At a House Democrat retreat in December, the chiefs of staff for former Gov. Mark Dayton and former House Speaker Paul Thissen told the crowd they missed opportunities the last time the DFL controlled the state nearly a decade ago.
It set the tone for the session ahead.
"They basically said, 'Pedal to the metal. You don't know how long you'll have, and do what you know you need to do,'" House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said. "They were very inspirational, because the only regrets they had were the things they left on the table."
Hortman and Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, stepped into the Capitol in January knowing Democrats could lose full control of state government in 2024. They needed to hold together dozens of members representing districts from Hermantown to Minneapolis, whose ideologies ranged from moderate to Democratic socialist. There was little room for defection in the House. In the Senate, not a single vote could be spared.
But time and again over the past five months, the narrow House and Senate majorities — led by two women for the first time in state history — cast unified votes on massive budget bills and divisive policy changes. They approved items Democrats were unable to accomplish the last time they held complete power in St. Paul.
"We represent small communities in rural Minnesota, the suburbs, to the large urban core. And so as we got to know each other and had those conversations, we learned that we had a lot more similarities than we did differences," Dziedzic said. "That's what we did all session long, is we had those conversations. Some very personal, heated, thoughtful conversations."
Not even Dziedzic's cancer diagnosis, surgery and chemotherapy, and long absence from the Capitol slowed them down.
House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said Hortman was instrumental in pushing the DFL's priorities across the finish line. Although Demuth criticized the DFL bills as partisan, she said Hortman deserves credit for getting them done while working with three first-time legislative leaders — herself, Dziedzic and Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks.
"They finally had the trifecta, they had more money than anyone would have ever thought, and they pushed through" their agenda, Demuth said. "I don't think it was the right thing to do, because 48 percent of Minnesotans [represented by Republicans] were left out."
The Friday morning after they won the House, Senate and governor's office, the three top Democrats in state government gathered in the governor's office to talk. Headed into that meeting, Hortman knew how she wanted this session to roll out.
After two decades in the Legislature, she had seen organized and disorganized leaders. She didn't want to replicate the approach of former GOP House Speaker Kurt Daudt and longtime DFL Senate Leader Tom Bakk, who she said had a philosophy of waiting until the last minute to strike deals.
They discussed reaching early budget targets, aligning committees across the two chambers, having shared Top 10 bills and which members should carry the big bills. They eventually designated three weekends where they would be forced to meet if they hadn't reached agreements by certain points.
DFL leaders were in favor of the same things — to different degrees. House Democrats wanted big K-12 spending, Walz's priority was the child tax credit and the Senate fought for health and human services funding, Hortman said. They worked collaboratively up until the final week of the session, when they needed to trade some offers to "close it up," she said.
They had political alignment and were ready for the moment, said Walz's chief of staff, Chris Schmitter, in part due to strategic goals the governor's administration developed in the first term, and because they already had been working on Walz's budget for nearly six months.
After the initial post-election meeting, which Schmitter called "the best meeting of my entire life," he said state leaders and their chiefs of staff continued to meet at least weekly and coordinated action all session.
Johnson said he "would love to know what happened" in the House and Senate DFL caucuses behind closed doors. Early in session, some Senate Democrats wouldn't commit to supporting gun-control bills or marijuana legalization, for example. By session's end, every Senate Democrat voted for the bills.
"For them to just walk over that cliff, I've got to give Kari a lot of credit for keeping that caucus together on the agenda that they wanted," Johnson said. "If they didn't want to work with us, they had to have those extremely tough votes for their caucus. I am a bit surprised."
Sen. Zaynab Mohamed, DFL-Minneapolis, also credited Dziedzic for holding together 34 Democrats who had different perspectives and backgrounds.
"I don't think it was as hard as we had expected to be going into it," she said, noting that they shared the mind-set of, "Hey, we're all partners in this one-vote majority. We've got to show up for our districts. It's been 10 years since we've had the majority, and so it was important that we keep it together."
Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, won in a purple district last year and was among the moderate voices in the caucus. But she said the more progressive fellow freshman Mohamed — "who is half my age and lives in a completely different district" — ended up being one of her best friends at the Capitol. As colleagues got to know each other and understand what was important to different districts, she said they found common ground to move the whole state forward.
But, she said, some of the fights were tough. And they aren't over.
"Social Security comes to mind," Seeberger said. "A lot of us fought really, really hard for that. Really, really hard for that. And actually, our efforts paid off because had we not done that, it wouldn't even been a topic for discussion this session. So we were able to move the dial. And we have three more sessions [until the next Senate election] to continue to move the dial and continue to fight for full elimination."
Another moderate Senate freshman, Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said the votes on social issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights weren't difficult, and as a teacher, neither were new gun restrictions. But she was disappointed with the Social Security tax exemption.
"That was hard, I wanted to make sure that we took care of that. I'm pretty satisfied with where we ended up. I'll try to get more down the road," she said.
She said the caucus didn't have reservations about "anything related to human rights or equity" or restoring voting rights to felons. "Those are good policy changes that help out people," she said.
When the Senate took longer to pass bills, that meant conversations were happening quietly with Dziedzic, Gustafson said.
Senate Human Services Committee Chair John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, said members of his caucus were consistently receptive to one another's suggestions. When Hoffman wanted more funding for addiction treatment and prevention added to the marijuana legalization bill, he got it.
When Hoffman told Dziedzic he needed more money for the human services budget and for distressed nursing homes, he said she told him she would work to make it happen.
There were at times points of contention on issues such as whether to eliminate the Social Security tax, Hoffman said. But time and time again, he said members reached a compromise.
"That's why you saw a strong 34 every time. The caucus stayed together," Hoffman said. "I don't think that's ever happened in the past."