In sudden move, Senate Republicans oust Walz labor commissioner

The Minnesota Senate voted to oust Nancy Leppink, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry’s commissioner. (Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry)

The Republican-controlled Senate swiftly ousted Minnesota Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink on Wednesday evening in a move that Democrats said was an ambush against Gov. Tim Walz.

The vote was 34 to 32, entirely along party lines, just before the Senate adjourned its special session. Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, didn’t vote.

Republicans said Leppink, who oversees the state's regulations and worker-protection laws, was hostile to businesses. They said they had told Walz months ago that his commissioner was losing support among GOP senators.

"She is in the wrong role," said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, before the vote. "I do this with great seriousness. It’s not something I take lightly."

Walz appointed Leppink in February 2019 but the Senate GOP held up her confirmation for 18 months, until Wednesday's vote.

Democrats and Walz blasted the move, and said they only found out about the GOP's plans in a text message from Gazelka at 3:29 p.m. -- less than two hours before the vote.

"There will be a reckoning on this," Walz told reporters in a hastily arranged news conference Wednesday evening. He said he could not legally reappoint Leppink -- as some suggested he should -- and would instead find her replacement.

Walz said he expected Senate Republicans would use their confirmation powers to pick apart his appointees. GOP senators are angry with the governor for refusing to end his emergency powers over the coronavirus pandemic.

Senate Democratic Leader Susan Kent accused Republicans of holding back on confirming Walz's commissioners to later use them as a “political weapon" against the governor.

"I think this is outrageous. It is a travesty. It is absolutely not fitting of the Minnesota Senate," said Kent, DFL-Woodbury.

Gazelka said Republicans will hold informational hearings on other commissioners' performance. It’s unclear who they have in mind and whether it will lead to votes removing them from their jobs.