Gov.-elect Tim Walz solidifies cabinet days before inauguration

Gov.-elect Tim Walz announced seven commissioner appointees Thursday, nearing the end of a frenetic transition process ahead of Monday’s inauguration.

Standing inside a pole barn at a family dairy farm in Hastings, Walz introduced his choices to lead state agencies ranging from agriculture to health. Some of his female appointees will break a glass ceiling, while Walz plucked another appointee from the state Senate, a move that will trigger a special election.

Walz has so far said he’s keeping just two of outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton’s commissioners, choosing to build his own team around his vision.

“There were incredibly qualified people that were not selected on this because it was not the right skill set to fit this team,” Walz said. He said the new team would give him the chance at a “reset” around some issues.

Walz announced Jan Malcolm would stay on as health commissioner for about a year. Dayton installed Malcolm in early 2018 to fix issues at the agency. She had previously run the department under former Gov. Jesse Ventura from 1999-2003.

His other appointees are all new to their respective positions: Tony Lourey at Human Services, Thom Petersen at Agriculture, Sarah Strommen for Natural Resources, Laura Bishop for the Pollution Control Agency, Janet Johnson at the Mediation Services bureau, and Rebecca Lucero at Human Rights.

Walz pulled Lourey from the state Senate, creating an open seat and temporarily giving Republicans a 34-32 majority. Dayton on Thursday called a special election in Lourey’s district between Pine City and Duluth. 

There are already two Democrats running for the seat. Lourey’s son, Stu, announced plans to run Thursday afternoon. Friday morning, former Democratic congressional candidate Michelle Lee  joined the race. 

Republican state Rep. Jason Rarick, whose district is half of Lourey’s Senate District 11, said Friday morning that he is running. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the party would put resources into the race to widen the GOP’s majority.

“If we win, it shows momentum. It shows maybe we’re stronger than people thought,” Gazelka said in an interview. “And so we’re going to take a good run at that race.”

Walz said he was less concerned about the politics than about appointing Lourey, who shares Walz’s goal of creating a public buy-in to the MinnesotaCare health insurance program.

“We’re not there doing these jobs to win elections. We’re doing them to improve people’s lives,” Walz said. “If we don’t figure out this health care piece and have the best person – which is Sen. Lourey – in that position, everybody can worry about this in 2020 then.”

Lourey said he would ultimately unveil a MinnesotaCare buy-in plan that would “bring people together,” but Gazelka said he remained opposed to the idea. Hospitals and clinics would lose money because the system pays lower reimbursement rates to hospitals and clinics, he said.

Gazelka also said the appointment of Strommen as Natural Resources commissioner raised “red flags” for him.

Strommon, who has been an assistant DNR commissioner since 2015, told reporters Thursday that she had no opinion about the planned Twin Metals mine in northern Minnesota. A group she once worked for, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, is now suing to stop the project, alleging it poses a “direct threat” to the Boundary Waters.

“We will approach it as we will look at any regulatory project that comes in front of us,” Strommen said. “It’ll be about ensuring we have a good process.”

Walz passed over Dayton’s DNR chief, Tom Landwehr, in favor of Strommen, the governor-elect’s office said.

Walz said a transition advisory board created in November helped identify potential cabinet picks. He then interviewed and chose candidates.

Walz is scheduled to announce seven more appointees Friday, leaving only the Minnesota IT Services chief for a “later date,” the governor-elect’s office said.