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Legislature chooses four new University of Minnesota regents

House DFL delayed the process for months while they wrangled votes, and it paid off: They voted together on a slate of candidates and filled three of the four seats with their selections.

From left: Janie Mayeron, Mike Kenyanya, Kao Ly Ilean Her and Mary Davenport.
From left: Janie Mayeron, Mike Kenyanya, Kao Ly Ilean Her and Mary Davenport.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

For all the politics and drama leading up to Thursday’s joint convention, Minnesota legislators selected four new University of Minnesota regents with little fuss.

Janie Mayeron, Mike Kenyanya, Mary Davenport, and Kao Ly Ilean Her were chosen to serve six years on the board. The newcomers replaced three incumbents who sought another term as regents. A fourth regent retired as her term ended.

House DFL delayed the process for months while they wrangled votes, and it paid off: They voted together on a slate of candidates and filled three of the four seats with their selections. Two of those candidates elected were easy wins, since Republicans backed them as well.

In the long lead-up to the final vote, Senate Republicans attacked House DFL leaders for dragging their feet on a constitutional responsibility to hold the vote before the end of session.

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Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, who leads the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, said the delays made it an “arduous” and “frustrating” undertaking, but he’s glad the Legislature did its job. “The result is a good result for the University of Minnesota and the people of Minnesota,” he said. “I had no idea what the result would have been but that’s the process.”

The four candidates picked to join the university’s governing board were greenlit at each stage in the process, which isn’t always the case, since the rules allow new nominations to be made at any point. The Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC) interviewed applicants and recommended 16 candidates to a joint higher education committee, which met in February and forwarded five names to the full Legislature.

On Thursday, during a joint convention of the House and Senate, numerous nominations were made on the floor. In previous years, that’s been a recipe for surprises. But Republicans and DFLers alike kept their members in line this year.

A group decision

Legislators’ first task required selecting a new regent to represent the Fifth Congressional District. The seat was held by Regent Peggy Lucas, who wanted another term but wasn’t among the nominees.

Mayeron, who was a U.S. magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court of Minnesota from 2003 to 2017, was nominated via the joint higher education committee. She got her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Minnesota and she was president of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association from 1993 to 1995.

Legislators had a second choice for the seat: Regent Abdul Omari was nominated from the floor. Omari had strong support from the People of Color and Indigenous DFL Caucus throughout the selection process, though he wasn’t recommended by the RCAC for the at-large seat he applied for.

Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, lobbied for him in the joint committee, and Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, who chairs the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Division, said he’d impressed many people in the House DFL caucus.

Every DFLer in the House voted in Omari’s favor, but several Senate DFL members voted with Republicans to elect Mayeron instead. No Republicans voted for Omari.

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Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said that though he hadn’t known how the Senate would vote, the House majority was on the same page. He said he appreciated that everyone stuck to the plan because it showed “dedication to decisions we make as a group.”

Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, said she and others on the People of Color and Indigenous DFL caucus had hoped they would elect their whole slate. In a letter they sent to DFL legislators in February, they listed Omari, Lucas, Kenyanya, and Her as their preferred candidates. “We were hopeful our whole slate would be elected,” Kunesh-Podein said. “We want the people making decisions to be folks that have had common experiences with our students.”

‘No big surprises’

To vote, all 201 legislators – the combined House and Senate – wait for their names to be called. Then they shout the name or names of candidates they cast their ballot for. In all, the process of electing four new regents took about an hour and a half. During the process, members tallied votes and conferred with colleagues about the pending results.

Kunesh-Podein, assistant majority leader in the House, helped whip caucus members during the vote. She fielded questions about candidates and checked in with legislators whose votes they needed. “It’s … a way for us to get a feel for the final outcome, so there are no big surprises,” she said.

When new names come up on the floor, as they often do during regents elections, people start to wonder, “Is this going to throw a wrench in it? There’s always that chance.”

That’s what DFL members worked to avoid.

Legislators like Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul, who were disappointed Omari wasn’t elected for the Fifth District seat, could have nominated him again, since he would have been eligible for an at-large regent seat. But members of the POCI caucus didn’t put his name forward a second time Thursday because they feared it would throw balloting into uncertainty, Her said. At the same time, Davenport and Kao Ly Ilean Her were considered strong candidates.

“We were worried if we threw that mix in, something could potentially happen,” she said after the joint convention adjourned. “We’d already decided ahead of time. We thought that would be a good representation for the at-large roles. When you change things up, there’s always a crap shoot.”

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Republicans worked hard to elect Sandy Wiese, senior vice president of government affairs and business development for Data Recognition Corporation. Wiese was recommended by the RCAC and the joint committee, but didn’t prevail in the joint convention.

Davenport had broad support among Republicans, as well. She worked for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities since 1995, serving as interim president of Rochester Community and Technical College until June 2018. She was nominated for a regents opening last year but lost in the final vote. This time around, she easily earned enough votes to take one of the seats.

A few candidates nominated from the floor – Regents Lucas and Dean Johnson among them – syphoned off votes that made the race for the second at-large seat more narrow. It took several legislators recasting their votes for Kao Ly Ilean Her to garner enough support to fill the final seat.

Her is believed to be the first Hmong person elected as a regent. She is the CEO of the Hmong Elders Center and previously worked as the executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Hamline University and a law degree from the University of Minnesota.

“I was keeping track and I was so close and I’m so glad people changed their minds and voted for me. That allowed me to get in there,” Her said. “Accessibility and affordability are big issues and what led me to seek this opportunity, so I want to start tackling it and working on it to make sure the university is affordable and we can pay our bills but also maintain our quality.”

A shared passion

For candidates and legislators alike, the regent campaign ran long. But several new regents said the process it gave them the chance to connect with lawmakers and demonstrate their commitment to helping steer the state’s university system.

“It’s a good process and it’s a lot of hard work and I’m pleased that I earned the vote this year,” Davenport told reporters. “It’s an opportunity to listen and have an exchange of ideas and really get an understanding that there’s a lot of passion for the university and that’s shared. And everyone has the state of Minnesota and the people of Minnesota’s workforce in their best interest.”

Until the date and time were announced Tuesday, it wasn’t certain whether legislator would schedule a joint convention. Republicans and DFLers are locked in negotiations, where their philosophical differences seem to be preventing progress. All along, DFL leaders had said they would prioritize the budget over regents. If they hadn’t elect regents before the session’s end, the governor would have to appoint them.

Squeezing in the vote ahead of this weekend’s fishing opener — a holiday of sorts for lawmakers — had a secondary benefit of easing the mind of the new student regent. Kenyanya, who was elected to fill that seat by a unanimous vote, graduates Saturday from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he served two years as the student body president. He had been anxious about his eligibility once he got his diploma.

“The process is tough and it should be,” Kenyanya told reporters. “The University of Minnesota is important and you should have to put in the work. The uncertainty wasn’t always great in the process. But we’re ready to start learning.”

Within moments of hearing the final results of the vote tallies, the new regents received emails from the university. But they weren’t just messages of congratulations. They were board of regents meeting packets.

The same abrupt transition played out at the board of regents meeting that was held Thursday. Regents Lucas, Omari, Johnson, and Linda Cohen reportedly left the meeting after their replacements were voted in by legislators.

New regents’ first assignment will be to aid in the presidential transition. Incoming U president Joan Gabel will replace Eric Kaler this summer.

“For us the big challenge as regents is getting to know our new colleagues, getting to know our president, onboarding our new president and then learning everything we need to learn to make good decisions,” Mayeron said. “The university, like all higher ed institutions, we’re dealing with changing demographics in our state, changing needs for work force, working with the other colleges and systems. We’ve got a lot of work that we’ll be doing and that the university will be facing. I know we’re all excited to tackle it with our fellow board members.”

Peter Callaghan contributed to this report.