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DFL, divided on U of M regent candidates, may hand off decision to Walz

House Higher Education Committee
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Candidates for four openings on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents shown distributing their resumes to members of the House Higher Education Committee in January.

DFL legislators in the House and Senate can’t agree on the best candidates for four open University of Minnesota Board of Regents slots, so they won’t schedule a joint convention to make the final selections, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler told MinnPost.

Alongside passing the budget, the Legislature elects regents during odd-number years. The process, often decried as partisan, usually wraps up quickly once it begins. But it’s been seven weeks since the House and Senate higher education committees met together to select five finalists for the open spots. If legislators don’t elect regents by the time the session adjourns May 20, the task will fall to the governor.

 


“In past years, Democrats have not been united around candidates,” Winkler said. “We do not want to repeat that mistake.”

A group of legislators who oppose the shortlist of candidates that cleared a joint higher education committee in February have said the slate doesn’t include enough people of color.

State Rep. Aisha Gomez
State Rep. Aisha Gomez
Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus, was central in the effort to sway the makeup of the joint committee’s list, since she sits on the House Higher Education Finance and Policy committee. She told the Minnesota Daily the caucus doesn’t support the group of candidates that came out of the joint committee.

Gomez wouldn’t speak with MinnPost beyond confirming that the caucus hasn’t changed its stance since February. She referred, instead, to a letter the caucus issued then. However, when MinnPost requested a copy of the letter, neither House DFL communications staff nor Gomez’s office would provide one, saying the letter wasn’t made public at the time.

DFL looks to control selection with majority

This year, the DFL comprises a majority of the combined House and Senate, but if members are divided over regent candidates, they lose that advantage and give Republicans a chance to make their own selections, Winkler said.

When the Legislature had to fill a single regent seat in a special case last year, Republicans prevailed with a candidate who was outspoken about his conservative stance on an abortion issue in the University Medical School.

“We don’t feel like sending ideological candidates,” Winkler said. Instead, Democrats want “people focused on governing the university and who represent a diverse student body.”


Sen. Paul Anderson, chair of the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, said the Legislature’s role in electing regents allows it to hold the public university system accountable in its use of state funding. That remains the case despite any disagreements within the majority party.

“We’ve got some great candidates. They should be considered by a joint convention,” Anderson told MinnPost. “If they don’t like the slate, they still bring it to the floor and vote.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka sent a letter to House Speaker Melissa Hortman dated March 27, calling on her to set the date for the joint convention, where all 201 legislators vote. His letter said they “discussed April 1 as a potential date,” but that came and went without any news.

Winkler said there are still six weeks left in the session and he’s confident they can finish budget negotiations and select regents before the May deadline. But if they don’t, “the governor would make good selections” who would serve two years instead of six.

He said that’s preferred over allowing “ideological candidates” to be elected instead.

Council delivers diverse list of candidates

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents includes 12 members selected by the state Legislature to serve six-year terms. Every other year, candidates for four open spots – a third of the board – embark on a job interview/campaign that starts with meeting the Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC). The council includes 24 members appointed by the Legislature, (including four legislators: the chair and ranking minority leader from each of the higher education committees) to screen candidates and deliver eight to 16 names to the joint higher education committee.

This year, the RCAC included as many names on its list as it could, hoping that giving legislators a larger pool to consider would lead to a more diverse board governing the university, RCAC Chair Daniel Wolter told MinnPost. That was in response to criticism from 2017, when legislators elected four white men to fill the open seats.

“We’re quite proud of the group that we sent along,” Wolter said of this year’s list. “It was the most diverse in history.”


The RCAC list didn’t include Regent Abdul Omari, who was elected in 2013 as the student regent. As a candidate, Omari prompted much discussion, multiple sources said. He is an incumbent but can’t be re-elected to the student seat, since he’s no longer a student. Instead, he applied for one of the statewide at-large seats. He also would have been eligible for the Fifth Congressional District seat occupied by Regent Peggy Lucas, who is also seeking another term.

Wolter said Omari had widespread support from the RCAC and barely missed the cut. “He’s a very impressive guy.”

But the RCAC list is merely a recommendation. Legislators can consider anyone they want and nominate candidates, even those who weren’t selected by the RCAC, from the committee or convention floor.

That happens often. Last year, Regent Randy Simonson was eliminated by the joint committee but re-emerged during the joint convention and was chosen to fill the vacancy left by Patricia Simmons, who resigned.

The year before that, General Mills CEO Ken Powell was nominated from the floor of the joint convention and elected over a board incumbent. Powell had made it onto the RCAC’s list but wasn’t chosen by the joint committee, either.

Gomez advocated strongly for Omari in the joint committee, nominating him for the at-large seat he applied for and the Fifth Congressional District seat. But she was unsuccessful.

In the end, neither Lucas nor Omari, both incumbents and both candidates of color, were included in the committee’s shortlist, but both have continued their campaigns to stay on the board.

The committee list included Mary Davenport, former interim president of the Rochester Community and Technical College, to fill the first open at-large seat; Kao Ly Ilean Her, chief executive officer of the Hmong Elders Center; and Sandy Wiese, senior vice president of government affairs and business development for Data Recognition Corporation, for the second at-large seat; Mike Kenyanya, a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, for the student seat; and Janie Mayeron, former U.S. magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, for the Fifth Congressional District seat.

Winkler said members of the party have met numerous times and discussed “six to 10 people that could fill the slots.” He named Lucas and Omari, saying both have done well as regents already, and Lucas was endorsed by her district. But despite attempts, they can’t get everyone on the same page.

No action means it’s up to the governor

This is an unusually long regent selection process, according to a House research document, which lists the date of each election’s joint committee and convention. It shows the time between those two votes ranges from just a few days to about three weeks. Typically, they occur in February and March, leaving the second half of the session open for debates over the budget.

It’s not unprecedented to leave the selection up to the governor. It has happened just one other time in the last 30 years. In 2001, the joint committee met and recommended candidates, but a joint convention was never held. Instead, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed five regents. They served two-year terms. In 2003, the Legislature had to elect nine regents – or three-quarters of the board.

“Our group would be very disappointed if … they potentially don’t do joint convention,” Wolter said, citing the work RCAC members put into recruiting and screening candidates for legislators.

The lengthy process has been a challenge for candidates, who have kept up their visits since the start of the session.

Kenyanya, a senior at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, travels to the Capitol as often as he can. He was here for a day last week and the week before that. He sits in on committee meetings and catches legislators when they have a free moment to tell them why he wants to fill the student regent seat on the board. “With finals, it’s getting tougher,” he told MinnPost.

Omari, who’s 33, is in a similar position, fitting in trips to the Legislature when he can take time away from work. He keeps being told to come back, so that’s what he does, he told MinnPost. “I’m still hopeful.”

Lucas, who owns a housing development company, said it’s been a much longer process than when she was elected in 2013. “I’m definitely still on the hunt,” she said, though she wasn’t selected by the joint committee in February.

She hopes the new board members, who would take their place as regents immediately, are selected soon so they can be there for outgoing President Eric Kaler and Joan Gabel, who will take his place in July.

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