When Pam Wheelock was working for the city of St. Paul, she was locked in tough negotiations with the nascent Minnesota Wild over the terms of what would become the Xcel Energy Center deal. She made sure to require the team to keep paying even in the event of a work stoppage. Lo and behold, a few years later, the NHL had a lockout, but the Wild had to keep making its lease payments to the city.
Wheelock was named acting commissioner of the state's behemoth Department of Human Services (DHS) this week, taking over from Tony Lourey, who quit abruptly in a management shuffle that has shaken the administration of Gov. Tim Walz. Although her appointment is temporary, Wheelock's solid leadership style, financial acumen, bipartisan relationships and the kind of shrewd instincts she showed in the Wild negotiation are expected to bring calm to the $17.5 billion agency.
She has worked in high-profile public roles in the private, nonprofit and government sectors under Republicans, Democrats and independents, winning a reputation as a known quantity and a steady hand.
"She's the most talented public person I've ever worked with in my life," said Chris Coleman, former St. Paul mayor and current CEO of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. Bob Hume, former adviser to both Coleman and Gov. Mark Dayton, called Wheelock "uniquely suited to cleaning up this mess."
Wheelock now leads an agency suffering a leadership crisis, having suddenly lost its commissioner and chief of staff in a bureaucratic tussle whose origins remain opaque. The crisis began when two deputy commissioners quit without explanation, then returned once Lourey resigned. The effect was to confront the new DFL governor with one of his first significant management challenges.
From her time as former Gov. Jesse Ventura's finance commissioner, Wheelock knows how mind-bogglingly complicated the job is at DHS. She once climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, but now her portfolio includes the state's version of Medicaid, care for people with disabilities, state psychiatric facilities, sex offender treatment, a beleaguered child-care assistance program and a foster care system for about 10,000 children.
To the roughly 7,300 DHS workers delivering those services, Wheelock has a message. "This is an organization like many I've been part of where the employees have a passion for the work they do," she said in an interview. "They're very committed. And it's very complex. So if there's a way we can support their work and reduce the temperature on all these other distractions, that will assist them."
Wheelock, 60, doesn't like the term "retirement," but she left her job as chief operating officer of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity in March; she was at a friend's cabin Up North when the call came from Walz's chief of staff.
"This is a department that is critical and touches more than one million lives every year, and we need to have as much stability as soon as possible. I couldn't think of a credible reason to say 'no' to my governor," Wheelock said.
Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said in a statement that the governor "is focused on ensuring [DHS] is successfully delivering essential services to Minnesotans. That's why he appointed an acting commissioner with extensive public and private management experience to provide guidance at this important agency."
Wheelock grew up on a small dairy farm in southern Minnesota, the middle child of seven siblings, willing to do the most onerous chores like getting her legs pecked feeding chickens in exchange for her sisters' pennies.
She said her upbringing gave her an advantage: No one will outwork her.
"I was raised to believe in the value of hard work, and I think there are a lot of opportunities in my life that result from having a reputation for being a hard worker," she said.
Wheelock, who will be paid the equivalent of $155,000 a year for the temporary assignment, has embraced professional challenges that are often accompanied by daily crises, political complexities and bad news. With the nondescript title of the U's vice president of university services, Wheelock managed a huge portion of university assets, including all the facilities and the people who staffed them — even the police department.
When the Vikings wanted to use TCF Bank Stadium, Wheelock was at the negotiating table.
Jac Sperling, former CEO of the Wild, grew to admire Wheelock so much from negotiating with her that after she left the city and did a stint as the state's finance commissioner, Sperling hired her to be chief financial officer of the Wild. In one of the ironies of her career, during the 2005 lockout, Wheelock, then working for the hockey team, became the victim of her own negotiating success — forced to make the Wild lease payments she had negotiated for the city of St. Paul.
This isn't the first time Wheelock has had to pilot a ship when the captain departed on short notice. She took the helm of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota in 2011 when the CEO left and she was chairwoman of the board.
But her most unusual assignment was also her most recent in state government — as finance commissioner for Ventura. Jan Malcolm, who was health commissioner under Ventura and again under Walz, said she learned quickly to come prepared when she was meeting with Wheelock.
"Her level of questioning drove me nuts at first, but I came to appreciate it, because if I could make an argument to pass muster with Pam Wheelock, it was a powerful weapon," Malcolm said.
In addition to crafting the budget, Wheelock dealt with the state lawmakers — almost none of whom shared Ventura's Independence Party label. She was referred to by some at the Capitol as "Gov. Wheelock."
"I never referred to myself that way," Wheelock said wryly.
She seems to have retained her political instincts. Asked what happened at DHS — with the two deputy commissioners quitting before returning with Lourey's departure — she offered a shrewd answer. She said she hasn't even asked.
"That's not a question for me. People are speculating there's some deep dark secret. And I don't have any reason to believe that's the case. They're professional people trying to do their best, making a deeply personal decision, and I respect that. So I'm focused on the future," she said.