Senjem and his moderate voice prepare to depart the Senate
Supporters say Senjem built a statewide rep for making the Legislature work, but critics say his centrist reputation concealed a more conservative brand of politics.
ROCHESTER — State Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester gave every sign that he was running for re-election this November until he announced last week that he wasn’t.
The declaration caught many of his fellow GOP legislators by surprise.
For the past 20 years in the Minnesota Senate, Senjem has represented a brand of genial moderate Republicanism that has been out of fashion in today's more blood-sport political environment.
With his resonant belly laugh, Senjem, 78, has been a gregarious gentleman-legislator in St. Paul’s corridors of power — and a productive one. His affability, political savvy and willingness to work across the aisle to forge legislative compromises gave him outsized influence in state politics.
But new, redistricted maps adopted earlier this year put Senjem in a more challenging district, making his slightly blue district much more progressive and left-leaning.
In 2020, in his current district, Senjem had barely eked out a victory against a first-time DFL opponent, Sara Flick. The Minnesota DFL and its allies poured money and resources into the district to oust him.
Senjem would have been targeted again, this time in a district that no longer contained his GOP strongholds in Dodge County that had offset the left-learning areas in Olmsted County.
Senjem’s allies don’t doubt that Senjem would have made the race competitive, but at 78, it would have been a hard-fought slog.
“I don’t think this was necessarily his plan,” said GOP Senate Majority Leader Jeremy Miller, R-Winona. “However, he deserves to go out on top. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.”
Miller, who describes Senjem as a mentor and the person most responsible for launching his own political career, said he senses that Senjem is at peace with the decision.
“After talking to him, I could tell that there was a sense of relief,” Miller said.
Senjem has devoted the last 35 years to public service. Before his two-decade career in the Senate, he served 10 years on the Rochester City Council and, before that, five years on the Rochester City Park Board.
Senjem and the late Rep. Dave Bishop share the distinction of being the longest-serving legislators from Olmsted County, said Mark Liebow, chairman of the Senate District 26 DFL.
Senjem joins an exodus of retiring legislators in St. Paul as a result of redistricting, including 22 out of 67 lawmakers from the state Senate. Senjem’s retirement is a loss for the Senate, said Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault.
“Sen. Senjem is one of those very influential senators,” Jasinski said. “Sitting next to him for six years, I’ve learned a lot of things. You have to listen to both sides to understand the issues, but at one point or another, you have to take a vote.”
Senjem’s influence and uniqueness rested on a number of factors. Unlike some in his party, Senjem is not a climate-change denier and has worked to advance renewable energy legislation.
As chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, Senjem pushed for large bonding bills that included projects for Rochester, often putting him at odds with House Republicans. But he often got his way with charm and persistence.
Senjem has also used his influence to persuade his fellow legislators to invest and build mental health clinics across the state. Senjem’s sensitivity to the state’s mental health needs stemmed from a tragedy in own life. His father committed suicide when he was 12 years old.
Senjem’s cross-ticket appeal was evident in 2020 when he was one of only seven state senators to be elected in districts in which more voters supported the presidential candidate of the opposite party.
Even DFL activists who labored to beat him at the polls describe his career as “distinguished.” Yet, Senjem has his critics who saw his centrism as a shield for a more hard-core conservative persona. There was a reason why upwards of $1 million was spent to attack him.
Senjem, these critics say, has the ability to say one thing and vote the other way. In 2013, Senjem voted against a marriage equality measure that gave gay couples the right to marry, even though he gave off signals on the floor prior to the vote that he would support it.
Environmentalists say his clean energy legislation contained too many concessions to fossil fuels and wouldn’t have gotten the state anywhere near the state’s carbon reduction goals under the Paris Climate Accords.
“He was one of the last of a dying breed of people who want to be moderate Republicans,” Liebow said. “But, unfortunately, when it came down to conflicts between (his moderate impulses) and going with his caucus, he too often went with his caucus.”
Rick Morris, a campaign organizer for the Rochester chapter of the Sierra Club, said he found himself frustrated at the mixed signals he said Senjem gave about his commitment to renewable energy.
He recalled Senjem speaking at a gathering of environmentally minded high school students and telling them how important climate change was to him. A week later, he voted on the Senate floor to remove language from a bill describing human activity as a “key cause” of climate change.
“When you look at his vote against a 50% renewable energy mandate, when you look at his eco bill that failed that would have allowed new gas plants to be grandfathered in ... it would allow Minnesota to buy energy from coal plants outside of Minnesota just as long as the coal plant wasn’t inside Minnesota, it was basically a fossil fuel executive’s dream,” Morris said.
Still, others say that at a time of continued and increasing political polarization, Senjem was the kind of leader who greased the political machinery and kept things moving forward.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, former GOP Senate Majority Leader who is running for governor, said Senjem was the kind of leader who made the Legislature work.
“It takes ability to build bridges to the other side, and (Senjem) played a role in that regard,” Gazelka said. “Government has to work, and he showed how to make it work.”