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Day to step down from Senate leadership post
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Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, is stepping down from his leadership position in the Minnesota Senate. Day has been Senate minority leader since 1997. He says the job has become too time-consuming. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
Senate Minority Leader Dick Day announced Friday he won't run for re-election to his leadership post. The outspoken legislator is best known for pushing to add slot machines at Canterbury Park, and to shut off ramp meters. Day says he's not stepping down under pressure, but thinks it's time for a new leader. Candidates for the job are already starting to line up.

St. Paul, Minn. — Day has served as minority leader since 1997, when he helped oust former leader Dean Johnson, who now leads Senate Democrats. Under Day's leadership, the Senate Republican caucus has grown to 31 members, the closest it's come to gaining majority status in 30 years.

Day says the time-consuming job took away from time with his family -- his wife had triple bypass surgery this year -- and other interests like NASCAR racing. He says this summer he was at a NASCAR race in Tennessee with his two sons, and his cell phone rang constantly. "And I was smoking my cigar and drinking a beer, and I was talking politics with people back in Minnesota. And my two kids said to me, 'Dad, you're missing out on something,'" Day says. "That was another thing that kind of came. I thought, well, in a couple weeks I'm going to go to Talladega; nobody's going to call me."

Day says at age 67, he's "no spring chicken." Day says he'll now have more time to devote to other projects at the Capitol -- and at the top of his list is trying to get a NASCAR track built in Minnesota.

Let's get somebody else in the reins, let them take this thing and run with it. I will sit in the front row and cheer them on.
- Sen. Dick Day

Day says he wasn't forced out of the post, despite his candid comments that have often ruffled some feathers. He says even after he said, "Minneapolis schools suck" on the last night of the session, no one asked him to step down.

"I never got a call. Even though I knew that it had to bother some people. Because it bothered me," says Day. I thought, 'You gotta use a little better language, Dick. So next time say, 'Their schools are a joke,' or 'Their schools are inefficient,' or something."

Day also upset some people at the Capitol during a Senate rules subcommittee hearing last week. He objected to a proposed one-time pay bump for Senate staffers, saying if they don't like their jobs, they can leave. Day defended his comments, saying he felt if state employees weren't getting a pay raise, Senate staff shouldn't get a bonus.

Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassell, says Day took some heat for those comments at a caucus meeting earlier this week. Dille says some senators thought Day went too far.

"It was hard on our employees, and a lot of them were in tears and so forth after that Rules Committee hearing."

Dille says he thinks it's time for a change in leadership.

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Image Sen. Dave Kleis

"I think we need to decrease the partisanship and increase the bipartisan decision-making around here, so we can get our work done on time," Dille says.

Last session, work on most major issues ground to a halt amid partisan squabbling. Dille says he'll run for the minority leader position to try to avoid a repeat of last session. But Dille, a mild-mannered legislator, says he's probably a long shot, and says his caucus may want more of a pit bull.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says he thinks the caucus will move in a more conservative direction without Day at the helm.

"I think in his heart of hearts, Dick is a fairly moderate to centrist person in matters of public policy. But many of the new caucus members certainly want to have a more conservative approach to state government," says Johnson.

Day describes himself as very conservative, but he also threw his support behind moderate Republican senators who later failed to get party backing in recent years, such as Gary Laidig of Stillwater and Sheila Kiscaden of Rochester. Kiscaden has switched to the Independence Party.

Laidig lost to Michelle Bachmann, who has pushed for constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and limiting the growth of state spending. Bachmann says she thinks the new minority leader will need to focus on trying to gain majority status when the Senate is on the ballot in two years. She says Day has made the caucus a viable force at the Capitol.

"We aren't just getting rolled over by our competition," says Bachmann. "People are being heard, we're being much more aggressive than we were in the past. A lot of that has to be credited to Senator Dick Day and his leadership."

Bachmann says she doesn't plan to run for minority leader, but expects many of her colleagues to seek the job. Dave Kleis of St. Cloud says he'll run, and several freshman senators say they're not ruling it out, including David Gaither of Plymouth and Geoff Michel of Edina. The caucus will elect a new minority leader Nov. 4.

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