together on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Johnson and incoming Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said they were hopeful.

“We’ve talked a few times here, and we both agree that we want to, we want to make this work,” Dziedzic said. “And so we’re going to, you know, try to make it work, have honest conversation, open conversations to do what is best for Minnesotans.”

Johnson said he viewed Dziedzic as a pragmatist and expected that she and others would seek advice from GOP lawmakers.

“I’m hoping that through this process she’ll be asking our members what’s palatable  in our districts and how can we move policy forward that maybe we have some differences on, but what can we do to make that better for our district?” he said.

With women set to lead three of four caucuses at the Capitol for the first time in the state’s history, many are expecting a change in tenor.

Amy Koch was the first and only woman to serve as a GOP caucus leader before Demuth was chosen. Koch, who was Senate Majority Leader in 2011, said she’s thrilled to see Demuth, along with Dziedzic and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, take the helm.

“It just feels like we’ve reached a critical mass where finally it might just be normalized – to have not just women in leadership, but women that will run, and I do think it will make a difference,” Koch said.

MPR News reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.