Who would serve in a Scott Jensen administration?

It’s been 16 years since Minnesotans last elected a Republican governor.

By: - October 5, 2022 6:00 am

GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen and running mate Matt Birk hold a press conference at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday, Aug. 30. Photo by Michelle Griffith/Minnesota Reformer.

The last time Minnesotans elected a Republican governor, Apple had yet to release the original iPhone. 

Tim Pawlenty was the last Republican governor, and he left in 2011. Many of his senior advisors have since retired or cashed in on their government service by becoming lobbyists and consultants. 

If Republican nominee for governor Scott Jensen is elected in November, he would face a daunting task — filling his administration with loyal lieutenants who can manage the sprawling bureaucracy that extends from hospital regulation to highways to school funding and public safety. A key challenge: A thin Republican bench of qualified talent. 

“It’s a lot of work for a new administration, particularly in a Jensen case where you’re kind of cleaning the books. You’re sort of starting fresh,” said Amy Koch, former senate majority leader who served in the upper chamber from 2005 to 2013.

 “It will be tremendous work to find qualified people that are willing to serve and that are able to pass Senate confirmation,” Koch said.

Other Republicans are more optimistic, pointing to the challenge and excitement of the work and the potential to effect major change, in stark contrast to the slower moving Legislature and U.S. Congress. 

“Republicans would love to get in those agencies because you can make a big difference if you are a strong leader,” said Charlie Weaver, who led the transition teams of both Pawlenty and former Gov. Jesse Ventura and is currently the executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which lobbies for the state’s biggest companies like Target and Cargill.

Weaver said a Republican who wants to streamline environmental permitting would be eager to lead the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, for instance, because commissioners can make change quickly. 

Commissioners drive government decision making

The public often sees Gov. Tim Walz at press conferences announcing next steps to combat the pandemic or additional funding for public transportation; however, what they don’t see is the work overseen by the commissioners leading up to Walz’s public announcements and appearances. 

The staggering amount of money in each department’s biennium budget is overseen by the commissioners. Once federal money is accounted for, the Department of Human Services commissioner oversees about $47 billion. 

More than managing behemoth budgets, however, commissioners also set important policy and lobby the Legislature on the myriad issues that lawmakers consider in a given year.

A governor-elect Jensen, who didn’t respond to interview requests, would seek commissioners who support his agenda, which would take Minnesota in a starkly different direction. The Chaska family physician wants to eliminate Minnesota’s personal income tax, which would create a $15 billion hole in the state budget, requiring either tax increases or spending cuts or some combination of the two. 

He has called education in Minnesota a “black hole,” and said school performance isn’t matching the billions of dollars allocated to public schools. He has advocated for school choice and giving taxpayer dollars to parents to pay for private schools.

Jensen has also been sharply critical of the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. During a Q&A with the Star Tribune at the Minnesota State Fair earlier this year, he thanked current Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm for her work, but he said that “come January, she should be looking for another job.”

The election for Minnesota governor is heated this year, with both Jensen and Walz trading shots daily and becoming visibly aggravated during their first debate at Farmfest. If Jensen wins in November, his transition will be different than the last time a Republican took office, when Pawlenty took the baton from his predecessor, Ventura.

After Pawlenty’s 2002 election, the pair went for a drive in Ventura’s two-seater Porsche on I-94. Ventura “buried the needle” and lost the state troopers following them, Pawlenty said, recalling his amicable transition into the Governor’s Mansion. 

Walz is unlikely to take Jensen on any joyrides if the latter prevails in November.

What to look for in a commissioner

Weaver said Pawlenty called him the night of the election, asking to meet for breakfast the next morning to begin the commissioner hiring process.

“There isn’t a more important thing you’re going to do in those first couple months than hire your staff and your commissioners,” Weaver said.

On top of picking staff and commissioners to oversee billions of taxpayer dollars, the governor must also prepare a two-year budget that will top $50 billion to present to the new Legislature, which will meet in early January.

Pawlenty had a large pool of candidates from which to choose for his commissioner positions, having developed a strong rapport with lawmakers and lobbyists during a decade at the state Capitol. He also emerged during an exciting time for the Republican Party, which was fresh off a rare midterm victory. President George W. Bush was still viewed favorably by a strong majority of Americans. There were ultimately about two to three people in line for each commissioner position after each was heavily vetted and interviewed multiple times, Weaver said.

The Pawlenty administration was looking for commissioner candidates with experience leading an organization, as some state agencies employ thousands of workers, Weaver said. Whether it was a nonprofit or a corporate conglomerate, many of the candidates came from outside of government, which Weaver said was necessary to bring a new perspective to the agency.

Although loyalty to Pawlenty and his agenda were important, Weaver said, the candidates needed to garner bipartisan support, especially since the state Senate was DFL majority.

“We didn’t hire any friends of the governor just because they were friends. They had to be competent, smart and able to run an agency,” Weaver said. “It was really about, can they do the job, do it well and represent the values and goals of the governor and ultimately be successful.”

Governors sometimes look to the Legislature for candidates, but that’s not always wise, said Weaver and Tom Hanson, one of Pawlenty’s commissioners of Minnesota Management and Budget. Lawmakers often have their own agenda and scant experience leading a large organization. And, if the margins in the House and Senate are slim, a Republican vacancy could risk Republicans losing control of a chamber, which would be a death knell to Jensen’s agenda. 

Hanson said Jensen likely wouldn’t be able to convince Pawlenty’s former commissioners to join him, as many are long retired or embedded in new positions, but he said Jensen could draw strong candidates from nonprofits and the business community.

A potential impediment to recruiting: Mirroring national trends, increasingly partisan politics at the state Capitol have made commissioner confirmations more difficult. Although commissioners can begin their jobs when the governor appoints them, the state Senate can sack them by voting down their confirmation.

In 2020, the Senate voted out two of Walz’s commissioners: Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink and Department of Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelly. Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Laura Bishop resigned last year under threat of Senate removal. 

Three commissioner oustings in one administration is unusual, and the Senate rejections were widely viewed as a way to punish Walz. 

Jensen was an idiosyncratic one-term senator who was not beloved by colleagues or lobbyists.

A Republican lobbyist, who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about the GOP nominee, expressed confidence that Jensen could fill his cabinet. But the lobbyist questioned whether Jensen would draw the best applicants given his lack of experience leading a large organization and mercurial personality.

“You may not get the cream of the crop,” said the lobbyist.

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.