For most states, it wouldn’t be noteworthy that none of its natives hold positions of power and influence in the White House. Only a few people make it to the highest echelons of government. And there are a lot of states.
But if you’re from Minnesota, you know that, of course, Minnesota isn’t like all those other states. It’s better.
Not only can Minnesota claim the title of top state for voter participation — and claim that it does, like, all the time — it can also claim a long history of punching above its weight at the White House: presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama surrounded themselves with Minnesotans, as staffers, advisers, and runningmates.
But the North Star State’s run of influence in D.C. is under threat. There’s a new sheriff in town — President Donald J. Trump — and he’s largely snubbed Minnesotans for important posts in his administration. He seems to like Sconnies better.
Searching for Minnesotans in the Trump administration
For many key administration posts, Trump — a known homebody — has drawn heavily from the two places he’s spent the most time: New York and Florida. Four Cabinet appointments, along with son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner, have deep ties to one or both of those states.
Trump has also looked to Midwestern states where he did well during the election. Vice President Mike Pence is the former governor of Indiana — Trump won there by 19 percentage points — and brings with him to D.C. a host of Hoosier staff. Trump also selected former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats as Director of National Intelligence.
Reince Priebus, the White House Chief of Staff and former RNC chair, is a proud Badger; Ron Bonjean, a longtime GOP consultant tasked with shepherding Trump’s cabinet and Supreme Court picks through Congress, is as well.
Minnesotans, meanwhile, are largely missing in the highest echelons of Trumpland, save for one: Sean Cairncross, of St. Paul, is the right hand of Priebus in the White House. (Formal title: “Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to the Chief of Staff.”)
Cairncross, a graduate of St. Paul Academy, is a longtime Republican Party man, having formerly served as Chief Operating Officer of the Republican National Committee and second-in-command at the GOP’s Senate campaign arm.
While one Minnesotan may have the president’s ear — or at least an office nearby — none were named to lead any of the major federal agencies. Pete Hegseth, the Afghanistan war veteran and Fox News personality, was a rumored candidate to lead the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, before the president went with Dr. David Shulkin.
Other than Hegseth, no Minnesotans were reported to be in serious consideration for a Cabinet post. Most prominent Minnesota Republicans who could’ve been strong candidates for a high job either kept their distance from Trump during the campaign, or denounced him outright, like former Sen. Norm Coleman.
Arrivederci, ‘Minnesota mafia’
Like Trump, Obama did not appoint a Minnesotan to lead a Cabinet agency. But advice must have sounded better to him in a Minnesota accent, because the 44th president surrounded himself with aides and advisers from Minnesota — many of whom rose to key positions in the White House.
The Minnesota crew of D.C. politicos ran so deep that they gave themselves a nickname: the Minnesota Mafia.
Denis McDonough, of Stillwater, served as Obama’s Chief of Staff for his entire second term, and was dispatched to his home state to investigate the Iron Range mining downturn in 2015. McDonough was a longtime fixture in Obama’s orbit, starting as a foreign policy adviser during the president’s 2008 run, and rising to Deputy National Security Adviser by 2010.
Gene Sperling, a Michigan native who graduated from the University of Minnesota, served from 2011 to 2014 as Director of the National Economic Council, the main White House advising body for economic policy. (He also did that same job for a few years during the Clinton administration.)
Beyond that, Jake Sullivan, of Minneapolis, a former aide to Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Hillary Clinton, was a top foreign policy adviser in the White House and a key player in the Iran nuclear deal negotiations; Tom Nides, from Duluth, was a deputy secretary of state under Clinton.
It’s likely no staffer spent more time around Obama than did Joe Paulsen, a Minnetonka native who joined Obama’s team in 2007, starting as a lowly scheduler and then working his way to being the president’s personal aide, body man, and golfing buddy. (Paulsen is the son of former state Sen. Terri Bonoff, the 2016 DFL candidate for the 3rd Congressional seat. She lost, but Obama cut an endorsement for her.)
A cold shoulder, for now
Had things turned out differently on election night, Minnesota would have extended its run of influence in the White House.
According to information leaked after the election, Sullivan was Clinton’s leading pick for National Security Adviser — the job held for the first month of the Trump presidency by Gen. Michael Flynn — and Nides was in the running for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a Cabinet-level post requiring Senate confirmation, now held by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
The Obama-Clinton years could have represented a lengthy period of Minnesota influence not seen since the 1960s and 1970s – the undeniable peak of the state’s federal power. Back then, Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter Mondale served as vice presidents to Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, and a Minnesotan — either Orville Freeman or Bob Berglund — ran the Department of Agriculture through the terms of John F. Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter.
Many Minnesotans still work in D.C. in influential jobs on both sides of the aisle. But for now, Minnesota will have to weather the rare indignity of seeing a scant few of its own at the helm of the nation’s highest centers of power.
But patience could pay off: if this first month is any indication, staff turnover under Trump could be high — and there’s 47 months to go in his first term.