Serving as governor is a job no one really goes to school to learn, so the next best thing is to talk to someone who’s been one.
Ten days ago, in a quiet corner of the Minneapolis Club, Mark Dayton did just that when he and former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson shared more than a cup of coffee. Carlson gave Dayton what amounted to a white paper — several pages of details — on handling the challenges of being a governor.
My former boss (I was Carlson’s deputy chief of staff) said the advice he offered Dayton, the vote leader in the contested governor’s race, was not about public policy but rather guidelines on doing the job.
Carlson said he told DFLer Dayton that “first of all, the hardest part on a personal basis is to understand that you are the governor not of a political party but of all Minnesotans – who want you to succeed. You’re here to put together a Minnesota approach.”
Then came the nitty-gritty:
- Transition team. Carlson says a transition team should be small with people who are knowledgeable of state government and loyal to the governor-elect and his mission. Furthermore, transition teams must lay out plans for the changeover at every state agency.
- Chief of staff and other staff. “The chief of staff is the governor’s alter ego,” Carlson said. “Also, personally explore the staffing of your own office. You want to make sure you are compatible with them.”
- State budget — or more specifically, the budget gap. Carlson advises the next governor to ask the current finance commissioner for a budget status report. Carlson demands details: “All the reserve funds – what is the status? When you have administrations having a rough time balancing the budget, they probably have raided reserve funds.” He ticked off the rest: a status of short-term cash flow accounts; a list of all the borrowing over the last eight years – school shifts, the tobacco fund, the health-care access fund and disclosure of plans to pay it back.
- Legislative outreach. Carlson wrote letters frequently to legislators, and that’s how he advises the next governor to start. “Write letters to all four caucus leaders, outline current budget problem and the on-going structural problem,” he said. “Ask for their ideas to deal with both, with a fair amount of specifics. Request them to create a process that will lead to resolution. All five have to want harmony.”
- Budget principles. Carlson’s advice veered into policy with his recommendation that one of the new governor’s goals be restoration of the triple-A bond rating, regained during the Carlson administration in the ’90s and lost in the Pawlenty administration. “A governor should say, ‘We are going to permanently resolve our financial challenges,'” he said. “Once you make it clear you are looking for a permanent way out, the public will be with you as long as they know what the goal is.”
- Governor’s Residence. Using the Summit Avenue mansion might seem a small issue compared to the rest of the list, but Carlson has fond memories of his stay there. “You really have to live there,” he told Dayton. “And select a residence manager that reflects the tone of your administration. Make sure there is fun at the Governor’s Residence. It gives warmth to the whole experience.”
Finally, Carlson said, the best advice he could give is to be honest and open. He noted that both Dayton and GOP candidate Tom Emmer appear to have those qualities.
When Arne Carlson left the Governor’s Office in 1998, his approval rating was 70 percent – a level a Minnesota governor has not achieved since. But the ruefulness was audible when he said he told Dayton, “The advice I’m giving you is based not on my successes but my failures.”