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Stanek's resignation may cast shadow on Yecke's confirmation
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The resignation under fire of Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek may affect the debate over confirmation of Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke. (MPR file photo)
Senate DFL leaders say last week's resignation of Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek will not affect the pending confirmations of other Pawlenty cabinet members. They say they will continue to scrutinize the governor's commissioners. Many DFL senators say they're particularly concerned about Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke, whose confirmation vote by the Senate Education Committee is scheduled for April 27. Republicans say DFLers are playing politics with qualified gubernatorial appointees.

St. Paul, Minn. — For weeks, Senate Democrats have been raising questions about three commissioners appointed by Gov. Pawlenty. The three are his lieutenant governor and Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke and Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek.

Stanek resigned last week after coming under fire for admitting in a 1992 deposition that he used racial epithets. The Senate Transportation Committee recommended by a party-line vote that the full Senate not confirm Molnau, and the Education Committee could make a similar recommendation for Yecke.

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Image Cheri Pierson Yecke

DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson of Willmar says the three are not related. He says there's no caucus position on confirmations, and he won't tell Senate Democrats how to vote on the governor's commissioners.

"I have sensed that members are laboring over some of the candidates for confirmation, and that's the way it ought to be. It's not simply a rubber stamp," Johnson says.

Johnson says the situation with Stanek is different than the questions surrounding Molnau and Yecke. While Stanek was criticized for past behavior, the scrutiny of Molnau and Yecke involves their current policies, and the direction their agencies are taking under their leadership. Johnson says the Senate is doing its job by raising questions about political appointees.

"The governor ought to send us a thank-you note. He ought to send us a thank-you note for doing some of his background work that he failed to do before he appointed various commissioners," Johnson says.

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Image Not a rubber stamp

Gov. Pawlenty said last week that a background check failed to turn up information on Stanek's racial comments. He has refused to comment further on Stanek, but his spokeswoman says Pawlenty views the confirmations of Molnau and Yecke as very different issues.

Pawlenty and Republican lawmakers have strongly defended both women. Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, says Yecke should be confirmed. But Michel says he thinks Democrats on the committee will vote against her confirmation.

"In the wake of Commissioner Stanek's withdrawal, I think the Senate DFL is going to be emboldened to ask more questions and create more of a circus, and I'm sorry about that," Michel says. "I think that does a disservice to education in Minnesota, and most particularly, it does a disservice to a well-qualified appointee who should have been confirmed last year."

Democrats on the Senate Education Committee say they haven't decided how they'll vote on Yecke's confirmation, but they say they have concerns. Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, says Yecke has a polarizing management style that has divided the education community. She says she's received several hundred e-mails, either for or against Yecke's confirmation, which is an unusually high number.

"We are seeing in the education area, though, a commissioner whose views on education, and her management style, appear to be very different from anything we've seen in the past," Ranum says.

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Image Supports Yecke

Yecke has met with most of the DFL senators, and Yecke's spokesman, Bill Walsh, says Yecke has asked them to vote for her confirmation.

Republicans say Yecke shouldn't be criticized for carrying out the agenda of the governor who appointed her. Sen. Michelle Bachmann, R-Stillwater, says she doesn't agree with Yecke on the federal No Child Left Behind law, but that's no reason to reject her confirmation.

"I am probably one of the most vociferous opponents of No Child Left Behind, and yet I completely embrace this commissioner, because she's professional, and she is acting in accordance with the governor's wishes, which she should be doing," Bachmann says.

Committee rejections won't necessarily doom Pawlenty's appointees. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson says Senate Democrats haven't decided if and when they will bring up the Molnau and Yecke confirmations on the floor. Unless the full Senate votes to reject their confirmations, the governor's commissioners will continue to serve.

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