Minnesotans stand to wield influence in Obama administration

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Minnesota is enjoying a higher profile in the nation’s Capital than almost any other state as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office in January. And it’s not just Democrats who are getting all the attention.

With two senior Minnesota House Democrats being touted for Cabinet positions, a veteran House Republican in the running for a top White House job, and a former congressional aide who figures to be one of Obama’s key foreign policy advisers, the North Star State stands to wield considerable influence in the Obama administration.

And that’s not even recognizing that Minnesota has three rising stars in Congress, including the first elected woman senator and the first and only Muslim in Congress.

At the same time, leaders of both parties are anxiously awaiting the outcome of Minnesota’s contested Senate race between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken because it could decide whether Democrats gain a veto-proof majority in the Senate when the 111th Congress convenes next month.

And even the key Senate race in Alaska, which brought Democrats within striking distance of a 60-vote majority as Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich ousted scandal-ridden Republican icon Ted Stevens, has a Minnesota angle. Begich’s father, the late Alaska Rep. Nick Begich, was a native of the Iron Range.

Finally, on a less positive note, Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann has cemented her reputation as one of the most controversial members of Congress. She won a second term while gaining unwanted national attention by questioning Obama’s patriotism.

In fact, not since the 1960s and 1970s, when Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale helped install Minnesotans in Cabinet positions and top federal jobs in the Johnson and Carter administrations, and U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger and Associate Justice Harry Blackmun sat on the Supreme Court, have Minnesotans been as visible in the nation’s Capital.

Rep. James Oberstar
Rep. James Oberstar

Transportation and Ag jobs
On Tuesday, for example, the Washington Post suggested that Democratic Reps. Jim Oberstar and Collin Peterson are contenders for secretary of Transportation and Agriculture, respectively, while retiring Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad is said to be under serious consideration to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

And according to The New York Times, Denis McDonough, a Stillwater native and one of Obama’s top foreign-policy advisers during the presidential campaign, is in the running for a foreign-policy position at the White House as well.

While not all of the prospective jobs for Minnesotans are likely to pan out, some undoubtedly will, possibly including Cabinet positions for Oberstar and Peterson.

“Oberstar has what admirers say is a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the federal transportation program,” the Washington Post noted. “He has built extensive congressional ties over his House career [and] is well respected by road and transit industries, and was an early Obama supporter.”

Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, will play a major role in implementing a centerpiece of Obama’s economic recovery plan, which emphasizes job creation.

The plain-spoken Chisholm native succeeded his boss, then-Public Works Committee Chairman John Blatnik, in 1975, and has served longer than any Minnesotan ever to serve in Congress. His committee will write a new highway bill that will reshape the nation’s transportation infrastructure in the next Congress, but as secretary of Transportation, he would wield enormous influence on the rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

While he may be reluctant to give up the power of one of the prime pork-barrel panels in Congress, Oberstar may very well be ready to tackle a new challenge by capping his career with a high level Cabinet job.

Rep. Collin Peterson
Rep. Collin Peterson

Peterson, meanwhile, who is chairman of the Agriculture Committee, could become the third Minnesota Democrat to serve as secretary of Agriculture, following in the footsteps of the late Orville Freeman in the Kennedy and Johnson administratons, and former Rep. Bob Bergland in the Carter administration, who once represented the same northwestern Minnesota district.

A leader of the moderate Blue Dog wing of the Democratic Party, Peterson is said to be less inclined to take on the thankless job of secretary of Agriculture than Oberstar, but it’s not out of the question that he also would like to see his name engraved in the history books by taking on one of Washington’s biggest and oldest bureaucracies that reaches into almost every corner of America.

Ramstad in the running
Then there’s Jim Ramstad. The Rammer, as he’s affectionately known by colleagues and staffers, has a unique biography. A recovering alcoholic, he’s made his name during 18 years in Congress as a bipartisan champion of millions of Americans suffering from mental disease and chemical addiction.

His close ties to Sen. Edward Kennedy and his son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, whom he has counseled for chemical addiction, could serve him well with the Obama crowd. Indeed, his success in helping pass a landmark mental health parity bill this year, which goes into effect in 2010, has put him in line for head of the White House office of National Drug Control Policy or director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Rep. Jim Ramstad
Rep. Jim Ramstad

President Bush invited Ramstad to the Oval Office last week with both Kennedys and Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico for a ceremonial signing of the mental health bill, which is named after Domenici and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.

Ironically, a third Minnesotan could have been in line for one of the most important Cabinet positions if Jim Johnson, a former aide to Vice President Mondale who once headed Fannie Mae, had not become embroiled in a controversy over alleged favoritism from financial interests. Johnson, son of the late Minnesota legislative leader A. I. “Gus” Johnson, was considered a leading candidate for secretary of the Treasury before being forced to step aside.

Nevertheless, Denis McDonough, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota — who has been tapped as secretary of Health and Human Services — is almost certain to be one of the top foreign-policy advisers to Obama. McDonough, a graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and Georgetown University, also worked for Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado.

According to the New York Times, he “helped synthesize the contributions of some 300 [Obama] foreign policy advisers” and was “often dispatched to brief reporters about Mr. Obama’s positions.”

When I emailed him Tuesday to ask for an interview, he declined, saying, that he can’t talk about a position that hasn’t been offered to him. But he’s clearly in the running.

In addition, Minnesota has three rising stars in Congress — Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Keith Ellison and Tim Walz. Klobuchar could become senior senator pending the outcome of the Coleman-Franken race; Ellison is fast becoming a key figure in the United States’ relations with the Muslim world; and Walz has attracted the attention of Washington’s power brokers as a potential leading voice of younger Democrats. All are probably headed for greater things.

Finally, there’s Bachmann. What lies in her future is uncertain. But there’s no question she is one of Minnesota’s highest-profile imports, perhaps just behind Jesse Ventura. Says a Democratic House aide, “She’s our Sarah Palin.”

Related: Despite speculation over Cabinet post, Oberstar seems happy with his ‘dream job’

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Andy Birkey on 11/26/2008 - 12:01 pm.

    Keith Ellison is the first, but not only, Muslim in Congress. Rep. Andre Carson, Democrat from Indiana, became the second Muslim in Congress as the result of a special election in March.

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