Meet the people Dayton wants to lead his team

Many of them have won bipartisan plaudits, but a few may run into Senate objections.

Gov. Mark Dayton has built a cabinet that is a reflection of himself.

His commissioners tend to be a little past mid-career, white and male. They have deep management experience and few political strings. With only one exception, he has steered clear from plucking serving members of the Legislature.

His picks, who will lead agencies in an abrupt course change from the previous governor, are not flashy. Their low-key styles have been welcomed by Republicans, Democrats, labor leaders and the business community alike.

"He ultimately selected people who he believed were really workhorses. And that's what Governor Dayton is," said chief of staff Tina Smith, her large blue appointments binder lying smack in the middle of her massive Capitol desk.

The appointments binder is complete. Dayton finished naming his cabinet earlier this month -- substantially ahead of when Gov. Tim Pawlenty did in his first term.

In a matter of weeks, the team has helped build a 3,000-page, $37 billion state budget, supercharged a federal health-care program in Minnesota and introduced themselves to legislators and citizens across the state.

"I have been very impressed," said David Olson, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which worked against Dayton in last year's campaign.

In quick order, Agriculture Commissioner David Fredrickson, Labor and Industry Commissioner Ken Peterson, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman and Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans met with chamber members.

"And we love Mark Phillips at DEED," Olson said. A chamber leadership program alum, Phillips worked in community development and business for decades before taking over the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"Right now, we are very optimistic we can work with these folks," Olson said.

The DFL governor's picks will need more than optimism from business leaders in the coming months. They must pass through a gauntlet of Republicans who control the Senate, which confirms the governor's commissioner appointments. Should the Senate vote against confirmation, that commissioner must leave office.

Easy decisions first

Senate committees so far have recommended approval for Tom Sorel at Transportation, and Veteran Affairs' Larry Shellito. Those are two of the easy ones. Sorel and Shellito worked for Pawlenty's administration and are well regarded.

Others, like Brenda Cassellius at Education, Lucinda Jesson at Human Services and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Paul Aasen may get closer scrutiny. While Republican leaders have not said any of those powerful agency heads will run into trouble come confirmation time, some of their power, policies or backgrounds may give the GOP legislators pause.

Cassellius' and Jesson's agencies get more state funding than any other departments and both agencies often are on the political hot seat.

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, who was picked to head the Health Department, has supported single-payer health care in the past -- a position Republicans abhor -- while Aasen has a strong background in environmental advocacy.

The confirmation process hasn't always run smoothly. The Senate in 2004 bounced Pawlenty's education commissioner, Cheri Yecke, mid-session. Four years later, it did the same to Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, who also served as Pawlenty's lieutenant governor.

Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the education commissioner's ouster was a "source of irritation." The chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee said he is not interested in retribution.

But, he added, the history does raise the question of whether the job of the Senate is to confirm based on competence or policy. If it is policy, he said, "in my opinion, that changes what the duty of the Senate is."

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger rachel.stassen-berger@startribune.com

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