In a career characterized by rare skills and strong ethics, she helped shape tax and other policies in Minnesota and sought to improve the state's quality of life for all.
Jennifer Engh, who wielded broad influence and won widespread respect as a state government official and lobbyist, died of complications from breast cancer on Thursday. The St. Paul native and resident was 52.
Among the jobs Engh held were staffer for U.S. Sen. David Durenberger, tax and economic development specialist in the administrations of Govs. Arne Carlson and Jesse Ventura, and fiscal analyst for the state House. She also worked as a lobbyist for the Dorsey and Whitney law firm. For the past eight years, she had been senior director of government relations for Cargill Inc.
In her most visible role, as deputy commissioner of revenue for Ventura, "her fingerprints were all over" tax reform passed in 2001, said longtime friend Lee Anderson, director of government relations at General Mills. "Jenny was absolutely dedicated to making Minnesota a better place," he said. "It takes a lot to serve energetically and effectively in state government, and she had a true passion for it."
Michael Mullins, Cargill's vice president of corporate affairs, said Engh "had the ability to master arcane subject matter, but then to speak to people about it in a way that could be understood."
"Her insights went well beyond Minnesota," he said. "She could speak to a legislator in Illinois about that state's tax policy and be able to say, 'Here's what was tried in California that might help you.' Beyond tax policy, she was well-versed in so many things -- energy policy, biofuels, climate change -- and a great mentor to our younger employees."
Engh also had a strong social conscience, he said, citing her involvement on the Minnesota Zoo board and with Project 515, a nonprofit that seeks equal rights for same-sex couples and their families.
Duane Benson, who served in the state Senate from 1980 to 1994 and as minority (Independent-Republican) leader, will deliver Engh's eulogy. "The first time I met her [in 1980] I was talking ... and the first words out of her mouth, very cheerful, were, 'That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.' I thought, 'I'm going to like this person.' ... She was bright, dedicated, kind, and just swept us all along with her.
"People really loved her -- she had her own posse. At the end of her life, we were all fighting for the privilege of helping her out."
Tom Horner, a public affairs consultant who was the Independence Party's gubernatorial candidate in 2010, worked with Engh when he served as Durenberger's press secretary. "I always appreciated her very positive, optimistic nature," he said. "I don't think I ever ran into anyone who had a harsh word for Jenny Engh."
Even journalists, famously un-fond of bureaucrats and lobbyists, liked Engh. Rick Kupchella, president of Bring Me the News and a former TV reporter, wrote that she was "the kind of government person you meet and go, 'Wow ... I'm so glad there are people like this working for the people of this state.' ... She never violated public trust or any ethical standards."
Recently, Engh wrote, "I believe in fairness, treating others equally. ... I also believe in the fundamental choice we all have in making our lives better. ... I believe in loving each other. ... When my friend Duane [Benson] asked me what I would want him to say at my funeral, I said, 'Remind people to be kinder to each other.'"
Engh is survived by her parents, Randy and Dorothy, and two sisters, Barb Engh and Betsy Trevathan. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday at House of Hope Presbyterian Church, 797 Summit Av., St. Paul.
Pamela Miller • 612-672-4290