See more of the story

Susan Kent was a young marketing manager in 1994 when she helped land RC Cola a deal to sponsor “MTV Beach House,” a monthslong programming push that blended live tapings with experiential advertising. The theme of the campaign? “Shake things up.”

“Go for the alternative, make a new choice,” she told the New York Times of the marketing message.

Now, 25 years later, the Woodbury resident is making a similar pitch to her colleagues in the Senate DFL Caucus.

Kent, a two-term DFL senator from Woodbury, is challenging Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk for his caucus leadership post. The move, which caught some political insiders off guard, is seen by many as an audacious one. Bakk, a longtime fixture in Minnesota Democratic politics who has led the caucus for nearly a decade, is considered one of the Capitol’s most skilled power brokers. And the challenge comes at a fraught time, as Senate Democrats gear up efforts to try to flip Republicans’ 35-32 majority in November.

The outcome of the vote, possibly Saturday, is uncertain. Kent’s challenge highlights long-simmering geographic and ideological tensions inside the caucus and Democratic Party more broadly. Bakk is seen a bastion of the DFL’s receding political power in the Iron Range, while Kent, an assistant minority leader, represents the caucus’ growing suburban delegation. While support of mining and opposition to tougher gun laws have increasingly put Bakk at odds with some more liberal factions of his party, further losses in his region could hurt Democrats’ prospects both in the Legislature and statewide.

The leadership battle, expected to culminate in a vote at a closed caucus meeting, has largely played out in private. Bakk has repeatedly declined to comment on the situation, and DFL senators have been reluctant to speak openly about the internal deliberations. Word of Kent’s challenge, and updates about the vote and timing, surfaced publicly only after internal caucus e-mails were obtained by the Star Tribune.

Kent, in a recent interview at Woodbury’s Tamarack Tap Room, said her leadership bid is fueled by a belief that it “matters that all voices feel respected and heard.” She declined to address specific differences or issues with Bakk, saying she did not want to speak publicly about internal caucus discussions.

“I’m just saying in terms of my vision and in my experience with different organizations, I think I have a vision of how things can work as a team,” she said. “I’m excited about the conversations we’re having, however things turn out.”

Privately, some leading Democrats and operatives have raised concerns that an election year leadership shift is counterproductive to Democrats’ goal of retaking the majority. Kent acknowledged that she’s heard those concerns but declined to address them publicly ahead of a vote.

“In this moment, I feel really protective about the conversations I’ve been having with my caucus,” she said. “My aim is always to be constructive.”

Unlike Bakk, a native Iron Ranger who was first elected to the Legislature in 1994, Kent is a relative newcomer to the Minnesota political scene. She grew up in New Orleans and studied at the University of Texas at Austin. She met her future husband, a Maplewood native and second-generation 3M employee, while working in marketing in Austin. In the early 2000s, the couple moved to Woodbury with their then-toddler to be closer to family.

Kent always harbored an interest in politics — she attended her first fundraiser for the Democratic political committee EMILY’s List at the late columnist Molly Ivins’ home in the early 1990s — but she said she never thought she would run herself.

A chance meeting

After moving to Minnesota, Kent got involved in her son’s school and the PTA, eventually attending lobby days for education funding at the State Capitol. In March 2011, Kent went to meet U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, whose district had recently been redrawn to include Woodbury. It was that night, she said, that she was first encouraged to run for state Senate. She defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Lillie with 52% of the vote.

Women Winning Executive Director Meggie Wittorf, whose organization endorsed Kent in her first bid for elected office, said the Woodbury Democrat “wanted to be a voice for people who didn’t have a voice.” Her path to political office and focus on issues like increasing school funding and paid family leave have made her “a strong messenger” in recruiting and training more women to run, said Wittorf, whose organization supports more women in leadership but is not actively involved in the caucus fight.

A win by Kent could further shift Democrats’ political power away from the Iron Range, which has tilted Republican in recent elections. Her Woodbury district is in some ways emblematic of the suburban swing seats both parties will be fighting to win up and down the ballot in 2020. Kent, who won re-election by just 400 votes in 2016, has attracted a formidable challenger: Mary Giuliani Stephens, a former Woodbury mayor and gubernatorial candidate, announced her plans to run on Thursday.

Some analysts also caution that demoting Bakk could further dim DFL prospects in northern Minnesota, where Democrats lost a congressional seat in 2018.

“If Bakk loses, we’re looking at a very challenging environment for Democrats on the Range and throughout the Eighth District,” said Aaron Brown, a college instructor who writes extensively on politics in the region. “You’ve got that increasing sense of more metropolitan-based issues [dominating] — on some level it’s ‘how dare they govern with their priorities when we’re up here and they don’t pay attention to us.’ ”

Given the stakes and secrecy, the latest bid by Kent has fueled weeks of speculation and hand-wringing in Capitol circles. Bakk postponed a December caucus meeting shortly after Kent gave notice of her plans, citing scheduling conflicts for some members. Rumors of a deal to avoid a vote swirled mid-January, as Bakk and Kent met privately. But last week, Kent notified colleagues that she still planned to seek a vote during this weekend’s long-planned meeting.

“From past experience, I have great faith in us and our ability to work through challenging questions and emerge unified,” she wrote. “And I assure you I’m committed to that outcome.

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049