Michele Kelm-Helgen admits that becoming the boss of the public board overseeing construction of one of the biggest taxpayer-funded projects in state history was never high on her radar.
But 24 hours after she got the job, the 57-year-old aide to Gov. Mark Dayton said she is ready to get down to business.
"We're there to do the work," Kelm-Helgen said Friday, a day after Dayton appointed her chairwoman of the newly created Minnesota Sports Facility Authority, which will oversee development of the nearly $1 billion downtown Minneapolis stadium for the Vikings. "I'm just so honored the governor had a trust in me to do it."
Those familiar with Kelm-Helgen's work say she is a natural fit for the high-stakes, big-ego stadium project, where her intelligence, ability to stay cool and willingness to maintain a low profile will serve the project well.
"I do suspect that in a testosterone world like the NFL that is littered with billionaire owners, that there may be the temptation to underestimate her," said David Jennings, a former Republican speaker of the House who worked with Kelm-Helgen when she served on the Eastern Carver County school board. "They'll rue the day. In the final outcome, she's not intimidated by any of those things. She will stay focused on the mission."
"Dayton needs somebody he can really depend on, somebody he thinks is strong and someone he thinks has the right values," said Kelm-Helgen's former boss, former state Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis. "When you think of it that way, Michele is an excellent choice."
Kelm-Helgen began honing her political skills while growing up in Montgomery, Minn., where she was raised in a family "where government and service was something we talked about."
Her grandfather, Elmer Kelm, managed Hubert Humphrey's first Minneapolis mayoral campaign and was chairman of the state Democratic Party when it merged with the Farmer Labor party in the 1940s.
Her father, Tom Kelm, who ran a small manufacturing business in town, was chief of staff for Gov. Wendell Anderson in the 1970s and followed him to Washington when Anderson became a U.S. senator.
While in college, Kelm-Helgen worked as a legislative assistant on Anderson's staff. She later traveled the state with Humphrey during his final campaign for the U.S. Senate. At the time, the former vice president was dying of cancer.
"It was probably one of the joys of my life to just be able to listen to him and be in his orbit," she said.
After graduating summa cum laude from the College of St. Catherine, Kelm-Helgen earned a masters in business administration at the University of St. Thomas.
Over the next few decades she married, raised three children -- twin girls and a boy -- and worked as a partner at the government affairs consulting firm North State Advisers and as director at Control Data Corp., now Ceridian.
She also was chairwoman of the Eastern Carver County school board. Her toughest task, however, came as a volunteer chairwoman for a committee overseeing boundary changes at a time when district enrollment in Carver, Chaska, Chanhassen and Victoria was exploding.
Neighborhoods were divided. Emotions ran high.
"You know that no matter what you do you can't make everyone 100 percent happy," Kelm-Helgen said of the public meetings. "But what I learned is if you have a process where people can be heard, even in the end when the decision is finally made, if they feel the process was fair, they can live with that because their had their voices heard."
Jennings, who as district superintendent watched her work, said the experience toughened her.
"She is a natural leader in that kind of setting," he said. "Her ability to manage egos, find common ground, understand points of agreement versus points of conflict and focus on the end goal -- she is just gifted in her ability to do that."
While Dayton and legislators grabbed the spotlight in the stadium fight, Kelm-Helgen worked quietly behind the scenes, meeting with legislators as far back as last fall.
"Michele was there for every important meeting that I can recall," said Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead and the House author of the stadium bill. "She's very thorough and she pays attention to detail. She knows who to talk to and when to talk to them."
Kelm-Helgen said that as Dayton and his staff discussed names of potential appointees to the five-member stadium authority in recent weeks, "I certainly threw in my two cents' worth."
But she said she never saw herself as a candidate.
"It wasn't something high on my radar for a very long time," she said from her ground-floor State Capitol office.
By Friday afternoon, Kelm-Helgen, who will draw a still-undetermined salary as chairwoman, had already spoken with three of her four colleagues on the authority. The group of five will work in step with the Vikings on nearly every decision affecting the project, from the selection of a construction manager and architect to whether it will have a fixed or retractable roof. The authority's first meeting could come as early as next week.
"It certainly is daunting," Kelm-Helgen said of the task ahead. "It gives you pause when you think about the kind of work we're doing. I'm looking forward to it. But I'm pretty realistic about how difficult it will be and how much work it will be."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425