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GOP women rally around embattled Pawlenty cabinet members
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Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, backed by several other GOP officeholders, held a news conference on the Capitol steps on Monday. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Republican women who hold statewide office and serve in the Legislature are urging Senate Democrats to confirm two of Gov. Pawlenty's commissioners. They say Senate DFLers are playing politics with the confirmations of Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau and Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke. They also questioned whether gender is a factor. Senate DFL leaders say the issue isn't gender, but rather the Pawlenty administration's policies.

St. Paul, Minn. — More than a dozen Republican women who hold political office gathered on the Capitol steps to show their support for Molnau and Yecke. Both commissioners came under scrutiny last week in the DFL-controlled Senate. The Senate Transportation Committee voted 8-7 to recommend that the full Senate not confirm Molnau, and Yecke had the first of two confirmation hearings.

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer says it's hypocritical for Democrats to say they support women leaders, and yet oppose Molnau and Yecke.

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Image Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson

"We've earned it, we've accomplished it, we certainly have the qualifications and yet for some reason, as has been stated, that is being denied, and it seems really a shame, especially coming from a political party that might otherwise be known as supposedly the champion," Kiffmeyer said.

Kiffmeyer called the Senate's actions an "abuse of the process."

Senate DFL leaders say it's their job to question gubernatorial appointees - and gender has nothing to do with it.

"It's not about women, it's not about men, it's about qualifications, about policies that are being implemented," said Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar, who says Senate Democrats have serious concerns about the direction MnDOT and the Department of Education are heading under the leadership of Molnau and Yecke. He says the two are advancing a political agenda, and aren't interested in finding common ground with Senate Democrats.

Johnson points out that some of Molnau's strongest critics are DFL women. Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, who voted against Molnau's confirmation in the Transportation Committee, says raising gender as an issue is a diversion. Moua says she voted against Molnau because she doesn't think Molnau has a long-term transportation vision for the state.

"I think that commissioners are put in place because they come with a specific expertise, to not just blindly follow the lead of the governor, but to also share in that leadership in their vision and to put forth an advocacy for a vision that represents the direction where that agency ought to be going," Moua said.

Others who voted against Molnau say under her leadership MnDOT is pursuing a package of road projects heavily weighted toward the suburbs.

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Image Sen. Claire Robling, R-Jordan

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says Molnau went back on promises to lawmakers that she would divide new road projects between the metropolitan area and rural Minnesota.

Molnau's defenders say none of her critics argue that Molnau isn't qualified for the job. Republican Sen. Claire Robling of Jordan, who considers Molnau her mentor, says Molnau has brought reform to MnDOT.

"She has encouraged innovation at a time when we don't have a lot of financial resources. She's looking for new ways to continue moving our road projects forward, with FAST lanes and HOT lanes," she said.

Yecke supporters also praise her qualifications, and say she's bringing much-needed reform to education. If the full Senate were to reject either Molnau or Yecke, it would be highly unusual. The Senate has refused to confirm only one commissioner appointed by a governor in the last 30 years. That was Steve Minn, appointed by Gov. Ventura to head a merged Commerce and Public Service Department. Minn says he sees parallels between the Senate vote to reject him in 2000 and last week's Molnau vote.

"This is a close political advisor to Pawlenty, as I was to Ventura. There are lots of other commissioners whose policies they might disagree with, but they selected Molnau because she is controversial and outspoken, and as I said, I think rejecting commissioners on that basis rather than on the merits has a chilling effect on getting good qualified people to go into government duty," he said.

Minn, like Molnau, had served for more than a year before the Senate took up his confirmation. That's not unusual. In fact, the Senate doesn't have to vote, and the appointees can continue to serve while confirmation is pending. But some Republican lawmakers want to change that. They've proposed legislation stating that if the Senate doesn't vote to reject commissioners the first session after they're appointed, they will in effect be confirmed.

Senate DFL leaders say they should have the perogative to consider Cabinet members after they've served for awhile and demonstrated their leadership.

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