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No exodus of political appointees this year

Betsy Sundquist//June 11, 2010

No exodus of political appointees this year

Betsy Sundquist//June 11, 2010

Bill Walsh wants people to know that reports of his imminent departure from the Minnesota Department of Education have been greatly exaggerated.

“I’m staying here for the moment,” says Walsh, the DOE’s communications director, who has spent a lot of his free (read: non-state-employment) time volunteering for the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Tom Emmer, and who has been the subject of rumors about his leaving the DOE to work full-time for Emmer’s campaign. “Of course, I’m gone if we don’t elect a governor who likes me.”

With slightly more than six months left before Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty vacates his Capitol digs in hopes of procuring a more geometrically shaped office in Washington, it would ordinarily be prime time for political appointees like Walsh to be polishing up their resumes and making inquiries about job openings.

That’s not happening this year.

With Minnesota, along with the rest of the country, mired in a recession, and with the state’s April unemployment rate at 7.2 percent (compared to the U.S. rate of 9.9 percent), anyone with a job seems to be hanging on to it, even with the certainty of a new governor and a new administration at the beginning of 2011 hanging over their heads.

Low turnover at agencies

“I think the number of people leaving has been pretty light,” Walsh says. “I don’t think the exodus has started, and mainly it’s because there’s not a lot of opportunity out there — less opportunity than normal.”

The DOE has lost one deputy commissioner in recent weeks: Chas Anderson, who resigned to take a job with a national education policy group focusing on math and science. (Walsh said Anderson played her new job close to the vest and didn’t tell her colleagues the name of her new employer.)

Anderson’s departure left the DOE shorthanded and down to just two commissioners: Education Commissioner Alice Seagren and assistant commissioner Karen Klinsing. Walsh says the DOE also previously had another assistant commissioner who worked mainly on the assessment side of the department, but when that person left, no replacement was hired. “That’s been vacant for a while,” Walsh says. “We’d been missing one of our leaders anyway, and with Chas leaving, it puts us down to two.”

To take up the slack, Seagren will assume some of the responsibilities that were formerly handled by Anderson, Walsh says. “You have to think of the deputy commissioner as a chief of staff,” he says. “She had huge responsibilities as deputy.”

Among Anderson’s responsibilities with the DOE were financial and legal issues affecting the department. She also handled charter school issues and school choice, and Walsh’s team, the communications department, reported to her as well.

Nevertheless, Walsh points out that there’s been little turnover among Pawlenty’s appointees during his two terms as governor.

“I think Gov. Pawlenty’s an easy person to work for, with a vision and a mission that people grab on to,” he says. “It’s been a very well-run government, and he’s picked really good people.”

With several high-profile exceptions — such as Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau’s contentious removal from her position as Department of Transportation commissioner in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse — most of Pawlenty’s commissioners have stayed on the job during his two terms in office.

The most recent commissioner to announce his departure is Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard and the state’s Department of Military Affairs since 2003. He’s leaving his post effective Oct. 31 not because he’s abandoning ship, but because he’ll reach mandatory retirement age, 65, this year.

In addition to Shellito, three other Pawlenty appointees left their jobs between April 2009 and April 2010: Dana Badgerow, commissioner of the Department of Administration, resigned last year to become president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota; Clark Dyrud, commissioner of the Department of Veterans Affairs, retired in mid-April; and Velma Korbel, commissioner of the Department of Human Rights, resigned to become director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights.

The last time so many of Pawlenty’s commissioners did so much shuffling was at the beginning of the governor’s second term in office.

In late 2006, Peggy Ingison, commissioner of what was then the state Department of Finance (later Minnesota Management and Budget), left that job to become chief financial officer for Minneapolis Public Schools. At almost exactly the same time, Gene Merriam, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, resigned to take a job as president of the Freshwater Society, and Ward Einess, at the time interim commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development, replaced Dan Salomone as commissioner of the Department of Revenue after Salomone reportedly requested a demotion to deputy commissioner.

Ingison was replaced by Tom Hanson, and Merriam by Mark Holsten; both Hanson and Holsten remain in those positions.

Legislative staffers wait and see

On the legislative side, the employment process during an election year — when the possibility exists that the balance of legislative power might shift in one direction or the other — works somewhat differently.

Nine senators and 15 House members have announced their retirements, leaving legislative assistants and committee administrators in need of new bosses.

On the Senate side, those retirements will affect 13 staff positions. “They’ll have to figure out what they’re doing next, but that’s not immediate,” a Senate source says. “They’ve got some months to go, and I assume a number of them will try to pick up work elsewhere here.”

Often, an incoming freshman senator will seek out and hire an experienced legislative assistant (LA) or committee administrator (CA), or an LA might have the experience to move up to a CA position. “Nobody really knows yet what’s going to happen,” the source says. “They just know that their senator’s leaving, so they may have to find another job, but it may still be here. Nobody’s resigning yet.”

In the House, five staffers are on temporary leave to work on political campaigns or at party headquarters, including Matt Swenson, a House DFL communications specialist, who is serving as DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s press secretary and new media director.

The process in the House is different from that in the Senate, according to Sandy Connolly, a communications specialist with the DFL caucus. All staff members are hired by the speaker, and members don’t pick their own staff. “In the interviewing process, such as for CAs, [members] participate, but it’s a different layout,” Connolly says.

“But we haven’t had anybody leave yet,” she says. “Things will shake out more after the election.”

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