Incoming Gov. Tim Walz made his final batch of commissioner hires on Friday, selecting a diverse group of candidates with a range of experiences in and outside state government to lead key state agencies.
The latest list of nominees includes the former St. Paul police chief John Harrington as commissioner of public safety; Nancy Leppink, a veteran of labor agencies at the United Nations and under the Obama administration, as commissioner of Department of Labor and Industry; and Google News Lab director Steve Grove as commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Walz also tapped former DFL state Sen. Steve Kelley to lead the Department of Commerce and Larry Herke, a retired Minnesota Army National Guard colonel, as the head of Veterans Affairs. Two more current agency heads, Department of Revenue Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Commissioner Mark Phillips, will stay on in their posts.
“These are folks who not only embrace our One Minnesota vision but have the record and skills to make it happen and find common ground by working across lines of division, working across lines of economic barriers,” Walz said at a news conference at the Grain Exchange Building in downtown Minneapolis.
Friday’s selections cap a whirlwind month of appointment announcements, as Walz and his transition team worked to staff key posts ahead of Monday’s inauguration. At this point, all but one cabinet slots have been filled. A permanent pick to head the IT services department will be announced at a later date. Walz said he is holding out for the right leader for the state’s embattled department, saying he is not rushing the selection.
Walz and his running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan, have made diversity a hallmark of the picks. More than 50 percent of his commissioners are women, 20 percent are people of color, and 20 percent live in greater Minnesota. Flanagan said high interest from applicants and an inclusive hiring process led to a team that “truly represents and reflects” the state.
Taken as a whole, the cabinet also brings together Capitol veterans with deep political ties and those less seasoned in state government. Those hires will be tasked with implementing Walz’s agenda and tackling a range of pressing issues, including a budget proposal due to be released in February, at a time of broader shifts of power in the state. In addition to a new administration, many freshman legislators make up the DFL’s new House majority. Control of the Legislature is split, with Republicans holding a slim majority in the Senate.
“There’s going be a lot of people who are going to have to figure out incredibly rapidly what their jobs are and, at least in theory, get that primary task [of the budget] done,” said David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. “It’s tough enough just to get the biennial budget done under the best circumstances. Add in everything else and a lot of rookies there, [and] this is going to be a very, very hard task.”
Walz addressed both the challenges ahead and the experience that each candidate will bring to their job during Friday’s news conference. He praised Harrington, currently Metro Transit’s chief of police for the Twin Cities area, for his “deep expertise in public safety” and strengthening community outreach.
“He not only talks the talk but walks the walk when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” Walz said.
Walz, a veteran himself, also noted that Herke will be the first Veterans’ Affairs commissioner with experience serving in combat roles in the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Those who’ve raised their hand to serve deserve the best care and services our state can provide. Larry Herke is a demonstrated leader and public servant who understands this better than anyone else.” he said.
All agency heads must be approved by the GOP-held Senate. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, has not commented on behalf of the caucus on specific picks, saying he preferred to wait until the process was complete. Walz, who received input from Gazelka, said he was hopeful that the selection process resulted in picks that would win support.
“I feel very confident that the Senate is going to be very happy with these public servants,” Walz said.