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Minnesota Sen. Paul Gazelka of Nisswa talks to reporters Thursday, Nov. 10, 2016, moments after fellow Republicans elected him majority leader. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Rural insurance man tapped as MN GOP Senate leader

ST. PAUL -- Sen. Paul Gazelka said he had no intention of becoming the Minnesota Senate's leader until his wife, Maralee, reacted to election returns.

"My wife said, 'You ought to be running for that seat,"" the Nisswa senator said Thursday, Nov. 10, moments after fellow Republicans elected him the majority leader in the second time the GOP has held the Senate majority in more than 40 years.

Insiders said three senators ran for the office, but Gazelka and others refused to comment on the election.

Republican senators elected Sen. Michelle Fischbach of Paynesville Senate president, the second time she has held that job, which is third in line of succession to the governor's office.

Fischbach, who starts her eighth term Jan. 2, was president when Republicans held a majority in 2011-2012.

Republicans take over the Senate with a caveat: Two Senate races won by Republicans will undergo recounts, although Republicans say they are confident they will win. If not, Democrats would retain the control they have come to take for granted.

The GOP margin will be 34-33. House Republicans also control their chamber, as they have the past two years. They are expected to work together as they negotiate against Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

"We are going to have to figure out a way to work together at some level," Gazelka said of Republicans and Dayton.

The leader-to-be said he and Dayton have a working relationship.

"We are up to the task," said Gazelka, a Baxter insurance agency owner.

He would not talk specifics about what Minnesotans could expect from Republicans, but one comment was at odds with Dayton and the House speaker.

When discussing rising individual health insurance policy costs, Gazelka said Republicans are open to premium rebates as Dayton has suggested, "but it has to be with the reforms that we want going forward."

Dayton and Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, say relief for high premiums is needed quickly, perhaps in a special legislative session this month, while deeper reforms need to wait until the next regular session that begins Jan. 3.

Gazelka, who attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., was elected to the state House in 2004, then to the Senate in 2010. He is assistant minority leader and has been the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee.

He said that he hoped Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie would be elected majority leader, but Hann lost in Tuesday's election.

Among those voting for new leaders were freshmen senators-elect, just two days from their Election night victories.

Andrew Lang of Olivia was happy Thursday, after beating veteran Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, Tuesday.

He said that he was not in a room of strangers as Senate Republicans met Thursday. Many sitting GOP senators  helped him in his campaign.

"It is quite an honor," he said. "It was a long summer."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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