A skirmish over diversity on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents has split DFL lawmakers and could trigger a rare intervention by Gov. Tim Walz in shaping the leadership of the state's premier public university.
The divide, following concerns raised by lawmakers from several minority groups, has threatened DFL unity ahead of a joint convention of the House and Senate to fill four positions on the board. Amid competing candidate slates in what has become a highly partisan selection process, some DFL lawmakers worry that one or more Republican-backed candidates could prevail despite the Democrats' combined majority in the Legislature's two chambers.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said because of the divisions the Democratic leadership is not comfortable scheduling a joint legislative convention to elect the regents to six-year terms. If no convention takes place by the end of the session on May 21, the governor must then select the regents for shorter two-year terms.
The internal DFL divisions have added to concerns over legislative delays surrounding endgame budget and tax disputes in the Capitol, with some U boosters worried that the process could hamper recruitment for the next round of regent openings in two years.
The Regent Candidate Advisory Council, a 24-member body appointed by the Legislature, issued its recommendations in January. The Legislature often makes its picks for the openings soon afterward.
But after three months, lawmakers still face the task of electing a regent from the Fifth Congressional District, two at-large seats and a student seat. In an unusually long process, a joint House-Senate committee and separate meetings with Fifth Congressional District constituents and Democratic lawmakers failed to produce a consensus.
"Each of those yielded slightly different outcomes to the point where we don't have confidence that with the slim majority we would have at a convention that we would be choosing candidates that fit our criteria," Winkler said.
In a February letter to Democratic colleagues, the 19-member People of Color and Indigenous Caucus raised concerns about a historic lack of minority representation on the board. More specifically, they also underscored their dismay over the exclusion of Abdul Omari, now a student regent, from the advisory council's recommendations.
The minority lawmakers endorsed Omari — who also led the search committee that recruited candidates to lead the university — for one of two at-large positions. They also said the state has historically had a "dismal" record of recruiting candidates of color and indigenous candidates to the board.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the caucus, said racial and ethnic diversity on the board has become increasingly important at a time when the U continues to lag in recruiting and retaining students from minority groups.
Hayden suggested that lawmakers picking regents need to consider the value of adding the fresh life experiences that minority candidates can offer even when their resumes may look different from those of more well-established and connected white candidates.
"I don't believe my colleagues are racist or biased; I've told them all that," Hayden said. "But I also think this amounts to a change in the way we used to think about the regents."
Navigating the debate, Winkler said he wants to avoid a scenario where a lack of Democratic unity paves the way for an ideological conservative to win a seat on the board. Last year, lawmakers picked Worthington entrepreneur Randy Simonson, who the GOP majority at the time favored as a conservative, anti-abortion ally over two candidates recommended by a joint committee.
Daniel Wolter, head of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, said failure to hold a vote in the Legislature — leaving it to the governor — could hamper future efforts to recruit candidates, many of whom may already be apprehensive over a process that often is seen as overly political.
"Our goal is to find the best possible people to serve in that capacity, and that is hard to do if potential candidates see the process as a six-month meat grinder," Wolter said.
GOP lawmakers have sought to cast the DFL dilemma as a sign of legislative dysfunction.
Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee, said the Legislature should leave the Board of Regents as stable as possible for the near future, citing the transition from U President Eric Kaler to Joan Gable in July.
"I understand the House may have some caucus members that don't agree on the recommendations, but that is not a reason to hold the process hostage," Anderson said.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, blamed Democrats in the House for putting a vote "very behind schedule" and expressed concern that the impasse could portend further delays on other issues this session.
"In fact, it's a historic delay on the obligation of the Legislature to appoint members to the board," Gazelka said. "I am concerned the end-of-session negotiations will be delayed by future internal fights within the House DFL Caucus."
Winkler insists that the disagreements among House Democrats do not reflect broader divisions within the caucus. "The House Democrats have been pretty strongly united around almost all or all of our major policy initiatives," Winkler said. "We are pursuing an ambitious legislative program this year, and we are doing so with a strongly united group of people."