Tim Pawlenty was in a jolly mood in 2003 when he named Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau transportation commissioner.

Molnau was a member of a tug-of-war team, he told reporters. She was a champion cow milker, a sky diver and an arm wrestler! Why, once she even beat Gov. Jesse Ventura in a keg-throwing contest!

But if champion cow milkers made champion transportation commissioners, Pawlenty wouldn't have had to name a new commissioner Monday.

This time was not as much fun as five years ago. There has been nothing funny about transportation since Aug. 1, 2007, the day a bridge fell, 13 people died and Minnesota got serious about government.

"Rebuilding public trust and confidence" is the top priority of the new transportation commissioner, Tom Sorel, who was introduced by Pawlenty at a Capitol news conference.

There were no games Monday. Sorel, who is about the size of the kegs Molnau used to throw, is the very antithesis of Molnau.

Thank goodness for that.

You could hear sighs of relief from inside the crumbling MnDOT headquarters down the street, surrounded by a Rube Goldberg protective helmeting system of fences, nets, foam rubber and plywood to keep 1,200 pound blocks of granite from falling on heads.

Sorel grew up in upstate New York, and his name is synonymous with a solid Canadian boot found on many Minnesota feet. He comes from the Federal Highway Administration, has 30 years of experience and is a civil engineer with a certificate in conflict management -- something useful in an era of cost-cutting, back-stabbing and political knife-fighting.

Things are so bent out of shape in the State that Used to Work that one reporter felt it necessary to ask Sorel whether he had any political involvements.

Bless his pocket-protector soul, Sorel said yes, he had experience working with politicians on highway projects. No, the reporter said. I mean, have you worked on any campaigns?

Sorel has not.

Unlike Molnau, who was 100 percent politics, this guy is better with a slide rule than a political calculator. Pawlenty told Sorel not to answer a follow-up about his political affiliation, but it was appropriate for Pawlenty to leave politics out of things. If he had done so when appointing his first transportation commissioner, Minnesota wouldn't be in the mess it is.

Molnau opposed mass transit and preached the no-tax voodoo that left her department underfunded and undermaintained. Her biggest "accomplishment" was to reduce MnDOT's workforce by 1,000 employees, shrinking her department's payroll along with its good reputation.

Since she was fired by the Senate in February, she has virtually disappeared. She took no part in Monday's proceedings, at which the only mention of her was a question about what she is doing these days.

It was an awkward moment.

"She's fulfilling all the duties of a lieutenant governor," Pawlenty said, looking like a little kid who had forgotten who Aunt Carol was but still hoped for a cookie. Molnau supposedly has a desk somewhere in the warren of the governor's office. Maybe she sits there every day, drawing smiley faces, waiting for the phone to ring. Maybe it will.

In looking for a new transportation chief, Pawlenty said he wanted someone with appropriate technical background, proven leadership and managerial ability, and a "collaborative" work style.

What it really boiled down to was: Not another Molnau.

Which explains why Molnau's deputy, Bob McFarlin, stood by as Pawlenty named Sorel. McFarlin, a public relations spinner who openly campaigned for the job after being named acting commissioner, looked like he had just come from a root canal. He didn't say anything, and he didn't have to.

Pawlenty, perhaps with an eye on the GOP veepstakes, veered professional. At last.

Instead of more Molnauing, Pawlenty picked an engineer with a commitment to transparency who says his job is to listen, build coalitions and encourage innovation and public accountability. All while keeping the bridges up.

Transportation competence? It's a radical idea for the Pawlenty-Molnau administration. But it's so crazy that it just might work.

I can tell you that the new commissioner wasted no time before uttering an obvious truth.

Minnesota, Sorel said, "needs to learn" from the bridge collapse. The tragedy of Aug. 1, he said, "opened a lot of eyes."

Even, it would seem, the eyes of Tim Pawlenty.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com