Members of Minnesota’s next gubernatorial administration could be excused for moving into the west wing of the Capitol under cover of night and locking the door behind them. Besides the small matter of an estimated $5.8 billion budget deficit, there is also the likelihood – if, as expected, Democrat Mark Dayton prevails in a pending recount – that the new governor will face a Legislature controlled by his political opponents. (Both Dayton and Republican nominee Tom Emmer have announced transition team leaders.)
But former transition leaders interviewed by Capitol Report remember that budget crises and political uncertainty have accompanied the start of other gubernatorial administrations of the past two decades.
Steven Bosacker had never worked on a gubernatorial transition before he was tapped to lead Reform Party Gov. Jesse Ventura’s 1998 transition team. He was familiar with such rites of passage from his lead role in the transition of the University of Minnesota president’s office from Nils Hasselmo to Mark Yudof. But he had never been a part of anything similar to the spectacle and intensity of Ventura’s early days.
Bosacker, who would go on to serve as Ventura’s chief of staff, recalls working18 to 20 hour days for the first two months as Ventura’s administration took shape. He said he never shoveled his sidewalk at home during that time, and to this day he’s unsure who shoveled for him.
While there were only three people being paid out of the governor’s office on the transition, Bosacker recalls that about 65 people from academia and the professional world contributed their time to help put the administration together.
“It was really very powerful for me to see Minnesotans step up,” Bosacker said.
Transition teams make countless decisions, ranging from the selection of clerical staff to the sending of political signals, in an environment where the shock and excitement of arriving in the governor’s office still haven’t worn off, said former GOP Gov. Arne Carlson.
“Regardless of who you are,” he said, “you’re not prepared. I was invited by Dan Quayle to fly back to Washington on his plane. I asked him how long it took him to get used to being vice president and he said a year. …The same for me. People would say, ‘There’s the governor,’ and I would say, ‘Where?'” Carlson said.
In past transitions, the inner circle has usually produced a list of the governor-elect’s core principles, which are essential to establishing priorities on budget and policy and testing the waters with a communications strategy.
Those considerations were particularly important in Ventura’s case, Bosacker said, because Ventura wasn’t a major party candidate and wasn’t a known quantity in politics and public policy circles.
“In his case,” Bosacker noted, “there had to be a big involvement of the public in meeting their expectations. That made it all the more important for us to understand his principles going in.”
Transition leaders from previous administrations have taken different approaches to devising strategy and vetting potential hires. Ventura’s team gathered a group of 20 first-time voters – a group that, in their view, had played an outsized role in electing Ventura.
“We knew they went to the polls for some reason in particular,” Bosacker said. “He wanted to explore what would keep them [interested] in government.”
Carlson recalls forming committees to help build the administration: “My brother Lars directed the transition, as he did the campaign. He spun out a whole group of task forces to bring together a meld of citizens, some with and some without political experience,” Carlson said.
The most critical task of transition teams is to recruit and cull applicants for jobs in the administration. The governor’s political debts and alliances are usually a factor in selecting top administration officials. The political novice Ventura, for example, came to office owing no favors and made noteworthy state agency picks from outside the state political scene, like Finance Commissioner Pam Wheelock and Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Al Garber, who had been a Champlin police chief.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, by contrast, was a former House GOP majority leader who took office with deep ties to Republican legislators. Pawlenty transition team director Charlie Weaver noted that the new governor, who took office facing a roughly $4 billion general fund deficit, tapped former House GOP finance division chairs Dan McElroy and Kevin Goodno to run the Finance and Human Services departments.
“It was a big advantage to know people like those two people,” Weaver said.
Pawlenty then delved into the private sector to tap Matt Kramer to lead administration’s economic development agency. Kramer didn’t have previous political experience.
Weaver said new governors have to balance giving jobs to political allies with assigning the most competent people to administration posts.
“You’ve got to work through and be sensitive for people who worked hard on the campaign and are looking for a job,” he said. “But you also have to understand it’s a different set of skills working for the executive branch versus working on a campaign. They aren’t always transferable.”
Some of the most important factors in a well-run transition are entirely mundane. Weaver, who worked on Ventura’s transition in addition to leading Pawlenty’s transition, recalls, “Within hours of election night, people wanted [Pawlenty] speaking. A scheduler may sound boring, but it’s really important.”
Ventura’s communications and scheduling efforts were unlike any encountered during previous transitions. The long-shot novelty of the idiosyncratic former professional wrestler’s victory provoked a circus-like atmosphere. The news media, along with celebrities like Jay Leno and political leaders of all stripes, came calling to get a word with Ventura. One room in the transition office, Bosacker remembers, “was covered with pink messages taped on the wall.”
Another common theme in transition time: Circumstances often upend plans.
Carlson said a number of things went wrong during his 1990 transition, some of which were out of his administration’s control – including an unexpectedly large state budget deficit spawned by an economic downturn.
Looking back, Carlson says now that he let criticism from the Legislature ramp up to dangerously high levels in his early days without doing enough to fight back.
“The problem is, the more mistakes you make, the more you dictate a vulture-like culture in the Legislature,” he said. “Once they smell blood, they go right after you.”
If DFLer Mark Dayton wins the recount and takes the governor’s office, he will face freshly anointed Republican majorities. Carlson’s advice for Dayton is to ask all four legislative caucuses to spend December drafting the outlines and targets of a budget. He believes that would help put the budget process on a constructive footing and lessen the political tensions.
“There is a difference between accommodating and being forceful,” he noted. “The first thing the new governor should do is send a letter to all four caucus leaders saying this is a big problem, the biggest problem our state has had. I expect you to have guidelines of a budget: What are you going to do on cuts and where you going to make those cuts? And what are you going to do on revenues?”
Pawlenty’s transition experienced some bumps of its own, according to Weaver.
In February 2003, Pawlenty’s appointed commissioner of Labor and Industry, Jane Volz, resigned after it was revealed she failed to pay workers compensation for employees of her law firm.
“We had a couple of hiccups around the appointment process because we moved too fast,” Weaver said.