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Dayton's cabinet picks have leaned toward individuals with few close ties to the Capitol. But in assembling his legislative affairs staff, the DFL governor is relying on a roster of legislative veterans with established relationships under the dome.

Inside Dayton’s band of insiders

Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

According to Jeff Van Wychen, the Dayton administration’s top legislative affairs person for budget and tax issues, Minnesota has “a revenue problem in addition to a spending problem. It’s silly to think we’re going to get out of this mess by focusing just on spending or just on revenue.” Before joining Team Dayton, Van Wychen worked as a fiscal analyst for the city of Minneapolis and as a lobbyist/consultant for local governments. (Staff photo: Peter Bartz-Gallagher)

Administration will rely on a cadre of Capitol veterans to push its legislative agenda

Politics runs deep in Michelle Kelm-Helgen’s blood. Her grandfather, Elmer Kelm, helped engineer the merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties in the 1940s. Three decades later her father, Tom Kelm, served as chief of staff to Gov. Wendell Anderson. Kelm-Helgen’s daughter, Brigit Helgen, currently works as deputy press secretary for U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Kelm-Helgen’s own political resume is formidable. Most recently she worked as chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemilller. She also served on the Eastern Carver County School Board for eight years and worked as a lobbyist at the Capitol for North State Advisers.

Now Kelm-Helgen faces a daunting task as deputy chief of staff to Gov. Mark Dayton. She’ll oversee a six-person legislative affairs team that will work to get the DFL governor’s agenda passed through the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

“She’s very thoughtful, extremely hard-working, and has a very sophisticated understanding of the Legislature,” said Pogemiller, of his former top staffer. “I can’t think of a member of the Legislature who doesn’t like her.”

Lobbyists also give Kelm-Helgen high marks. “She’s been through all those budget crises,” noted one veteran DFL lobbyist, who did not want to speak for attribution about the new administration. “She’s very, very, very cool under pressure.”

Dayton’s cabinet picks have leaned toward individuals with few close ties to the Capitol. But in assembling his legislative affairs staff, the DFL governor is relying on a roster of legislative veterans with established relationships under the dome. In addition to Kelm-Helgen, this will be the team primarily responsible for pushing Dayton’s legislative agenda:

  • Will Seuffert previously worked as administrator of the Senate’s Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee, which was then chaired by Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon. Seuffert also served as legislative assistant to Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka. He will focus on issues related to the environment, energy, agriculture and commerce.
  • Hue Nguyen’s previous gig was as a lobbyist with the League of Minnesota Cities. Before that she spent six years in Pogemiller’s office, rising from legislative assistant to a leadership position within the DFL caucus staff. She will be charged with working on issues related to education, local governments, redistricting and pensions.
  • Among the Capitol set, Jeff Van Wychen may be the least well-known of Dayton’s legislative affairs team. He has spent the last 12 years as a consultant and lobbyist for local municipalities on financial issues. Since 2007, he has also worked part-time as a policy fellow for Matt Entenza’s liberal think tank, Minnesota 2020. Before that, Van Wychen was a fiscal analyst for the city of Minneapolis. He will be the point person on revenue and budget issues.
  • Sean Rahn spent the past three years serving as legislative director for House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher. In that capacity he was charged with overseeing the 2010 DFL House campaign operation. Rahn will focus on issues related to health and human services, the Metropolitan Council, American Indian tribes and a potential new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
  • Erin Campbell, another veteran of Pogemiller’s office, previously worked as policy coordinator for the DFL Senate caucus. She also served on Dayton’s transition team, vetting potential personnel picks. Her legislative portfolio will include jobs, economic development, housing, public safety, courts, transportation and bonding.

Stocking his legislative affairs team with seasoned Capitol hands who know the legislative process will likely prove important if Dayton is to get off to a smooth beginning. That is especially true because he has not spent time regularly at the Capitol since his tenure as state auditor nearly two decades ago. In addition, Dayton’s chief of staff, Tina Smith, most recently worked at Minneapolis City Hall, serving as Mayor R.T. Rybak’s top staffer. “I think they’ve done a good job picking experienced, energetic and nonideological people who just want to get the work done,” Pogemiller said.

Working with the Republican-controlled Legislature won’t be easy. The governor and legislative leaders have staked out divergent positions on how to eliminate the state’s $6.2 billion budget deficit. Dayton wants to deal with the problem in part by raising income taxes on the state’s wealthiest 10 percent of residents, while Republicans have repeatedly stated that the problem can be solved without any additional revenue. Finding common ground will likely prove tortuous.

“We have a revenue problem in addition to a spending problem,” said Van Wychen, noting that in inflation-adjusted dollars state tax receipts are less than they were in the 2002-03 budget cycle. “It’s silly to think we’re going to get out of this mess by focusing just on spending or just on revenue.”

But how will Van Wychen and his colleagues convince the Republican leadership of the wisdom of that approach? “I think in dealing with the Legislature, we need to stick to our core values,” he said.

Dayton’s staff is now rushing to put together a budget to submit to the Legislature by Feb. 15. A protracted election recount that delayed Dayton’s staffing decisions, coupled with the severity of the budget shortfall, means there is a scramble to meet the deadline. This could be compounded by the fact that Dayton’s choice for revenue commissioner, Myron Frans, who would normally play a key role in drafting the budget, is not expected to come on board full-time until mid-April owing to business obligations.

“We actually have a rougher go of it right now than just about any incoming administration has had,” Van Wychen said. “We have a lot of work to do and not much time to do it.”

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