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Hottinger out as Senate DFL leader
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John Hottinger is out after just one year as DFL Senate Majority Leader. His colleagues chose Sen. Dean Johnson of Willmar as their new leader Tuesday. (MPR file photo)
Senate DFLers have made a critical change in their leadership team only weeks before the start of the 2004 legislative session. Just one year after assuming the mantle of majority leader, John Hottinger of St. Peter has been voted out of that position and replaced by Dean Johnson of Willmar. DFLers say the move reflects a new unified front as they face a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled House. Observers say the switch highlights the difficult position Democrats face.

St. Paul, Minn. — After seven hours of deliberations , DFLers emerged from behind closed doors with unexpected news -- Majority Leader John Hottinger was out, and one-time Republican-turned-Democrat Dean Johnson was in. There was widespread dissatisfaction among DFLers with the results of last year's legislative session in which Gov. Pawlenty's no-new-taxes philosophy prevailed in budget debates.

Johnson says as the new Democratic leader he'll ask members to close ranks, and focus on what he says are the negative effects of the governor's budget-balancing program cuts.

"We will expose Gov. Pawlenty, the House Republicans, and the Taxpayers League and their agenda that was passed last legislative session, which this caucus firmly believes is unfair to average people across this state," Johnson says.

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Image Dean Johnson

Johnson is a Lutheran minister, a National Guard chaplain who holds the rank of brigadier general, and was the GOP Senate minority leader as recently as 1998.

DFLers didn't disclose how many caucus members voted to elevate him to his new position -- saying only that he passed the 18-vote threshold needed to assume the post. DFLers control 35 of the body's 67 seats.

Johnson is generally viewed as a moderate who occassionally follows the conservative route on some sensitive social issues, including abortion rights. But outgoing leader Hottinger says ideology shouldn't be an issue.

"The decision wasn't based on progressive, pro-life, pro-choice, or centrist. It was based on what's the best way to bring a unified caucus together, put aside the bruises of the past, and have an agenda that Minnesotans across the board will appreciate," says Hottinger.

Both Johnson and Hottinger say the caucus is strong, united, and ready to concentrate on economics, budget matters, and social programs that they claim were left in tatters following last year's budget fight.

The DFL's heading for extinction as a viable, strong political party that's got a voice in policy-making in Minnesota unless the DFL caucus can work together.
- Larry Jacobs, U of M political scientist

University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs says the future of the caucus rests on Johnson's ability to keep his message focused and to hold potentially divisive cultural issues off the agenda.

"The DFL's heading for extinction as a viable, strong political party that's got a voice in policy-making in Minnesota unless the DFL caucus can work together. He's got to convey that sense that every individual has a stake in the collective of the party," says Jacobs.

Party unity was strained last year when Democrats backed down or were outmaneuvered on key budget and policy matters. In particular, Iron Range lawmakers threatened to leave the caucus after Hottinger accepted changes in local government aid formulas that some felt unfairly targeted northeastern Minnesota. Many urban DFLers winced when conservative lawmakers advanced new restrictions on abortion and loosened the permitting process for handgun owners.

Jacobs says those divisions must be repaired, or at least muted, if the caucus is to function effectively. Pawlenty released a written statement saying he looks forward to "working with both Senators Johnson and Hottinger in their new roles." Pawlenty communications director Dan Wolter says he doesn't think the change will alter the upcoming legislative session.

"The governor remains committed and focused on the issues he's been outlining for the past several weeks. And nothing's going to change that focus," says Wolters.

Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum of Kenyon, however, says the change in the DFL lineup could signal tougher resolve on the part of Senate Democrats. And he says he worries that could mean less willingness to compromise.

"That message again is basically one of confrontation; it's one of anger; it's of hate. It's not one of working together for Minnesota. It's not one of cooperating together" says Sviggum.

Johnson says he doesn't anticipate a wider shakeup among DFL committee chairs in the Senate. One key position that will need filling is Johnson's seat as chair of the Transportation Budget division.

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