As she announced Tuesday that she would not seek a second term, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon took pains not to fault Gov. Mark Dayton, her political partner for the past three years. She praised him as caring and committed to serving Minnesotans.
But Prettner Solon’s disappointment at not playing a more significant role in the Dayton administration couldn’t be entirely contained. “I think I expected to be more involved in certain policy initiatives,” she said, then quickly added, “and I found a way to do that” through various activities of her own choosing.
Indeed, Prettner Solon deserves Minnesota’s thanks as she plans to end a 25-year career in public service at the end of this calendar year. As lieutenant governor, she has been an advocate for seniors, veterans, the disabled and Greater Minnesota. She led planning efforts to improve Capitol security, housing options for the disabled and government services for seniors. She also has led a number of health care and energy policy exchanges to Germany, organized by the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota.
A former state senator and City Council member from Duluth, Prettner Solon has kept regular office hours in Duluth and occasionally in other Greater Minnesota cities. She continued some of the policy work on human services she had started as a state senator, succeeding her late husband, Sen. Sam Solon, in 2002.
But her work as lieutenant governor has not been widely visible. It’s been hampered by the structure, funding and history of the $78,197-a-year position. It has no budget independent of the governor’s office. Resources including staff are allotted to “the office of the governor and the lieutenant governor.”
Governors and lieutenant governors ran separately for the first 116 years of Minnesota’s statehood. During that era, lieutenant governors served as presiding officers in the state Senate. When the office was tied to the governor’s on the ballot and its Senate duties were stripped away in the mid-1970s, it lost influence, becoming an often underutilized appendage of the governor’s office. It has no constitutional or statutory job description, other than to be prepared to succeed the governor should he or she resign or die in office.
Others who have held the office in the modern era have similarly chafed at its limitations. One was briefly a chief of staff; one was a commissioner of transportation. Neither of those roles was a good fit for someone chosen primarily as a political asset. Capitol gossips tend to attribute lieutenant gubernatorial discontent to personality clashes between the governor and the lieutenant governor. But the pattern of frustration — administration after administration — points to a structural problem with the office itself.
State Rep. Phyllis Kahn is among several legislators through the years who have backed a constitutional change abolishing the office. Five of the 50 states function without the position.
But executive succession is not a matter to be slighted, as any large, complex enterprise knows. In state government, having a designated, elected successor of the governor’s same party and political philosophy eases transitions when unexpected or tragic vacancies arise. Minnesota’s executive branch structure has that overriding advantage. Designating a legislative leader or the secretary of state, for example, to be next in line of succession could risk an abrupt change in state policy at an already stressful time.
Our notion about the office more nearly matches Prettner Solon’s thinking. “Rather than abolishing it, I think we need to beef it up a little bit — give it more definition, identify better in the Constitution or in statute what the role of the lieutenant governor is,” she said Tuesday.
Each lieutenant governor brings his or her own background, interests and skills to the job. But they are all politicians, possessed of a political base and personal connections throughout the state. Making the most of those connections as a roving ambassador for state government strikes us as a valid and valuable role for the lieutenant governor. Helping Minnesotans understand and navigate through their increasingly complex state government, as a one-stop constituent service center, would be of real service.
To Prettner Solon’s credit, she piloted that very role. Her One Stop Shop for Minnesota Seniors, an expansion of the previous Senior Linkage Line, is helping tens of thousands of seniors each year with problems that span multiple state agencies. Her town hall meetings around the state provided the governor with more listening posts as he shaped state policy. She might have done more of those things — and might still, in the year remaining in her term — had Dayton encouraged them.
It’s up to Dayton to name a new running mate for his bid for a second term. His GOP challengers will also soon be recruiting lieutenant governor candidates. Those who aim to succeed Prettner Solon will do well to study those aspects of her record and strive to expand on it.