Everyone needs someone they can count on in a tough spot, even the state of Minnesota: When tensions boil over, when scandal tarnishes an organization, when finances run out of control, when gridlock can’t be broken — or even when something just needs a fresh pair of eyes.
When any of those things happen, Minnesota officials tend to turn to a short list of names that’s been cultivated over the last several decades: people known for their ability to fix — or at least improve — almost any situation. They tend to be former and current lawyers, judges and business people who have a knack for smoothing over bumpy situations.
And while some of the people on that list are reluctant to seek out the limelight (or even be interviewed for this story), state officials of both parties know they can almost call them up to help, that they’ll almost always say, “yes.”
And yet the general public knows very little, if anything, about them. Here, then, are Minnesota’s most sought-after troubleshooters, people who can’t seem to get away from working in state government — no matter how hard they may try.
Michael Vekich first got involved in politics when he sought the Republican nomination for governor, in 2002. He didn’t get the endorsement that year — somebody named Tim Pawlenty did — but he got a life in public service anyway.
Vekich, an accountant by trade, has earned the reputation as the most appointed man in government, called on to serve various agencies in the last five gubernatorial administrations. Those assignments include an appointment to the Minnesota State Lottery — twice: first by Pawlenty and then again by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Both appointments were under intense circumstances. In 2004, the executive director of the lottery comitted suicide after he faced questions about questionable expenses. And last year, Dayton called up Vekich after another scandal: Director Ed Van Petten resigned after it was reported by the Star Tribune that his out-of-state travel budget included reimbursement for nights spent in his personal time-share properties.
But the lottery is only a small part of Vekich’s government résumé. He has also served as head of the Board of Accountancy; three terms as chair of the board of trustees of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities; and as the vice chair of Minnesota BallPark Authority. Most recently, Vekich was asked by Dayton to lead the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA), a job he took over after its chair and executive director resigned over questions about use of stadium suites by friends, family and political allies.
So, why do governors turn to Vekich so often? Part of the reason is his background as a CPA who often acted as turnaround specialist for troubled businesses. “Generally, I know how to assess and stabilize the problems,” he said. He’s also served governors from three different parties, despite his background in Republican politics. “I understand that the appointment is not partisan, and I understand who the boss is,” Vekich said. “That’s the governor.”
So why does Vekich always say yes? A big part of it, he says, comes from the fact that his parents were immigrants who always taught him that “to whom much is given, much is expected,” he said. “Giving back was a family value.”
When she first started knocking on doors as a political candidate in Bloomington, Minnesota, Kathleen Blatz was a little self-conscious about her age. At 23, she was campaigning as a Republican to serve in the Minnesota House of Representatives, something her father had done before her. “I told people, ‘I will turn 24 next month,’” Blatz laughed. “For some reason 24 felt so much older to me than 23.”
She won that race, kicking off a career in public service that continues today, long after she officially retired.
While Blatz was serving in the Legislature, she decided to get her law degree from the University of Minnesota, a task that required her to excuse herself from long House floor debates to take exams. After getting her degree, she practiced law at a Minneapolis law firm and later served as an assistant Hennepin County Attorney.
Then, in 1994, Blatz left the House to become a district court judge in Hennepin County. Two years later, Republican Gov. Arne Carlson appointed her to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and just two years after that, she was serving as chief justice, the first woman in history to lead the state’s highest court.
Blatz retired in 2006 with nearly 30 years of public service under her belt. But her mix of experience — from the House floor to the Supreme Court — has made her a popular figure when state officials need help with tough legal or political situations. In 2011, she was summoned by the courts and Dayton to be a “special master” in the midst of a historic, 21-day government shutdown. It was Blatz’s job to preside over hearings about who should or should not get funding.
“I take those kinds of calls seriously,” she said. “That was a very challenging assignment, with people coming in who used state programs. You really saw the faces of these programs that can sometimes seem really distant.”
More recently, Dayton sought out Blatz to serve as a member of the MSFA, which was dealing with a growing outcry over top officials’ use of two luxury suites. Dayton wanted Blatz’s experience with governance to help focus the organization, and he asked her to take over the authority, at least temporarily until they could find a new chair (which turned out to be, yes, Michael Vekich).
Blatz doesn’t mind being called on after her retirement, even if the assignment is a tough one. “I like being challenged,” she said. “Public service is the highest calling. If there is a need and the opportunity for me to do it, I will do it.”
Wilhelmina Wright got interested in the courts at a young age: Her school district in Norfolk, Virginia, pushed back on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education, which made segregated schools unconstitutional. Wright’s mother had pushed for her to get an education as good as any child’s in the city, at a time when integration in schools was resisted.
The experience helped guide Wright to Yale University and then to Harvard Law School, after which she clerked for a judge and worked at a law firm in Washington D.C., mostly on education-related litigation.
By the the 1990s, Wright had moved to Minnesota and joined the U.S. Attorney’s office, where she worked on economic fraud and violent crime cases. But she soon moved to the bench, appointed to work as a trial judge in Ramsey County District Court. Then, in 2002, Wright was appointed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where she served until 2012. That year, Dayton appointed her to the Minnesota Supreme Court, becoming the first black woman to ever serve there.
Before she moved to the Supreme Court, however, Wright was called on to referee the once-every-decade battle over the state’s political maps. Dayton had vetoed the Republican-drawn redistricting plan created by the Legislature, saying they didn’t have bipartisan support and were drafted with the purpose of “protecting or defeating” certain incumbents.
Wright presided over a nearly yearlong process of public hearings, where members of the different political parties and the public testified about how they wanted their districts to look for the decade to come. In the end, the courts drew the maps, which ended up pairing a historic number of incumbents, 46, in the same legislative districts.
Over the years, Wright earned a reputation as a fair and steady legal hand, standing that helped her win confirmation as a U.S. District Court judge last year at a time when other judicial appointments were languishing in the U.S. Senate. “Mimi Wright has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the fair and just application of the law,” U.S. Sen. Al Franken said at the time. “I’m so pleased both Republicans and Democrats were able to come together and confirm her.”
In 1977, Steve Sviggum was living a quiet life in southeastern Minnesota as a teacher, a coach and a farmer. He never thought much about politics until he was approached by a search committee, who asked him to consider running as a Republican for a seat in the state House. “To tell you the truth, at that time I had no idea who I would even be running against,” Sviggum said. “I wasn’t very involved in politics. I feel bad about it now because it’s just a huge part of my life.”
Sviggum, a coach and former athlete, considered the campaign a competitive challenge. He won, and soon became enamored with politics, eventually serving as House Republican minority leader from 1992 until 1999, when he became speaker of the House, a job he had until 2007. That’s when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty tapped him to lead the Department of Labor and Industry and eventually the office of Minnesota Management and Budget.
Shortly after leaving the Pawlenty administration, Sviggum was nominated to become a University of Minnesota regent. Over the decades, Sviggum also became known for both his work ethic and his ability to get along with people of different political points of view, qualities that have made him a desirable ally in rocky situations. Senate Republicans called him to serve as communications director in the wake of the revelations about an affair between former Senate majority leader Amy Koch and the chamber’s top communications director, Michael Brodkorb. More recently, Sviggum has taught a class on governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
“A series of doors have opened for me to continue my life of public service. Sometimes in life doors seem to close and sometimes they seem to open,” Sviggum said. “You have to be ready to seize the opportunities when they are there, but sometimes you are wise enough to not venture where you’re not wanted or needed.”
Growing up in the 1960s, a life of public service was an easy choice for Lee Sheehy. Right after earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, he became a staff researcher on the U.S. Senate’s Watergate Committee. He moved to Minnesota to get his law degree from the University of Minnesota’s law school and went on to serve as deputy attorney general of the state of Minnesota under DFL Attorney General Skip Humphrey.
From there, he jumped into various roles, serving as senior vice president business and legal affairs for Public Radio International; as St. Louis Park city attorney; and as the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He served the City of Minneapolis as its first ever executive director of Community Planning and Economic Development, and was brought on to the Metropolitan Council under Gov. Jesse Ventura as a regional administrator. “It was a very exciting and challenging time, with the final pieces of the first LRT Hiawatha Line being put in place,” Sheehy said.
These days, his day job is Region and Communities program director for the McKnight Foundation, one of the region’s largest philanthropies, but he’s also been called on multiple times by the Dayton administration. The governor had Sheehy help him transition into the governor’s office after his first election in 2011, and he also appointed him head of the Minnesota Judicial Selection Commission, a volunteer gig that helps vet candidates for judgeships across the state.
Sheehy still cites his formative years as inspiration for his career, and his willingness to help out when asked. “[The 1960s] was a time of great turmoil in the country that I grew up during and learned from, and then I returned to Minnesota, a state that has a great history of civic involvement,” Sheehy said. “It made it very motivating.”
Besides, he added: “When the governor of the state calls you, you say, ‘yes.’ ”