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Early appointments indicate a clearly different course for Minnesota’s new governor

Early appointments indicate a clearly different course for Minnesota's new governor
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

Even before this noon’s swearing-in at Landmark Center and Tuesday’s start of the legislative session, Mark Dayton already has shown he’ll be a very different governor from his predecessor.

Tim Pawlenty always ran against government and other institutions. He picked fights with DFL-dominated Legislatures. He never did attempt to sit down and work with unions, especially the teachers’ union. His appointments, especially at the start of his first term, tended to reflect the political beliefs of the conservative base Pawlenty forever has courted.

Dayton, through his early appointments, has shown that he believes government can work. Because he ran so independently from the DFL, he owes little to the party.

The differences between the old and new governors can be seen when you compare some of Dayton’s first appointments with those Pawlenty made when he began his first term in 2003.

Department of Education
Pawlenty selected a political lightning rod, Cheri Yecke, a favorite of the far right, as his first commissioner. Among other things, Yecke promoted the idea that “intelligent design” should be part of the science curriculum in Minnesota schools. She railed against the political establishment and government and scored political points for Pawlenty but was far too off-putting with the education establishment to be able to foster education reforms.

Gov.-elect Mark Dayton
MinnPost/Terry Gydesen
Gov.-elect Mark Dayton

Dayton has gone an entirely different direction. He appointed an education insider, Brenda Cassellius, to head the education department. In her most recent position, Cassellius, who has experience at all levels of public education, has been the superintendent of East Metro Integration, which involves working with 10 regional school districts on issues of achievement. One of her strengths? Consensus. Imagine.

(It should not be assumed, by the way, that Tom Dooher and Education Minnesota suddenly will get their way in all things public ed. Dayton has an appreciation for teachers, but he worked hard to get Education Minnesota’s endorsement before the primary and was disappointed when Dooher and the union endorsed the “sure thing,” Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Dooher/Education Minnesota no longer will be the administration’s whipping boy, but it won’t be at the head of the table, either.)

Department of Health
Pawlenty went with Dianne Mandermach, a bow to the pro-life crowd. She pleased the lifers when the department included a bogus “study” showing a correlation between abortion and breast cancer on the department’s website. Later, she played politics by concealing a study of cancer deaths and mining. That concealment decision led to her forced resignation.

Dayton is putting a pro’s pro in charge of Health, Edward Ehlinger, a physician who in four decades has served at all levels of public health. His most recent gig has been as medical director of the Boynton Health Center at the University of Minnesota.

Pawlenty’s most audacious choice at the start of his first term was putting his lieutenant governor in charge of the Department of Transportation. Carol Molnau, a favorite of the conservative crowd, believed all government departments were filled with fat and waste and promised to cut government down to size. She did slash and burn, until the I-35W bridge collapsed. Reviews of that tragedy showed that there had been warnings, ignored by Molnau’s trimmed-down department.

Dayton was quick to ask Tom Sorel, who Pawlenty brought in to clean up Molnau’s mess, to remain.

New and old faces
In another clear departure from a series of ho-hum Pollution Control Agency commissioners, dating to when Arne Carlson was governor, Dayton has appointed Paul Aasen to run the once-proud agency. Aasen’s appointment, to date, is the one that has raised red flags among the new Republican legislative leadership, a clear sign that he might actually try to again make the MPCA a national leader.

On the other hand, the Republicans are cheering Dayton’s choice of another pro, Jim Schowalter, to run the Office of Management and Budget. Given the fact that the budget deficit is the big hurdle both Dayton and the Legislature have to clear, Schowalter’s background in the office, under both Pawlenty and Jesse Ventura, gives him a huge head start over anyone Dayton might have brought in from the outside. The office has a history of staying out of partisan politics.

There remain scores of appointments for Dayton to make. But so far he has followed through on his pledge to surround himself with professionals, not pander to any special interests, or to find work for old party hacks and cronies.

Today, of course, will be mostly about style, not substance. The new governor and his lieutenant governor, Yvonne Prettner Solon, were to start the day by serving breakfast to kids at the Wellstone Center. That is to be followed by the swearing-in ceremony at Landmark Center, then, on to the Capitol, where there is to be a public reception that runs until 4:30.

But then, quickly, the party’s over. Dayton will get back to substance, which to him is about proving government can work.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 01/03/2011 - 09:42 am.

    It will be interesting to watch the public’s reaction as the Republicans steadfastly seek to honor the memory of King Timmy by faithfully following his agenda, an agenda which the public was distinctly growing sick to death of and, thereby, use the roundly rejected Timmy rationales to justify their standing in the way of what seem to be, to that same pragmatic public, very common sense solutions proposed by Governor Dayton.

    I suspect all our current herd of Republican legislative leaders will have to do is open their mouths in opposition to Governor Dayton’s proposals and they’ll be able to watch their popularity among the regular folks in Minnesota plummet like a cell phone dropped through a fishing hole bored in the ice of our frozen Minnesota lakes: down, down into the icy depths, and unlikely ever to be recovered.

  2. Submitted by Doug Cole on 01/03/2011 - 11:26 am.

    I agree that politics again will get in the way of policy.

    And if that’s true, then as a member of the public, I plan to pull to the left in order to counter the right. I also plan to be more public about my belief system, (remember the Whole Earth Catalog and compassion for the poor?), in order to counter the religious right,s ‘fire and brimstone’ attitude.

    What you believe does affect politics and going along with changes in your church or synagogue degrades your own quality of life. I’ll make little comments in order to shame them back to good behavior. You should too.

  3. Submitted by David Thompson on 01/03/2011 - 01:43 pm.

    I think you guys are missing the message that Gov. Dayton is sending. So far, his appointments could just as easily have been made by someone from the Independence party. He may have run as a liberal, but he is obviously planning to govern from the middle.

  4. Submitted by William Levin on 01/03/2011 - 06:56 pm.

    Reveremd Kapphahn: I think it is time you drop the “King Timmy” stuff. Unless you want to read years and years of posts about “King Marky Mark.” These things do cut both ways, you know.

  5. Submitted by William Pappas on 01/03/2011 - 07:36 pm.

    I disagree, Dave. The appointments to Education and the MPCA are definitely not Independent type Commissioners. Keeping Tom Sorel, who has performed a miracle in pulling together a demoralized, hyper politicized and underfunded MNDOT into a functional and professional department capable of planning, bidding, and building Minnesota road and transit projects was a no brainer. He is also a Civil Engineer. Dayton’s appointment to head the DNR will be telling. Mr. Grow might have mentioned that current DNR Commissioner, Mark Holsten, who clearly managed the department to maximum exploitation of our natural resources at the expense of conservation and preservation was another lightning rod appointment. If you didn’t own an ATV, you simply didn’t have a voice with Commissionier Holsten. His highly confrontational style made him a host of enemies and left very little room for comprimise, one of Pawlenty’s favorite tactics.

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