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

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

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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.