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New Senate aide Steve Sviggum says he’ll fight to keep his regent post, too

Steve Sviggum sees no conflict between his new job at the Minnesota Senate and his seat on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and says he will fight to keep the regent’s post even as the board launches a review.

“That’s very disturbing and surprising,” Sviggum said of the regents’ intent to evaluate whether his new job as the executive assistant and communications director of the Senate’s Republican majority caucus conflicts with his duties as regent.

“I spoke to the board’s counsel, executive director, chair and vice chair [about the job possibility]. I was thrown under the bus before, so I wanted to cover the bases,” he said, referring to a board decision earlier this year that Sviggum could not simultaneously be a regent and hold a position at the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Steve Sviggum
Steve Sviggum

This time, Sviggum said in an interview with MinnPost, he asked them their opinion about a series of hypothetical jobs, including as an employee of the Legislature.

He recounted a conversation with board chair Linda Cohen in which he said they agreed those kind of employees are not decision-makers and, hence, pose no conflict. Cohen’s comment, according to Sviggum, was “‘Precisely.’ ”

University board reviewing Sviggum arrangement
Nevertheless, in a Tuesday statement, Cohen said, “The Board will carefully consider this situation under the terms of its Code of Ethics and determine what steps are necessary to take in the best interest of the Board and the University.”

Sviggum said he will not volunteer to give up the unpaid regent post.

“I would not have applied for the Senate job if I had to leave the Board of Regents,” he said. Sviggum views the board as possibly the most important economic development tool for the state after the governor. “I really believe it’s the opportunity for public service,” he said.

Public service is the reason Sviggum says he took the Senate position.

Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, his longtime friend and colleague, offered him the hybrid executive-communications job last Friday and Sviggum accepted on Monday.

 Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem

“Senjem convinced me this was a good place for me,” he said. “I represented the kind of change the caucus needed.”

“Restoring the credibility” is how Sviggum describes his new duties. “The Senate lost a month, maybe even six weeks, of taking a good message to the people of the state,” he said of the drama that surrounded the ouster of Amy Koch as majority leader and the firing of the man he’s replacing, Michael Brodkorb.

At age 60, with an over-stuffed political portfolio, Sviggum doesn’t assume false modesty. “One of the things the Senate was interested in is that I have been there and done that,” he said.

Yes he has. Sviggum has run for governor, led the Minnesota House as speaker, ran his Republican caucus as minority leader and, under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, served as commissioner of the Department of Labor and Industry and the state’s budget office. So perhaps it was inevitable that one of those jobs would clash with another.

New role for political veteran
Even without the possible conflict with the Board of Regents, Sviggum’s appointment drew attention well beyond the usual level for a legislative staff position. He acknowledges that going from boss to hired hand will require mental gymnastics.

“I have to continually remind others as well as myself, I work for the Republican majority caucus,” he said.  

Just add the identity issues to the list of challenges that Sviggum takes on in his new job. “The challenge is to get the Senate to be a team,” he said after the turmoil created by the Koch demotion.

“I was crushed at the developments that occurred,” he said. “It was the cover-up part that was the problem,” he said, referring to Senate leadership’s admission that they had changed their story of when they learned about Koch’s personal relationship with a subordinate staff member. “Especially Republicans, it’s pretty tough not to live those values. Better walk your talk.”

He describes Koch as “a wonderful leader and shining star. I’m going to assume that we are good; we are going to be OK.”

Like any politician with long service, Sviggum has enemies, but he has a longer list of friends. “I have very good relationships,” he said.  

They will be tested. There’s already a tangle of reporting responsibilities, because as executive assistant and communications director, Sviggum is a peer with chief of staff Kevin Matzek.   Sviggum says the caucus is still sorting out some responsibilities and organization.

Outside the caucus, Sviggum likely will call upon old Capitol friends and colleagues as the Senate, House, and governor wrangle over bonding, the stadium, and what Sviggum describes as the No. 1 priority — government redesign and reform.

On those issues and more, he expects that the senators, who are his bosses, will turn to him and ask, “What would Steve do?” He says that he will give that advice only upon request.

As with his stand on the Board of Regents position, Sviggum invokes his new mantra, “I have to appropriately and respectfully remind myself that the senators are my bosses. I’m not the decision-maker.”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 01/18/2012 - 11:19 am.

    This is hilarious on a number of fronts.

    Sviggum’s new job title is communications. Yet he can’t seem to have effective communications with the board chair of the regents. Or he is throwing Ms Cohen under the bus as a flip flopper and/or back stabber. Quoting from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have is a failure to communicate!”

    Secondly, I think that the GOP, especially the Senate GOP Caucus, has lost more than a month of messaging. They have lost credibility as a party with massive financial mismanagement of the party and the Senate budget and on moral issues with hanky-panky. Senjem loses credibility on the bonding in light of his sudden distaste for projects like the Rochester Convention Center.

  2. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 01/18/2012 - 11:27 am.

    The fact that Sviggum doesn’t understand the difference between a hypothetical job “as an employee of the legislature” and the replacement to Brodkorb is pretty illuminating. Brodkorb was among the most visible and vocal mouthpieces of the MN GOP- although since he claimed several different titles, who knows when he was speaking as what. If Sviggum plans to be as vocal about Republican policies as Brodkorb was, he absolutely has a conflict of interest.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/18/2012 - 12:04 pm.

    Of course Sviggum sees no conflict of interests. Such blindness appears to required trait within the Republican party these days.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 01/18/2012 - 12:14 pm.

    Speaking of “restoring credibility” you, Ms. Brucato, have some “restoring” of your own to do.

    Your last column made much of how legislator Koch’s affair was handled differently than legislator Smith’s (who, by the way, does not even admit to an “inappropriate relationship”).

    However, you neglected to point out that Smith is not married—which makes it entirely different than the acknowledged and continuing infidelity of Koch.

    Any comparison of Koch and Smith is made entirely spurious by the fact of their differing marital status.

    Oversight and shoddy journalism or deliberate misrepresentation and yellow journalism?

  5. Submitted by John Olson on 01/18/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    Regardless of whether Mr. Sviggum can balance the two positions, odds are the “Court of Public Opinion” is likely to force him to make a choice between the two.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/18/2012 - 12:33 pm.

    Furthermore, why do all these Republicans that have spent an entire career bashing liberal elite institutions seem to think they’re entitled to have jobs at them?

  7. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 01/18/2012 - 12:34 pm.

    In an era in which people SHOULD make every effort to avoid an semblance of a conflict of interest, Sviggum is going out of his way to make a fairly obvious conflict of interest seem less so. I guess if he can sell that idea he can sell the nonsense the Republican Senate is trying to spew.

    I also find it ironic that a guy who has worked almost all of his life for some governmental entity – schools, legislature, university – will now work for the “less government” folks.

  8. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 01/18/2012 - 01:01 pm.

    Good Grief! Looks like a political D.C. moment for Minnesota. It doesn’t take rocket science to see there is a conflict of interest situation here.

    With all due respect to Mr.Sviggum, quit the Regents job if you take the MN GOP job. That would be the honest and legitimate thing to do. It’s a matter of common sense, propriety [which the MN GOP lacks], and pure legality. Otherwise it will look like a “fox in the hen-house” situation to many Minnesotans.

    Besides the Minnesota media and MN political punditry will make the Minnesota political landscape a blogosphere circus. Does the MN GOP need all that attention and aggravation in light of their other political debacles?

    Well, here’s another chapter to the continuing MN political soap box opera; “As Minnesota Churns”!!! Enough said….

  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/18/2012 - 01:27 pm.

    I’m very surprised that the University would say this job acceptance is okay with them.

    Sviggum is a very partisan Republican. Accepting a position in which his job will be to push for enactment of every right-wing piece of his party’s agenda (an anti-tax agenda whose cuts in funding have severely harmed the U and its students) should have raised howls of protest.
    It surely can’t be too late to withdraw the offer.

  10. Submitted by jody rooney on 01/18/2012 - 02:48 pm.

    The only honorable thing to do in accepting this post is to resign from the Board of Regents.

    If not to avoid the appearance of impropriety at least to save the Regents the embarrassment of having someone so not bright in their midst.

  11. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 01/18/2012 - 03:19 pm.

    Thanks to Cindy and MinnPost for putting out in public what many of us wondered about when Sviggum’s appointment was announced. Good journalism. Now we’ll have to see what both sides say and decide. A good education for the public in what public service involves.

  12. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 01/18/2012 - 04:21 pm.

    People, people people. Cut Sviggum some slack. Do you realize how few qualified Republicans there are? Maybe Emmer could be a Regent 🙂

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/18/2012 - 05:07 pm.

    Well, I think we’ve established that it’s a very good thing that Steve’s future isn’t in the hands of the leftist commentariat!

    Two observations regarding Paul’s contribution to the discussion:
    “Republicans that have spent an entire career bashing liberal elite institutions seem to think they’re entitled to have jobs at them?”

    1. It’s refreshing to see a frank admittal of the blatently obvious fact that the liberal elite believe our institutions of higher learning are, in fact, their possessions.

    2. I missed the part where Steve inferred he was “entitled” to a job at Minnesota’s premier liberal elite institution. I took his words to mean he believes he’s qualified, which any liberal elitist will tell you are not even close to being the same thing.

  14. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 01/18/2012 - 05:17 pm.

    Thank you for saying that so eloquently, Mr. Udstrand. What is it with GOP malingerers like Sviggum that they can spend their time in legislature cutting funds to social institutions but spend their lives employed by them? “I’ll cut taxes and programs 1000% except — except those that benefit me.”

    The hypocrisy and complete lack of ethics here leaves me gobsmacked.

  15. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/19/2012 - 08:32 am.

    Mr. Swift seems intent on moving the discussion to a question of whether Mr. Sviggum is qualified for a position on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

    That is not the point of the dispute.

    Regents Brod and Johnson have the same kind of background as Mr. Sviggum and no one is arguing that either of them are unqualified to be Regents. There are other Regents who are fiscally conservative and probably Republicans. I have supported some of them in the past for re-appointment because of the outstanding work they have done. It is demonstrably possible to be a GOP or conservative Regent and to do an excellent job for the U and the state.

    The question is conflict of interest.

    Mr. Sviggum is replacing Mr. Brodkorb in a communications position which is highly partisan and necessarily so. He is to act as the mouthpiece of the GOP at the state senate.

    Now the Senate obviously has a lot to say about the University of Minnesota, both directly and indirectly. To give but a few examples: budgetary matters, bonding for new buildings, and research restrictions such as stem cell research regulation.

    To have a person in Mr. Brodkorb’s former position who is simultaneously a member of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents is simply preposterous.

    Even the most hard core political partisan should be able to see this, Mr. Swift.

    And yes, if the tables, were turned – a DFL Regent taking a Brodkorb like position – I would scream just as loudly.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/19/2012 - 09:17 am.

    It’s really very simple. The Republicans will inevitably launch another financial assault on public schools and the University; and when they do, Sviggum will be publicizing that assault in the morning, and then sitting in a regents chair over at the U. that afternoon. The conflict is obvious.

    You have to remember, the Republican agenda is not to participate in governance, represent constituents, or merely win elections. The Republican agenda is to take over government and dictate policy. There can be no conflict of interest within this model of government.

  17. Submitted by Rod Loper on 01/19/2012 - 02:33 pm.

    It is difficult to see this as anything positive for the university. As a an employee of the majority he has unusual direct leverage on the institution he is supposed to serve as a citizen decision maker. A conflict for sure.

  18. Submitted by John Farrell on 01/20/2012 - 10:25 am.

    As a former Speaker of the House this guy shouldn’t need reminding of the need to avoid even the semblance of a conflict of interest. Accusations that he’s being victimized by liberal elites do no credit to the accusers.

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