Who has the ear of Gov.-elect Mark Dayton?

  • Article by: RACHEL E. STASSEN-BERGER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2010 - 11:33 PM

Dayton's fledgling kitchen cabinet is a collection of men and women from varied backgrounds: business leaders, former opponents' staffers, legislative experts and longtime allies.

As Gov.-elect Mark Dayton announces his emerging staff and commissioners, he's also quietly begun forming a kitchen cabinet.

Most top officials have one -- a small, informal cabal of trusted allies sometimes even more influential than official aides and commissioners. Often there's some overlap between the two groups.

Dayton's fledgling kitchen cabinet is a collection of men and women from varied backgrounds: business leaders, former opponents' staffers, legislative experts and longtime allies.

This group that has the governor's ear provides a safe sounding board, yet still can be counted on to offer frank and conflicting opinions to the state's top public official. Dayton, they say, already is using them to reach out to people he doesn't know.

"He's actually really eager to broaden his base and bring more people in, even if they weren't there in the beginning," said Jeff Blodgett, executive director of Wellstone Action. He helped Dayton with his gubernatorial campaign and is working to organize the transition team's outreach effort.

Dayton's current inner circle is likely to morph, expanding and contracting, after he takes office Jan. 3. He's getting advice and help from people he's long known -- such as Blodgett -- and newcomers -- such as Tina Smith.

Smith, Dayton's incoming chief of staff, managed Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's gubernatorial campaign this year when he was running against Dayton. After Rybak dropped out of the race, she joined the Dayton effort and is now nearly constantly at the governor-elect's side.

"He's not just looking at people who agreed with him six months or nine months ago," Smith said. "He's never had any sort of a litmus test for 'Who did you support? Did you support me?'"

Longtime friends

Dayton's inner circle also is populated with some longtime allies.

Dana Anderson graduated from college in 2000 and quickly began work as a Dayton campaign driver. She has been with him in one capacity or another nearly ever since. She managed his gubernatorial campaign and will become one of Dayton's deputy chiefs of staff.

"I definitely play the role of one of his advisers. I also consider him one of my closest friends," said Anderson, who recently had neck surgery and so has taken a back seat in the transition team's work. "I think that we can talk to each other in a very honest way."

She said she can read Dayton's motivations, even if he isn't saying them aloud. "I'm kind of fiercely protective of him and I'm also a fierce advocate for him," she said.

Lee Sheehy is also a friend of long standing -- he's known the incoming governor for 30 years. He and longtime community advocate Josie Johnson are co-chairs of Dayton's transition team.

"I've known Mark forever," said Sheehy, formerly Sen. Amy Klobuchar's chief of staff and now a director at the McKnight Foundation. He said he plans to return to the foundation after Dayton takes office, but will continue to be "one of his great cheerleaders."

DFLer Roger Moe, who left the Legislature in 2002 to run for governor as the longest-serving majority leader in state history, is also pitching in now as an adviser-without-title -- with the expectation that he will return to private life once Dayton is sworn in. But that doesn't mean Moe won't stay involved.

"I will help in any way I can, in an informal manner," he said.

Michelle Kelm-Helgen, who will become a deputy chief of staff, also has a long history with the Legislature and Dayton. She resigned as a chief aide to outgoing Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, to become a Dayton adviser.

A history of his own

Dayton has many Minnesota connections to mine for advisers and confidantes.

A former U.S. senator, he has served in or run for public office for much of the past three decades. Although he is fairly new to the State Capitol -- and is the first DFL governor elected in 28 years -- he is not without resources when it comes to finding people willing to offer an opinion or lend an ear.

"One of Mark's great strengths is that he has 30 years of relationships," said Sheehy.

Anderson, who has been with Dayton since his campaign began more than two years ago, said: "Of the experienced pols in our group, he was the most experienced."

Dayton has tapped an array of contacts to help him build his team, advisers said. Among them are John Ongaro, lobbyist for St. Louis County; David Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, the labor/environmental group; Josh Syrjamaki, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz; Kristin Beckmann, a director at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, and Cindy Jesson, a Hamline University professor.

While his key crowd doesn't include prominent Republicans, he and his advisers have reached out to the GOP and business leaders, too. Just one example: When Dayton's incoming labor and industry commissioner, Ken Peterson, found out that he had gotten the job, he called his wife first. But then he dialed up the head of the state AFL-CIO and the head of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

"Running the state is a job that requires lots of brains," said Smith.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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