A Republican state lawmaker running in a difficult congressional primary faced a rowdy union crowd and harsh comments from Democratic colleagues Thursday during a legislative hearing that he convened.
Sen. Mike Parry of Waseca said he called the hearing in St. Paul to examine new union contracts for state employees, but critics argued the whole thing was a political stunt.
Parry is up against former state Rep. Allen Quist in Tuesday's primary in the 1st District. Parry's campaign is trying to recover from a backlash after he claimed earlier this week that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton popped pills in a meeting, an allegation Dayton strongly denied. Parry has stood by the comment, prompting condemnation and skepticism about his candidacy after he spent much of the campaign trying to revive past comments from his opponent to question his electability.
At the hearing, Parry struggled to keep control of a tense room packed with unionized state employees as fellow Republicans questioned state officials about details of a pay raise and health care costs. He threatened to clear the room when audience members laughed at Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, who said he wanted to treat everyone fairly.
"I'm the chair, and at the beginning I said I would not put up with any of it, laughing, snickering, any of it," Parry said.
Later, Parry called a 10-minute recess after he was challenged by Rep. Leon Lille, DFL-North St. Paul, about the meeting's purpose.
"It's probably a blessing you're down to your last three meetings," said Lillie, referring to Parry's expiring state Senate term. "I figure you'll milk this for three days of per diem, perhaps."
An audience member yelled, "Pop some pills!" as Parry left the hearing room. Per diem refers to expense payments lawmakers can get for days when they conduct legislative business.
Parry later returned and set a vote on the contracts for Aug. 23.
After the meeting, he told reporters the meeting had nothing to do with his congressional bid.
"I'm a senator and I want to get my job done here," he said.
Parry wouldn't take media questions about the primary in the Capitol building. He was a no-show outside the building after he told reporters he would answer questions there.
Parry heads the subcommittee on employee relations, which has the power to temporarily approve or reject the contracts for more than 27,000 workers represented by AFSCME Council 5 and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. The panel's decision stands until the full Legislature can vote on the contracts next year. The two-year contracts run through June 2013.
The new contracts negotiated by state officials and the unions contain a 2 percent raise for all state workers starting in January and higher out-of-pocket payments for health care. Some employees are eligible for additional pay increases of up to 3.5 percent based on their level of experience. The state would continue to pay full health insurance premiums for employees and 85 percent for dependents. AFSCME and MAPE members ratified the contracts last month.
Page 2 of 2 - Republicans on the panel said they wanted to delve into contract details in an effort to cut spending and restructure government. Sen. Michelle Benson said she had hoped state negotiators would have pushed harder to save money.
"I was hoping for more," she said.
Democrats portrayed the pay increase as restrained after 19,000 state workers lost three weeks of pay during last year's government shutdown, caused by a political dispute over taxes and spending between Republican legislative majorities and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.
"What are we doing here?" said Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul.
AFSCME president Eliot Seide accused Parry of trying boost his profile in the days leading up to the primary.
"What we saw today was a grand political stunt at the taxpayers' expense," Seide said.
The winner of the primary between Parry and Quist will challenge Democratic Rep. Tim Walz in November.