Gov. Mark Dayton’s cabinet isn’t filled yet.
But with just a handful of appointments still to come, one thing is clear: Dayton’s commissioners will be expected to move — fast.
A couple already have:
• Within days of being appointed, Lucinda Jesson, who heads Human Services, had whacked the timetable for moving the state’s poorest from state programs to federal Medical Assistance from nine months to six weeks.
• The state’s new Department of Natural Resources commissioner, Tom Landwehr, was on an airplane, headed to Roseau with the governor and a conservative freshman state rep, Dan Fabian, to hear complaints about excessive state regulations and the plodding pace that locals believe slow down economic development.
“I won’t put words in their mouths,” said Fabian of the trip, “but I had the feeling they understood the concerns.”
The charge from Dayton to his commissioners: What are you waiting for? Get government working.
Cabinet Observation No. 1:
It’s older and whiter than expected and leans slightly to the Iron Range and northeastern Minnesota, the region most responsible for Dayton’s rebirth from political has-been to the Governor’s Mansion.
Corrections Commissioner Thomas Roy was director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections. Mark Phillips, the new head of Employment and Economic Development, has roots in the Iron Range and served with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board under Gov. Rudy Perpich. Tony Sertich was plucked from the Legislature and Chisholm to serve as the IRRRB commissioner. And Ken Peterson heads the Department of Labor and Industry, a position he held under the old Ranger governor, Perpich.
The cabinet does include several “firsts.” Ramona Dohman becomes the first woman to head the Public Safety Department, and Brenda Cassellius becomes the first African-American to head the Education Department.
Dohman, who has been chief of police in Maple Grove and served on a number of high-profile policing boards, will have clear sailing through Senate confirmation hearings, which are expected to begin in March. Her appointment was lauded by House Speaker Kurt Zellers, a Maple Grove resident.
Cassellius will face tougher sledding in the confirmation process. For starters, Dayton and Republican legislators have vastly different views on the funding needs of education. But beyond that, Cassellius, a longtime metro-area school administrator, has citizen critics who say she has a history of developing squishy policies with little follow-through.
The other cabinet choice likely to face tough questioning from Republican senators is Paul Aasen, who Dayton selected to head the Pollution Control Agency. Aasen’s big problem? His appointment was lauded by many environmental organizations. Every word of praise was a red flag in the eyes of many conservatives who see PCA regulations as barriers to business.
Cabinet Observation No. 2:
Throughout his campaign, Dayton vowed to surround himself with professionals who shared his conviction that government can work. He has followed through on that pledge. Unlike the cabinet of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Dayton did not surround himself with old pols looking for a place to fatten their government pensions.
It has long been a concern that Minnesota’s tight salary restrictions — salaries of commissioners are capped at a percentage below the $120,000 the governor is paid — prevents the best and the brightest from accepting government jobs.
Jeff Blodgett, who spearheaded the Dayton transition team’s outreach program, admitted that salary caps were an issue.
“It proved to be a little problem,” Blodgett said. “There were some people who decided they just couldn’t take massive paycuts. But in the end, it was not a significant problem. There was a pretty amazing pool of people to pick from.”
Dayton selected Ed Ehlinger, a physician with both hands-on and administrative experience in working in public health, to run the Health Department. Ehlinger shares Dayton’s conviction that government can provide efficient, effective services.
For all the criticism she likely will face, Education’s Cassellius has vast administrative background in urban education.
She also should be able to work closely with Dayton’s choice to head the Department of Higher Education, Sheila Wright. Wright, a prof at Hamline’s School of Education, has a background in tackling issues surrounding the racial achievement gap, an ugly reality in Minnesota. (Wright is the second Hamline choice in the cabinet. Jesson, who was a member of the Dayton transition team, also comes to the administration via the university.)
Dayton was not afraid to retain the best of the Pawlenty administration. He held onto Tom Sorel, who won praise for rebuilding the Department of Transportation, which was a mess under his predecessor, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau.
He promoted Jim Schowalter, who has received bipartisan praise, from his position as state budget director to the top job at Minnesota Management and Budget.
Dayton also retained John Edman to stay on as head of the state’s tourism office. Though that is not a cabinet-level job, it’s a key post because tourism plays a big role in the state’s economy.
Dave Frederickson has a long and varied background both in agriculture — he was a farmer — and farm politics. He is a former DFL legislator and once headed the Farmers Union, the major ag organization that endorsed Dayton. He also worked on ag issues for Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
No one will argue with the choice of Larry Shellito, the recently retired adjutant general of the state’s National Guard, to serve as head of Veterans Affairs.
Both Myron Frans, whom Dayton selected to run the Revenue Department, and Mike Rothman, selected to run Commerce, have pedigrees that match their new positions.
Mary Tingerthal, who was selected Friday to head the Housing Finance Department, also has a background that puts her in position to hit the ground running in an agency that deals with affordable housing issues. Tingerthal was president of Capital Markets Cos. for the Housing Partnership Network. She will be a breath of fresh air in an agency that suffered under Pawlenty’s last appointment to the position, Dan Bartholomay, who decided change and reform was needed in an agency he didn’t understand.
The Tingerthal move, combined with Dayton’s naming of Susan Haigh to lead the Met Council, shows the governor’s concern with affordable housing. Haigh, a former Ramsey County commissioner, heads Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. Affordable housing is one of those fundamental issues that has been overshadowed by the immediate need to take on the budget deficit. But all the headlines on the deficit haven’t made the housing problem, both in the metro area and across the state, go away.
Cabinet Observation No. 3:
Dayton is notoriously impatient. He will be expecting results from his commissioners, no matter how difficult the task. Given that he’ll get little support from the Republican-controlled Legislature, Dayton will try to accomplish much of his agenda through government agencies.
Not everything he wants will have great support from his base.
For instance, Dayton believes that a Vikings’ stadium must be built. Ted Mondale, who will chair the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, is not afraid of taking on tough issues. As a DFL state legislator in the early 1990s, he angered organized labor and likely shortened his own political career by pushing for workers’ compensation reform.
Dayton also shares a concern of Republicans. Both Republicans and Dayton believe that vast webs of regulations stymie business growth and create anger toward state government. Dayton has promised that his commissioners will streamline the regulatory process, which is sure to upset some in his base.
Overall, this is a cabinet that will be expected to be responsive to the concerns of voters across the political spectrum. And it’s a cabinet that will be expected to be on call to jump on an airplane at a moment’s notice and appear at town hall meetings.
“We work for the people,” Dayton has said.
Corny as that sounds, he means it.
Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.