Yes, top staff and advisers to Gov. Tim Walz work in the West Wing.
No, it’s not the west wing of the White House. But in the west wing of the Minnesota Capitol Building, on three floors connected by private staircases and elevators, you’ll find the governor’s executive staff: the lawyers, the policy advisers and media relations people who are closest to the first-term DFL governor.
Despite their proximity to power — spending their days within steps of the governor and consulting more frequently than most state department heads — they are mostly anonymous. And they prefer it that way. It’s practically a job requirement.
So who are they?
One way to figure that out is by looking at titles and backgrounds, of course — the experiences and qualifications that staffers bring and hold in Walz’s world. But another way is to understand that where they work says a lot about what they mean to the operation.
Which is why we created the Who Sits Where map below, which not only serves as an illustrated guide to the key players in the administration, but also functions as something of a user’s guide to influence in the governor's office.
How to run a governor’s office
To understand how the governor’s office works, it’s important to know that unlike commissioners and other top appointees in Minnesota state government, a governor’s personal staff is not subject to state Senate confirmation. Staffers, therefore, have one boss: the governor.
And while the governor's office includes a total of 48 positions — and has a budget of $5.76 million a year — the person most responsible for deciding how the place runs is the chief of staff, who sits just below the governor — in both the office org chart and in real life.
Chief of Staff Chris Schmitter’s office is one floor beneath Walz's, connected by a spiral staircase added during the renovation that was completed in 2017. (An unmarked door in the space leads to an outdoor vestibule containing evidence — black ash smudges on the stone — of it being a certain former governor’s favorite cigar-smoking getaway.)
Schmitter has operational domain over the governor’s staff, including legal, policy, appointments, communications and administrative functions, as well as a couple of dozen commissioners. Reporting to him are four deputy chiefs of staff plus assistant chiefs of staff and directors.
After Walz defeated Republican Jeff Johnson in the governor’s race, in November 2018, the transition was run by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Kristin Beckmann, who now serves as deputy chief of staff for communications and scheduling. But Schmitter was hired shortly after Walz’s victory, and he played a significant role in assembling the staff.
As part of that process, and to better understand how the office should be set up and run, Schmitter spoke to several chiefs of staff for previous governors. The advice he got, he says, was to hire “highly qualified, hard-working and talented people” who — importantly — “work well together.”
“We spend a lot of time together in the wee hours of the night trying to get things done, and that intensity is at its highest point during session,” he said. “So you just have to get along.”
They also had to be people Walz trusts, which paradoxically didn’t lead to him being surrounded by longtime aides and advisers. In fact, only a few of the governor’s current staff have lengthy experience working for the former congressman.
Among those Schmitter talked to for advice was Jaime Tincher, who currently works as the deputy mayor of St. Paul under Melvin Carter but previously worked for Gov. Mark Dayton, first as deputy chief of staff for legislative affairs and then chief of staff after Tina Smith became lieutenant governor.
Tincher described the chief of staff job as that of traffic cop. The coin of the realm for a governor is time, and Tincher felt her job was to make the best use of it. If the governor was being briefed on something and the staff wasn’t prepared, it wasted his time and often required a second meeting. To avoid that, a common event among Dayton staffers was “the meetings before the meeting,” a process designed to make sure information was “governor-ready.”
So once a day, she would gather the handful of the most-senior staff to go through what the governor might expect to confront that day. “It was like, ‘Here are the seven topics we’re gonna throw at you today,’” she said.
But while all the senior staffers had input, it was Tincher who decided what was on that list. “You have to be the heavy; you have to be willing to be the heavy,” she said. “It’s OK for people to get mad at me, but they’re not getting through me. I never wanted people to be mad at the governor.”
The chief of staff also is known inside the Capitol for being able to speak for the governor, since he or she is the one person certain to have spoken with the governor on any given topic. “With legislators and other stakeholders, they knew if they were talking to me about it that I had talked directly to the governor about it,” said Tincher. “For anyone else on the team, there’s not that guarantee.”
So what were the things that were sure to get a staffer on her bad side?
Surprises. “The worst things were the times we had no time to react or digest or be proactive about,” she said. “Sometimes those things are inevitable, but when either staff or an agency, when somebody had the opportunity to raise the flag and they didn’t and then we were getting jammed with it, that was the stuff that was unforgivable.”
Different governors, different roles
Yet different administrations have different ideas about how to run the office. Tim Pawlenty didn’t want a gatekeeper, says Matt Kramer, Pawlenty’s fourth of five chiefs of staff. Pawlenty preferred the freedom to wander the offices and engage staffers in conversations.
Kramer also says he didn’t feel the need to sharpen the content of briefings to make the most of Pawlenty’s time. “With Gov. Pawlenty, he was very open to discussion,” Kramer said. “He certainly had strong opinions, but there wasn’t a premium placed on, ‘Oh, my God, we only have 30 minutes so we’d better have everything ready to go.’ There were some meetings where that needed to be the case. But in a lot of policy discussions our philosophy was: He was a willing participant and wanted be part them versus being in a position where someone says, ‘You have A, B and C. Pick one.’”
If there was one thing that Kramer had to remind staff about, it was to make sure their writing was crisp and well-edited. If it wasn’t, Pawlenty would spend time marking up the documents.
For Kramer, the No. 1 rule for the governor’s staff was that while they were free to state their opinions to the governor, once a decision was made, that was everyone’s position. “It’s not about you,” he says. “It’s about the governor and his or her administration. You get to have an opinion. It just better not be different than the governor’s when you’re talking outside the office.”
Kramer said he loved doing the job, partly for the range of topics that were covered, like the day he went from a meeting on bovine tuberculosis to one on economic development involving the Mayo Clinic.“The mental gymnastics of just keeping up kept you very engaged,” Kramer said.
But he also knew when it was time to go. “I always tell people that when you start disliking people that you like, you’ve reached your capacity. The job is to work on challenges. If everything was going great, you wouldn’t need a chief of staff. I got tired of the phone ringing at 10 o’clock on a Friday night or 2 on a Sunday morning.”
For Schmitter, managing Walz’s time is vital; there are so many demands on him as governor that it’s important not to waste it. Like Tincher, he conducts “dry runs” of meetings before Walz is involved. “My goal is yes, to manage his time as best as possible, but never to stand in the way of him hearing from people he needs to make the best decision possible,” he said.
“Time is so limited that you have to come in with clear-cut: what the decision is; what the options are; what the vectors are that he should consider and what’s the recommendation,” Schmitter said.
He considers his role to be both an adviser and an “honest broker.” While he expresses his opinion on issues, he tries not to advocate for his position over other options.
And like Kramer, he said the thing most likely to attract his unhappiness is a staffer not putting the governor’s best interest at the top of mind. “At some level, it is putting oneself ahead of the agenda. That would frustrate me the most.”
Illustration by Hugh Bennewitz.
Gov. Tim Walz’s office commands a prominent corner of the Capitol building, offering panoramic views of the campus and enough space for a desk and a small conference table. Adjacent to the office is workspace for his executive director of scheduling and an executive aide. If the scheduler is worried about the governor’s public life weeks and months in advance, the executive aide is focused on each day, accompanying Walz everywhere he goes, be it in the building, around St. Paul or across the state. Other than Walz’s personal office and that of the chief of staff, the prime office space in the governor’s suite is along a hallway on the first floor, just beyond the Governor’s Reception Room, where the staff holds ceremonial events, press conferences and, well, receptions.
Castañeda had been the communications director for the state DFL before joining the Walz campaign after the party endorsed Erin Murphy for the DFL primary. A Minneapolis native who attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Castañeda also served as a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and as deputy press secretary for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Her salary is $85,002 per year.
Gwen Walz has space in the suite of offices located closest to the governor. Though her role is unpaid, she serves as both key adviser and an ambassador for the governor, doing personal appearances around the state. During the 2019 legislative session, she was active on two primary issues: gun safety legislation and criminal justice reform. She is the first first lady to have an office near the governor, though she also has a role at Augsburg University: Special Assistant to the President for Strategic Partnerships and as a Fellow in the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship.
Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications and Scheduling
Beckmann served as St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s last deputy mayor, where she worked on issues ranging from the Minnesota United soccer stadium to resolving conflicts over the Riverview Corridor transit line. She managed Walz’s transition and now oversees messaging and administration-wide communications. She has also worked as vice president of programs and services at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity; as executive director of the Service Employees International Union Minnesota State Council; and in both the Minnesota Department of Health and the Office of the State Auditor. She also served as co-director of Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ transition team. Her salary is $120,999.
Tschann came to the governor’s staff after stints as an aide to former U.S. Sen. Al Franken and current U.S. Sen. Tina Smith. He also served as Minnesota press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
During the campaign, Walz often said he and Flanagan would co-govern, and Flanagan has an office on the same floor as the governor. Among other duties, Flanagan led the Walz administration’s selection of commissioners and senior staff during their transition. Flanagan’s salary as lieutenant governor is $82,959 per year.
Another group of offices for the governor’s staff is located on the Capitol’s ground floor, with the chief of staff’s office directly beneath the governor’s office and a meeting room, referred to as the Cabinet Room, directly below the reception room. Extending to the east is a suite of offices that include space for Chief Operations Officer Amanda Simpson; the governor’s human resources director; his general counsel; and his chief inclusion officer.
Chief of Staff
Schmitter is one of the few top office staffers with a long history with Walz. The Rochester native first met Walz in 2004, when he was a field organizer for the John Kerry presidential campaign and Walz was a volunteer. Two years later, when Walz made his first run for Congress, he asked Schmitter, 35, to be his field director and later employed him on his congressional staff and on his re-election campaigns. A graduate of Georgetown University and the University of Minnesota law school, Schmitter was practicing law when Walz asked him to be his top staffer. His office is one floor beneath Walz’s, though the two spaces are connected by a staircase the governor must use whenever entering or leaving the office. Schmitter’s salary is $139,582 per year, or roughly $12,000 more than that of his boss.
Chief Inclusion Officer
Even though he is officially an employee of the Department of Management and Budget, which has offices in the Centennial Building, Taylor works out of an office is in the Capitol’s west wing. Prior to becoming Walz’s chief inclusion officer, Taylor held a similar position with the Minnesota Historical Society. He is responsible for recruiting and retaining employees of color; making sure the administration's workplace culture is inclusive; and broadening intercultural competence. Also among his duties: running the governor’s council on diversity, inclusion and equity. His salary is $147,580 per year.
General Counsel and Deputy Chief of Staff
Procaccini is something of a diversity hire: He’s not from Minnesota. The Connecticut native arrived in the state when his wife decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. Later, Procaccini became a partner at the law firm of Greene Espel, where Schmitter also practiced law. Procaccini attended Harvard for both his undergraduate and law degrees, and he served as a law clerk for former U.S. District and Appeals Court Judge Diana Murphy and U.S. District Court Judge Michael Davis. He has also taught at the University of St. Thomas and the Mitchell Hamline law schools. Procaccini's salary is $124,215 a year.
A third suite of offices is located in the Capitol’s basement, where you’ll find the governor’s policy staff: those with subject matter expertise on policy issues and budgets. Sometimes referred to as the policy shop, these are the people who advise Walz on specific issues and legislation.
Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Legislative Affairs
Nguyen is a 16-year veteran of the Minnesota Capitol, having previously worked for the state Senate and as a local government lobbyist. She was an assistant commissioner in Dayton’s Department of Education; as a Dayton policy adviser on PreK-12 education, higher education and local government; as an aide to the Senate majority leader; as a taxes committee administrator; and as a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities. Her salary is $129,998 per year.
Director of Policy and Federal Affairs
Bergman comes to the Walz policy staff from the Minnesota Legislature, where she previously worked on the staff of the taxes committee staffer and for the speaker of the House. She has also been a tax policy researcher for the Department of Revenue commissioner and on the intergovernmental relations staff for the city of Minneapolis.
First floor, east wing (not displayed)
Walz uses the east wing space for his public engagement staff and other administrative functions. The offices on this side of the building include a large conference room that was sometimes used during closed-door budget talks among Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and House Speaker Melissa Hortman during the 2019 legislative session. After Tina Smith was appointed the U.S. Senate and Republican Sen. Michelle Fischbach became lieutenant governor, this is where Fischbach was given office space, though she never actually moved in.
Migdalia Loyola Meléndez
Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Engagement
Loyola Meléndez came to the Walz staff from Planned Parenthood, where she was vice president of education and outreach. Before that, she worked for the Center for Prevention at Blue Shield of Minnesota, managing healthy eating and tobacco control programs. Her salary is $115,007 a year.
Assistant Chief of Staff for Public Engagement and Greater Minnesota Outreach
Tanis is a former elementary school teacher and assistant principal who worked on the 2018 Walz-Flanagan campaign. He also worked on Walz’s congressional campaigns in 2006, 2008 and 2016.
Centennial Office Building
Commissioner, Minnesota Management and Budget
Though his office is in the Centennial Office Building, on the east side of the Capitol Mall, Frans is one of Walz’s primary advisers on budget and policy — a role he also played with Dayton as well — and he sometimes works from the conference tables in Walz’s or Schmitter’s office. Before becoming MMB commissioner, Frans served as Dayton’s commissioner of revenue, and prior to that, he was the president of Leeds Precision Instruments in Golden Valley and had been a tax attorney in private practice. As the head of MMB, he is paid $155,000 per year.