Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha is afflicted with what colleagues describe as "incurable optimism."
When doctors recently diagnosed her husband with tongue cancer, Blaha said she was happy to be working remotely to sit with him through treatment. A rollover accident left her concussed and in the hospital in Redwood Falls, Minn., earlier this month. Within hours, Blaha was replying to concerned texts from DFL colleagues with a series of one-liners.
Minnesota's fast-talking, improv-trained state auditor is taking her silver lining approach to the most overlooked and underfunded statewide office. It's a radical shift in tone following a contentious legal battle and years of tensions with the very counties the office is charged with auditing. Blaha wants to oversee a dramatic turnaround in the government office, which has lost about half of its staff since the 1990s.
"That's one thing about being such an optimist," Blaha said. "When you're coming into an office like this, which has come under some real attack over the years, you need to be optimistic, you need to be creative and you need to find joy in tough places."
Blaha said her sweet spot has always been the often challenging roles that others didn't exactly want.
As a kid she learned to play the baritone saxophone because her middle school band needed one. In politics, she gravitated toward the scrappy campaigns that lacked a manager. Blaha became a go-to substitute parliamentarian in the DFL Party, dispatching to tiny conventions across the state to run the proceedings.
"I go where I'm needed," Blaha said.
She took over the National Organization for Women in Minnesota during the Bill Clinton impeachment trial, and the former math teacher rose to president of the Anoka-Hennepin teachers union while the district was under scrutiny for bullying. Blaha served as treasurer of the state AFL-CIO at the same time the U.S. Supreme Court limited fair-share dues that unions used for collective bargaining.
"She's a math teacher; numbers were her thing," said Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy. "She really put in new systems in place around accountability."
The open race in 2018 for the Auditor's Office, which oversees the books of $40 billion in local government spending each year, seemed like a natural next step. Blaha won, but she took over an office that lost considerable clout after a 2015 law change gave Minnesota counties the option of using a private auditing firm instead of the state auditor.
Former DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto sued three counties — Becker, Wright and Ramsey — that hired a private firm on constitutional grounds. She lost an appeal to the Supreme Court, and since then, half the state's counties now use private firms.
But Blaha says the deterioration of the office began before that, when former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for cuts across state agencies to balance the budget. The Republican state auditor at the time, Pat Anderson, cut back on staff that also brought in fees, Blaha said.
That decreased the capacity of the office while not saving much money. The remaining staff struggled to keep up with the work in a timely fashion, which increased tensions with counties, said Blaha.
"When you cut too deep, then you start to spiral," she said.
One of Blaha's first meetings as state auditor was with officials from Becker County, one of the three counties Otto sued. She's continued on a tour of meetings with local officials in an attempt to start a fresh relationship with her office.
Her style is to break the tension with a joke about spreadsheets and segue into her award-winning State Fair crop art. Blaha often uses social media to try to lighten the tone of the office. In a recent video she posted, she did a cartwheel in her basement to celebrate the Olympic gold medal for St. Paul native Sunisa Lee.
"She's someone who takes the work seriously but not herself too seriously. She's willing to put out TikTok videos that put herself out there in a more humorous light or self-deprecating light," said Secretary of State Steve Simon, a fellow DFL statewide official who serves on the state Executive Council with Blaha. "I think she has brought a fresh face, but also a fresh attitude about the office."
She's not counting on humor and optimism alone to be enough to bring all counties back to the state auditor, when some are getting cheaper audits from private firms. But Blaha has been looking at other gaps in state budgeting oversight and stepping into new roles to build back the office.
The State Auditor's Office took over auditing billions in CARES Act funding coming into Minnesota from the federal government, and she successfully pushed in the last state budget for about $1.5 million over the next two years to add a six-person team that will begin spot-checking the books of school districts. Blaha said the idea is to start small, using volunteer districts to build up a process that could be soon replicated more widely.
It will take time, she admits, but she wants to keep doing the job for another four years and plans to run for re-election next fall. No Republican challenger has announced a campaign against her yet.
"It's not unbridled optimism, you have to back it up with some creativity and some tenacity. Rose-colored glasses isn't enough," Blaha said. "You really have to have a special kind of nerdiness to want to do this job. It's a job right now that's still challenging, but we're turning a corner."