Minnesota senate says no to Yecke
Senate says no to YeckeSt Paul Pioneer Press, Posted on Mon, May 17, 2004Just hours after the Minnesota Senate removed her from her job as state education commissioner, Cheri Pierson Yecke lashed out Sunday at Senate leadership — blaming partisan politics for the loss of the job she has held for 16 months.
BY JOHN WELSH and PATRICK SWEENEY
Yecke was rejected 35-31 in a party-line vote at 3:40 a.m. Sunday. Capitol watchers say it is only the second time in more than 50 years that the Senate removed a state commissioner from the job.
"It's unfortunate there were not members of the Democratic Party who could be statesmen and look at the facts instead of voting along party lines, "Yecke said during a news conference at her Blaine home. "I'm profoundly disappointed in the stalemate and the bickering that went on."
Democratic-Farmer-Labor senators said Yecke was too divisive and polarizing a figure to be education commissioner. Her rejection was a stunning rebuke by the DFL-controlled Senate to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It highlights the bitter feelings between party leaders at the close of this year's legislative session, which left major items including a budget bill unfinished before Sunday's adjournment.
"In the dark of night, the Democrats in the Minnesota Senate have done a great disservice to our state," the governor said in a statement. "By rejecting Commissioner Yecke on a party-line vote, they have rejected innovation and accountability for our education system. My disappointment in their action and the loss to our state is deep and profound." He promised to continue the same education policies he supported under Yecke.
Yecke admitted her tenure has been controversial. But she said her rejection has more to do with the current state of politics in St. Paul than her outspoken support for the federal No Child Left Behind Act and her work on state social studies standards, which some complained were too conservative and biased.
"This isn't about me. This is about the whole process and the whole political atmosphere,'' she said. "I'm walking away with my head up high. I'm very proud of what we've accomplished."
In other votes Sunday morning, the Senate approved three other controversial appointments of Pawlenty's, including Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau as transportation commissioner. The other confirmations included Cal Ludeman as the commissioner of the Department of Employee Relations and Annette Meeks as a member of the Metropolitan Council.
The vote against Yecke came as a surprise. In recent days, Republicans were voicing confidence that she would survive this political storm, which included a contentious committee hearing and a negative recommendation by the Senate Education Committee. Even early Sunday as the Senate took up the confirmation debate, agency spokesman Bill Walsh and Republican senators thought several DFL members would end up voting for Yecke. The commissioner, who had been keeping a relatively low profile in recent months, was not at the Capitol during the debate but heard of it by phone from Walsh as it took place.
Yecke said she was shocked when she heard the vote tally. She said Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, told her in a private meeting earlier this month that he would not call up her confirmation for a vote unless she had the votes necessary to prevail. But Johnson said he phrased it more as a challenge to Yecke to go out and gather the needed votes as opposed to a pledge that her job was safe.
In a half-hour of debate before the vote, Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, argued that while any governor has the legal power to name commissioners to run state agencies, none has an absolute right to have the appointments approved by the Senate.
"A commissioner doesn't just work for the governor," Kelley said. "A commissioner works for the people."
Kelley, who is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has been critical of Yecke on many issues, including her book published last year that attacked trends in middle school education. He said the language she used in her book was not respectful to opponents. He also cited Yecke's use of the phrase "hate America agenda" to describe some critics of new social studies standards.
"What we observed," Kelley said of the committee, "was Minnesota has become divided since the commissioner was appointed."
Responding to an earlier comment from Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, that the Legislature had no right to insist any commissioner be a "healer" of existing problems, Kelley called Yecke an "active divider."
Another Democratic critic, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf of Thief River Falls, accused Yecke of stifling the flow of information from the Education Department bureaucracy to the Legislature. He said department employees sometimes gave information to the Republican majority in the House but withheld it from the Senate DFL majority.
But Republicans defended Yecke's work and said her rejection was a direct challenge by Senate Democrats to Pawlenty's ability to run state agencies.
"They just declared the governor can't run his own government," said Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna.
"It's not just a shot over the bow, it's a shot into the bow," said Sen. Bob Kierlin, R-Winona.
The governor has not named an interim commissioner. Among the possible candidates for Yecke's replacement are assistant commissioner Mary Ann Nelson, a former superintendent of Fridley public schools; and Alexandria superintendent Ric Dressen, whom the governor named last year as co-chair of his education finance task force.
The last commissioner rejected by the Senate was Steve Minn, who had been appointed by former Gov. Jesse Ventura as commissioner of the merged departments of commerce and public service. He was voted out in 2000.
The vote against Cheri Pierson Yecke early Sunday fell along party lines:
Republicans for: David Gaither, Plymouth; William Belanger, Bloomington; Betsy Wergin, Princeton; Bob Kierlin, Winona; Brian LeClair, Woodbury; Cal Larson, Fergus Falls; Carrie Ruud, Breezy Point; Dave Kleis, St. Cloud; David Hann, Eden Prairie; David Knutson, Burnsville; David Senjem, Rochester; Debbie Johnson, Ham Lake; Dennis Frederickson, New Ulm; Dick Day, Owatonna; Gen Olson, Minnetrista; Pat Pariseau, Farmington; Claire Robling, Jordan; Geoff Michel, Edina; Thomas Neuville, Northfield; Steve Dille, Dassel; Paul Koering, Fort Ripley; Warren Limmer, Maple Grove; Mike McGinn, Eagan; Mady Reiter, Shoreview; Julianne Ortman, Minnetonka; Sean Nienow, Cambridge; Julie Rosen, Fairmont; Mark Ourada, Buffalo; Michael Jungbauer, East Bethel; Michele Bachmann, Stillwater; Michelle Fischbach, Paynesville.
DFLers against: Ellen Anderson, St. Paul; Keith Langseth, Glyndon; John Marty, Roseville; Jim Vickerman, Tracy; Jane Ranum, Minneapolis; James Metzen, South St. Paul; Gary Kubly, Granite Falls; John Hottinger, St. Peter; Don Betzold, Fridley; Dean Johnson, Willmar; David Tomassoni, Chisholm; Dan Sparks, Austin; Dallas Sams, Staples; D. Scott Dibble, Minneapolis; Becky Lourey, Kerrick; Lawrence Pogemiller, Minneapolis; Yvonne Solon, Duluth; Charles Wiger, North St. Paul; Sandra Pappas, St. Paul; Wesley Skoglund, Minneapolis; Ann Rest, New Hope; Thomas Bakk, Cook; Steve Murphy, Red Wing; Steve Kelley, Hopkins; Satveer Chaudhary, Fridley; Leo Foley, Coon Rapids; Rod Skoe, Clearbrook; Richard Cohen, St. Paul; Mee Moua, St. Paul; Linda Scheid, Brooklyn Park; Linda Higgins, Minneapolis; Linda Berglin, Minneapolis; LeRoy Stumpf, Thief River Falls; Sharon Marko, Cottage Grove.
Independence Party member against: Sheila Kiscaden, Rochester