Word of Minnesota's first COVID-19 death had made its way to Gov. Tim Walz, and the voice on the other end of the phone was a familiar if not reassuring one.

"Governor, we knew this day was going to come," Chris Schmitter told his boss in late March.

The news was all bad. But it was Schmitter's job, as Walz's chief of staff, to give him the unvarnished state of affairs. Recalling the conversation recently, Walz said in that moment, Schmitter understood "how big this was going to get."

For more than 15 years, Schmitter has been a quiet, guiding force as Walz has risen to the pinnacle of political power in Minnesota. The 36-year-old Rochester native advised the former football coach and schoolteacher during his first campaign for Congress in 2006, and does so now in the executive suite in St. Paul.

Schmitter has taken a low-profile approach to a high-profile job, dominated this year by the state's response to the pandemic and civil unrest that broke out in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the wake of George Floyd's killing. Now Schmitter must help guide the Democratic governor through the 2021 legislative session, which starts Tuesday and will set the tone for the second half of Walz's first term — and set the table for his 2022 re-election bid.

"He's the chief problem solver," said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, who held the same job under former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "The most effective chiefs of staff are the ones you never hear about. You do not want to be in the news. That's not your job. Your job is to make sure the governor looks good."

Even before the pandemic hit, it was considered one of the hardest jobs in state government — but also among the most powerful. The chief manages the governor's core staff, along with two dozen Cabinet members who oversee the 40,000-employee state workforce.

Amid the daily demands, Schmitter keeps a strategic eye toward the long-term promises Walz made to pump resources into classrooms, transportation and equity.

"If you're not thinking about how you're driving toward progress on the key issues and priorities that matter, regardless of what else is happening, then four years or eight years can pass you by before you know it," Schmitter said on a recent weekday, taking a break from a string of meetings that typically start around 4 or 5 a.m. "The job, at its core, is constantly balancing the proactive and the reactive."

The son of a nurse and a pastor with no political connections, Schmitter's trajectory wasn't a given. But his mother and his maternal grandfather were hard-core Democrats who liked to talk politics at the dinner table.

By the time he was in high school, Schmitter was organizing classmates to knock on doors for DFL candidates in southern Minnesota. He went off to Georgetown University to study international politics but took a semester off in 2004 to volunteer for John Kerry's presidential campaign back home in Minnesota.

That's when he first crossed paths with Walz, a geography teacher in Mankato who was upset when a student was turned away from a George W. Bush event for wearing a Kerry sticker. Schmitter met Walz at his home to go over what had happened.

The two hit it off, and it wasn't long before Walz, a political novice, was turning to young Schmitter for help on his run for the First Congressional District seat in 2006. Walz won, and Schmitter spent several years helping Walz set up and run his congressional office in D.C. and back home.

Schmitter stepped away from politics in 2010 to attend law school at the University of Minnesota. He clerked for John Tunheim, chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, where he pored over huge amounts of case material. Sometimes, Tunheim asked his clerks to summarize and recommend an outcome.

"That's outstanding legal training for the kind of position he has now," Tunheim said. "It really is the center of the wheel. The governor makes the critical decisions for the state, but you've got a chief of staff who it's all running through first."

Walz hired Schmitter as his chief of staff the night he won the 2018 election. It was his first political appointment as governor-elect, but not a surprising one to those who have watched Schmitter and Walz work together over the years.

"We've known each other so long that there's just this understanding and trust there. He can push back," Walz said. "He can say to me, 'Governor, if this is where you choose to go, this is what's going to come your way.' "

Political chops Schmitter developed in Washington became essential to working with a divided Minnesota House and Senate. They managed to strike a budget deal in their first session in 2019.

"It's hard to state the importance of getting that first budget done in terms of setting the tone," said Myron Frans, Walz's former budget commissioner. "It could have so easily gone sideways."

Schmitter's role unexpectedly and dramatically shifted after the pandemic hit. Suddenly, he went from running a political office to a pandemic response, managing the flow of information about COVID-19 cases, the supply of personal protective equipment and testing capacity.

He advised Walz as cases spiked and the governor had to take unprecedented steps to close businesses and order people to stay home.

"I'm not sure when [Chris] sleeps," said Andrea Walsh, president and CEO of HealthPartners, who worked with Schmitter and the governor's office to launch a "moonshot" COVID-19 testing plan early in the pandemic. "I've tended to be on the phone with him early in the morning and then again late in the evening. He really has a lot of bandwidth."

Then in May, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, killing him and sparking weeks of civil unrest in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Schmitter helped set up a command center to respond.

"Chris is very much the calm in the storm," said Maggie Gau, the chief of staff to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. She consulted Schmitter when unrest hit Kenosha in August following the police shooting of Jacob Blake. "He is very even keeled."

The biggest challenge for Schmitter, especially now, is keeping Walz's long-term goals moving ahead as the 2021 legislative session kicks off Jan. 5. This time, the governor and legislators are confronting a possible $1.3 billion deficit triggered by the pandemic.

The positive relationships Walz and his team built with legislators in both parties in his first year in office are now strained by his use of executive powers to respond to the pandemic.

Republicans in control of the Senate knocked out two of his commissioners during special sessions in the summer and fall. Groups filed lawsuits and attempted a recall.

More immediately, Walz said he's leaned on Schmitter to help prioritize schools and allow them to open in January, all while the state has started to distribute tens of thousands of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Still, Schmitter keeps those long-term campaign goals front of mind.

"You're only guaranteed four years," he said. "You cannot waste a second."

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach