The five cabinet members Gov.-elect Tim Walz announced Tuesday in his first round of hires bring experience with state agencies, the previous administration, the Legislature and local government.
Former state House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher will lead the Department of Transportation, Maplewood Mayor Nora Slawik will become the Metropolitan Council chairwoman and Jennifer Ho, a former senior adviser at the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development, is taking over the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Myron Frans, who has been the state’s top financial and human resources official for the past four years under Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, will remain in place. Alice Roberts-Davis, an assistant commissioner at the Department of Administration, will shift into the top job at that department.
“We chose these folks who are standing up here based on their dedication to the idea of servant leadership,” Walz said at Tuesday’s news conference. “Minnesotans are looking for leaders who have passion and energy, grounded in a humble approach that builds coalitions to improve the lives around the state.”
Tuesday’s hires, four out of five of whom are women, were just the beginning of the cabinet-level announcements. Walz has another 18 posts left to fill as he and Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan prepare to be sworn in Jan. 7.
There were three or four finalists for each of the five positions.
For the Met Council leadership job, all three of the finalists were mayors: Democrats Slawik and Edina Mayor James Hovland, as well as Republican Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens. Giuliani Stephens ran for governor this year but dropped out after Jeff Johnson took the lead at the GOP endorsing convention.
Slawik was just re-elected as mayor and said she will resign that position. She previously served seven terms in the state House.
Anderson Kelliher, who leads the Minnesota High Tech Association, will return to the State Capitol to focus on transportation. She spent 12 years in the House and has relationships with many legislative leaders, including incoming Democratic House Speaker Melissa Hortman, whom Anderson Kelliher mentored.
On the campaign trail, Walz often mentioned the need for a gas tax increase to improve the state’s transportation system. He highlighted Anderson Kelliher’s work a decade ago to build consensus on that topic.
As House speaker, she helped lead the 2008 override of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation funding veto. Six Republican House members joined Democrats in supporting a state gas tax increase to fund roads and bridges.
“The gas tax is an important part of the tools in the toolbox. It’s still one of our biggest tools to call on and I think it’s going to take some work,” Anderson Kelliher said, adding that she expects the administration will be working on it over the next four years.
Walz said he wants more coordination across agencies, like the Met Council — the Twin Cities area regional planning agency that operates various services — and MnDOT, which plans, builds and maintains transportation systems across the state.
He said he is aware of tension over the Met Council’s structure as a 17-person policymaking board that is appointed by the governor. Walz said he is open to talking about a change in the council’s composition.
“We know governance is the issue,” Slawik said. “It’s been an issue since I was elected to the Legislature in 1996. So we’re going to look at solutions and try to figure that out.”
At the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority, incoming commissioner Ho will bring Washington, D.C., connections to the job. Ho was the senior adviser for housing and services at the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development during President Barack Obama’s administration. She has also worked for decades on ending homelessness, and helped create the nation’s first federal plan to prevent and end homelessness.
Meanwhile, Frans and Roberts-Davis will bring institutional knowledge to the administration. Walz said Republicans and Democrats alike encouraged him to keep Frans, who has already been playing a key role in creating the next two-year budget.
Walz and Flanagan recently spent five days traveling the state to ask residents what qualities and values they want in Minnesota’s top state officials, and what issues they should take up.
The administration noted concerns about health care, including mental health services, were a common theme, along with education, transportation, housing and child care. They planned to use the public input to select commissioners, along with advice from a transition advisory board and from Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.
The Republican-led state Senate could confirm the governor’s appointments or potentially reject his choices. Walz said he has been talking with Gazelka, who has suggested some candidates.
“We are being informed by that, and listening to that and grateful for it,” he said.
Nearly 500 people applied for the 23 top agency jobs, Flanagan said, and almost 1,500 have people applied for jobs within the new administration.
The deadline to apply for a commissioner position has passed, but those who are aiming to become deputy or assistant commissioners can continue to apply through Dec. 28.