As a Speaker of the Minnesota House, and later as a Schwan’s Foods executive and a school superintendent, I was often caught up in news stories in which participation was not optional. I am not, therefore, one to voluntarily communicate with or through the media very often.

This brouhaha over Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, causes me to rethink my position. I am far from the activities of the board. While I know some of the people involved, when it comes to the issues raised, I only know what I see in the press (“Stadium panel is shaken by rift,” June 20). I do, however, know Kelm-Helgen.

I served as superintendent in Eastern Carver County School District for five years. During most of that time, Michele was the chair of the school board. Chaska, Chanhassen, Victoria and Carver are part of a rapidly growing suburban area, and the pressures were many. For many years, and for a “paycheck” that did not cover the cost of her mileage expense, Michele consistently provided a unifying brand of leadership that brought disparate parties together again and again, and led to decisions in the interest of the district’s children as a whole. I simply refuse to believe she is doing anything less in her current role.

Of all the segments in this manufactured political drama, the one story line that just does not track with what I know to be true is the description of Michele that depicts her as a bully picking on the big business guys. To this former Republican House Speaker (who was not a stadium supporter, by the way), it looks from a distance like Ms. Kelm-Helgen is being railroaded.

I get it that the two Republicans on the board might find it amusing to embarrass the governor. That kind of maneuvering among political people goes on all the time.

There’s the former Target executive with “real estate experience” who seems to have little besides the stadium board to occupy his time these days. I’m sure he believes he could do this better than anyone. Of course, it is not rocket science to know that building cookie-cutter Target stores across America for an all-powerful corporation in communities where people are desperate to have the new store is quite different from overseeing a massive sports stadium project in a highly charged and controversial political environment.

Then there is my friend Duane Benson. As a former NFL player, former legislator and former association executive with deep ties in the big-business community and a personal friendship with the Vikings’ president, he would seem an ideal candidate for service on the board and probably thought it would be fun and interesting. Now he’s found himself caught between his conflicted constituencies. To defend the board chair or her sponsor (the DFL governor) would put Benson at odds with his friends. Politically, the situation is untenable, and the only feasible face-saving solution is his resignation to get out of the crossfire.

All of that is understandable, at least to me. What gets lost is fair treatment of the reputation of Kelm-Helgen. She is a hostage in a political battle not of her making. I know this is the nature of the kind of politics that is common these days. That makes it no less sad and infuriating to observe. As a footnote, I keep asking myself: If the accusers really believe there are “two people with the same responsibilities” — Kelm-Helgen and MSFA executive director Ted Mondale — why is it the woman they have chosen to attack?

 

David M. Jennings, of Savage, was Speaker of the Minnesota House from 1985 to 1987. He is a former superintendent of the Eastern Carver County School District, based in Chaska, and a former interim superintendent of the Minneapolis School District.