Democrats accuse Senate Republicans of extortion after ousting Walz commissioner

"Looks like the senate is executing a prisoner today."

Nancy Leppink. Image credit: Twitter via @mndli

Just before the special session closed on Wednesday, Senate Republicans successfully voted to prevent Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) Commissioner Nancy Leppink from keeping her job.

Leppink had been on the job since February 2019, but the Senate can vote to confirm or reject an appointee, which it decided to do Wednesday. 

The move to oust Leppink was unexpected by Senate Democrats, who accused Republicans of ambushing them on the issue and voting for purely political purposes. With one Republican not voting, the result was 34-32 along party lines, the first time a cabinet member has been removed by the Senate in 12 years.

“The Commissioner has proven herself unable to do her job well. She has a record of inviting union bosses into non-union environments and allowed them to collect business information without permission. Several times she has changed business standards at the last minute before their busy season with no warning, effectively crippling the establishments. Businesses consistently complain that she interprets legislation in the most stringent manner possible and offers no path forward,” said Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch. 

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, wondered if the move was “extortion” during a press conference after the vote. 

“So, is this extortion? That unless the governor does certain things, they’re going to threaten to take out another really important leader in his team and people that are doing the work for the people in Minnesota? That’s not okay,” she said. 

On Twitter, she called Leppink’s removal “cruel and incredibly irresponsible during a public health crisis.”

After the vote, Gov. Tim Walz called a press conference and suggested that Republicans may target Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm come September’s likely special session.

“Apparently there’s a list” of commissioners Republicans could target in the future, said Walz. 

Walz, who appointed Commissioner Leppink, had been warned that she was “not working out” in February by Gazelka.

Republicans faced a wave of criticism from Gov. Walz and other Democrats throughout the evening Wednesday. 

“I think in many cases they simply do not believe that we should be doing anything about COVID. If you go back and look, the majority leader has said ‘here’s the plan, open schools, play sports.’ Not open schools safely, not play sports safely, just do it and all the rest of this is nonsense,” Walz said during the press conference. “I will not put Minnesotans at risk, and there will be a reckoning on this.”

The governor was visibly frustrated during the press conference, saying Republicans are “listening to and echoing what President Trump is saying.” 

“I just have to tell you: texting at 3:29 and taking out a commissioner on political reasons, that’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome. There may be a handful of situations in the last 50 years where anything close to this happened,” said Walz, who viewed the move as retaliation for extending his emergency powers.  

“Now more than ever, we need strong voices for the health and safety of working people at the decision-making table. Unfortunately, Republicans fired one of the best advocates for the well-being of working Minnesotans out there. This desperate ambush shows that Republicans would rather score political points than help Minnesotans stay safe and recover from the impact of COVID-19,” Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin commented. 

Republican House Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the vote looked like the Senate was “executing a prisoner,” which prompted a response from Gazelka.

“Senate Republicans’ sudden action to remove the Commissioner of Labor and Industry during a pandemic is a slap in the face to working Minnesotans who are depending on the department to keep them safe on the job, ” the Minnesota AFL-CIO, a labor union, said in a press release. 

“For Senate Republicans to remove such a qualified leader is a blatantly partisan move that shows why we need a new majority in the State Senate that will put working Minnesotans first,” the statement continued. 

Others speculated that Republicans will continue removing Walz’s commissioners from office until the governor opens up the economy.