Michelle Fischbach's copies of "Robert's Rules of Order" and "Mason's Manual of Legislative Procedure" brim with Post-it notes. In her down time, she will page through the books she uses to preside over the Minnesota Senate. For fun.
The self-proclaimed "rules geek," a Republican who spent the past two decades representing a conservative rural district west of St. Cloud, is about to land in an unusual position as DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's No. 2. It will be the first time in 54 years that Minnesota has had a governor and lieutenant governor from different political parties.
Fischbach is preparing to take DFL Lt. Gov. Tina Smith's job in a time of intense partisan division. And her colleagues, DFLers and Republicans alike, said her appreciation for rules and procedure will likely help smooth the transition.
"She's got a strong compass for doing things in the right sort of way. She's political … But procedural fairness trumps everything," said Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, who believes Fischbach and Dayton could find common ground in some areas.
She might even be able to offer Dayton some useful advice, Senjem said.
Smith will be sworn in to replace U.S. Sen. Al Franken this week. Dayton appointed Smith to fill the seat after Franken announced he would resign, following accusations he sexually harassed more than a half dozen women. As Senate president, Fischbach, 52, is constitutionally obligated to fill in for the lieutenant governor.
Whether she could continue to hold her Senate seat is less clear — and itself a source of growing partisan tension. Fischbach and Senate Republicans argue she can legally do both jobs. DFLers disagree, and the dispute appears likely bound for court.
'Cordial and collegial'
Politics have always been part of Fischbach's life. Growing up in Woodbury, her family was politically involved. She met her husband, Scott Fischbach, when they were both working for former U.S. Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.
Michelle and Scott started dating when she was attending St. Cloud State University; they ended up settling not too far away, in her husband's hometown of Paynesville. She served a short stint on the Paynesville City Council when their two children were young.
Then, in 1996, the DFL state senator from Fischbach's area resigned amid allegations of shoplifting and bribery. She jumped into the special election and won.
Scott Fischbach's political involvement has paralleled that of his wife. A former consultant to candidates who opposed legal abortion, in 2001 he took over as executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the state's most prominent anti-abortion organization.
The two share strong convictions against abortion, Scott Fischbach said. As children, he recalled, they both attended the annual March for Life rally to protest abortion. Earlier this year, Michelle Fischbach sponsored a bill during the last legislative session to provide more oversight of abortion clinics.
But much of Fischbach's work in the Senate has been on higher education. As chairwoman of the Higher Education Finance and Policy committee, she has pushed for more money to support rural schools and the state college system.
She said she is most proud of the bills renaming highways in honor of Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker, who was killed on the job, and Ken Olson, who sacrificed himself to save his fellow soldiers during the Vietnam War.
Senjem said he couldn't recall Fischbach sponsoring any bills that were particularly "earthshaking." However, he said she's been a strong leader who insists on fairness as Senate president, even when Republicans want her to give them the edge. Republicans first selected her as president when they won the majority in 2010, and again in 2016. She was the first woman to hold the post in Minnesota.
"She navigates well with the good old boys and the feminists," said Minnesota Office of Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller, a former DFL senator who has worked with Fischbach in both roles. She has a wry sense of humor and genuinely likes people, he said, and as president she was fair and direct.
"As you can tell, I'm kind of a fan," Pogemiller said, then added, "I wish she was less conservative."
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said Fischbach might be one of the most conservative senators and that he is one of the most liberal. They served on the Health and Human Services Finance and Policy committee together for years, and while they have different worldviews, "We've been cordial and collegial," he said. But he feels she slightly favored Republicans when presiding over the Senate.
"The concern is if she were to become governor," Hayden said, in the event the 70-year-old Dayton is not able to finish the job. With Republicans the majority party in both the House and Senate, he said, "That's something anyone should be concerned about if they believe in women's right to choose."
Balancing two jobs?
Dayton's term ends at the start of January 2019, and Fischbach would be his second-in-command for about a year. What she would try to accomplish in that time remains to be seen.
Hayden speculated she would use the new platform to highlight her values. Other legislators said they don't expect her to be much involved with administration decisions, though some said she and Dayton could find common ground on issues like preventing elder abuse.
Fischbach had lunch with Dayton shortly after finding out about the new post. Afterward, Dayton said in a statement they spent most of the meal sharing photos of their pets and grandchildren. Fischbach has three grandkids and a fourth on the way, and said her favorite hobby is playing with and spoiling them.
Since their lunch, Fischbach said she been talking with Dayton's staff. There's still a lot to figure out, she said. She doesn't have any plans yet to elevate certain topics, and said she sees her new role as mostly ceremonial. The lieutenant governor serves on four boards and handles whatever Dayton delegates.
"I think they'll easily fit in the schedule," she said of juggling the lieutenant governor's responsibilities with her Senate post.
But Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said there could be a legal challenge if she tries to do the two jobs. Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, a DFLer, recently issued an advisory opinion that Fischbach would violate the state Constitution if she tried to hold both offices. However, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said that is just an opinion and the Senate's legal counsel believes she can hold both seats.
Republicans currently have a majority in the Senate. If Fischbach resigns and a DFLer wins a February special election for the seat of Sen. Dan Schoen — who, like Franken, resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment — neither party would have the majority. Republicans are trying to avoid that with a proposal to elect a DFL Senate president in a special session, but DFLers are resisting it.
A Facebook post by Fischbach's husband last week shows they are preparing for all outcomes. He asked people to contribute to her campaign, stating she could face a special election within six months to keep her seat. And she has suggested that, if a court ruling forces her hand, she'd run to reclaim her Senate seat in a special election and resign as lieutenant governor if she wins.
Fischbach said she wants to continue the job she enjoys: representing the people in Senate District 13.
"That's really the most important thing, out of everything," she said. "That's why I've done it for so many years."
Jessie Van Berkel • 612-673-4649