Dayton’s transition team casting a wide net as he assembles the first DFL administration in a generation
Nearly three decades have passed since the last transition to a DFL governor. When Rudy Perpich took over from Al Quie in 1983, he’d held the state’s top office just four years earlier.
By contrast, it’s been 16 years since Gov-elect Mark Dayton last spent regular time at the Capitol as state auditor. He has few relationships with legislative leaders or top agency officials.
That means it will be particularly important for the DFLer to surround himself with a strong team that can help him navigate what’s likely to be a turbulent start considering the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit and the Republican legislative majorities that will greet Dayton. In putting together an administration, Dayton’s mandate to his transition team was to undertake a far-reaching search to locate the best candidates. Leading the effort is Tina Smith, former chief of staff to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Lee Sheehy, former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Josie Johnson, a veteran civil rights activist.
“Gov.-elect Dayton believes very much in transparency,” said Smith. “He didn’t want this to be the kind of a system where you have to know the transition co-chairs or you don’t have a chance at getting the job.”
To aid this process, Dayton’s transition team has added a number of other key personnel. Lucinda Jesson, a professor at Hamline University School of Law, is leading the staff’s outreach efforts. Her resume includes time as a deputy attorney general specializing in health and licensing, as well as a stint as chief deputy Hennepin County attorney. Perhaps more immediately relevant to the task at hand, Jesson chaired the search effort for Klobuchar’s office in seeking to fill the vacant U.S. Attorney’s post for Minnesota in 2009. She served in a similar capacity on Klobuchar’s transition team following the 2006 election.
Joining Jesson as senior advisers are DFL luminaries Roger Moe and Jeff Blodgett. Moe spent three decades in the state Senate, including 22 years as majority leader. In 2002 he was the unsuccessful DFL nominee for governor. In order to eliminate the appearance of conflicts of interest, Moe terminated relationships with 19 lobbying clients prior to joining the transition team.
Blodgett’s political resume dates back to Paul Wellstone’s successful 1990 U.S. Senate campaign. More recently he was the Minnesota state director for President Obama’s 2008 campaign. Blodgett took a leave of absence from his position as executive director of Wellstone Action to work on the Dayton team.
“Mark’s charge to the transition team was, ‘I want to find the best and the brightest out there. I want to go beyond just the usual suspects,’” said Blodgett. “He wanted a very wide net cast.”
Also playing a key role in identifying potential members of the Dayton administration are eight individuals focused on outreach efforts. Among this group: Kristin Beckmann, director of government and community relations at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity; Peter Benner, former executive director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 6; and Steve Hogan, a policy aide to Minneapolis City Council member Don Samuels.
The group is sorted into various policy areas and is charged with interviewing an ever-expanding circle of experts in those realms. The two key questions: What qualities do you want to see in a commissioner? What names would you like to see on the short list?
Beckmann and Hogan, for instance, have been tasked with surveying the landscape for potential appointees in the areas of transportation, housing, labor and the Metropolitan Council. Hogan estimates that he’s interviewed 65 to 70 individuals since joining the transition team. Beckman says she’s talked to potential candidates from nonprofit groups, businesses, colleges and labor unions.
“It is fascinating to me the names that are coming forward,” said Beckmann. “There is no backroom here. This is open.”
In addition, Dayton’s team has set up a public website, daytontransition.org, to collect resumes and uncover potential candidates from unorthodox backgrounds. While such a public solicitation for job seekers would seem likely to flood the transition staff with unqualified applicants, they insist that it’s been a valuable tool.
The end result is that more than 1,400 resumes have been collected to cull through for various administration appointments. “As you can imagine there’s a lot of pent-up demand and interest after 28 years,” said Smith. “Through that process we have talked to literally hundreds of people and have built an amazing database of really strong Minnesotans.”
But for all the emphasis on how far-reaching the search process has been, the only announced cabinet pick so far has been a holdover. Last week Dayton revealed that MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel would be remaining in his post. In recent years the agency has had to deal with the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge and the ensuing ouster of Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau as the state’s top transportation official.
“The department of transportation has been through a lot the last eight years,” said Smith. “The clear message we got from people, both inside and outside the department, was that Commissioner Sorel had done a lot to restore morale and to bring a high level of non-partisan professionalism to the department.”
Dayton transition officials insist that there’s no established time table for unveiling the other cabinet picks. According to Jesson, some searches are nearing the finish line, while in other areas they’re continuing to expand the field of potential nominees. Some selections might not be made until after Dayton is sworn in on January 3.
“Our first three weeks was really focused on the outreach part of it,” said Jesson. “I think now we’re really in the process of saying, of all the names we’ve received, which are the strongest candidates?”
Smith is now beginning a transition of sorts herself. Last week Dayton picked her to serve as chief of staff for the incoming administration. That means she’ll have to shift her focus from searching for potential job candidates to preparing to work with the Republican-controlled Legislature on solving the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit.
“One of the things that I’m going to have an opportunity to work on is this question of how do we take these government institutions as they are today and build them so that they’re more efficient, more accountable, spend dollars more wisely,” said Smith. “In this budget era, that’s going to be so important.”