Walz names appointees for ag commissioner, DNR head and others
HASTINGS, Minn. — Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz on Thursday, Jan. 3, announced the appointments of seven new commissioners, including his picks to lead the Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources, with a family dairy farm as his backdrop.
The choices to lead the departments of health, human services, agriculture, natural resources and others signal a push for bringing gender and ethnic diversity to the posts as well as a mix of experience in the public and private sectors.
And Walz's decision to tap Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, to lead the Department of Human Services will provide a slightly larger advantage for Senate Republicans, who will now hold a two-seat advantage there. Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday called for a Feb. 5 special election to fill the District 11 seat.
The picks also pave the way for one state department and one state bureau to welcome women as commissioners for the first time.
Sarah Strommen, who has served as an assistant commissioner at the DNR, beat out her boss, current Commissioner Tom Landwehr, for the appointment. If her appointment is approved, Strommen will oversee the protection of Minnesota's natural lands, waters, fish and wildlife, and weigh the permitting of next-generation mining projects.
Strommen didn't immediately offer an opinion on the Twin Metals mining project Thursday and said she'd review that one as she would others brought to her office.
"We will look at any regulatory project that comes in front of us," Strommen said. "I'm committed to ensuring we have robust public engagement and then there's science and data that's going to drive that."
Farmers Union lobbyist to lead Ag Department
Walz picked Thom Petersen, a Pine City horse farmer and longtime Minnesota Farmers Union government relations director, to lead the Department of Agriculture. Petersen said his long career lobbying for producers would help guide his work.
"My top thing is to work for our farmers but our whole state is very important to agriculture," Petersen said.
Walz taps DFL senator for Human Services post
Walz said the decision to appoint Lourey to the post came as part of a campaign promise to bring down the cost of health care in Minnesota. Both said fulfilling that pledge was worth the loss of a seat in the Senate.
"I think (what) we all need to understand is that we're not doing these jobs to win elections, we're doing these jobs 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."
Lourey's DFL peers in the Senate sent a letter to Walz Thursday, expressing their support for the appointment. Lourey said he will work on a plan to allow Minnesotans to opt in to the state's MinnesotaCare program, but didn't have details about what the proposal would look like.
"There is more agreement than one might think," Lourey said, pointing to public polling.
A holdover to lead Department of Health
One holdover, Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, was re-appointed to the post to assist with the transition process. Walz said the length of her term had not yet been determined.
Another 10 commissioner slots remained vacant on Thursday, and Walz indicated he'd announce at least some of those picks on Friday, Jan. 4.
"We're not going to dodge the tough issues, we're going to lean into those issues," Walz said, days before he was set to be sworn into office. "We're not going to silo up and try to pit one group against another, we're going to bring those groups of stakeholders together."
Here are the appointments:
• Department of Agriculture Commissioner: Petersen owns a horse farm near Pine City and has been a long time director of government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union. The has served on various boards and committees advocating for Minnesota farmers.
• Department of Natural Resources Commissioner: Strommen, 46, is an assistant DNR commissioner for the divisions of Fish and Wildlife and Parks and Trails. She has worked at DNR in some capacity since 2012. Prior to that, Strommen worked as policy director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
• Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner: Laura Bishop, 48, worked most recently as the chief of sustainability and corporate responsibility officer at Best Buy, where she set up goals to reduce the company's carbon footprint. Before that, Bishop worked for the state, the White House and with the federal Departments of Education and State.
• Department of Health Commissioner: Malcolm, 63, served as the Department's commissioner under former-Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration from 1999 through 2003 and was again appointed last year by the Dayton administration. Prior to working in state government, Malcolm taught as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and was involved in public health policy and advocacy work.
• Department of Human Services Commissioner: Lourey is a state senator and public policy consultant from Kerrick who has been a vocal advocate for expanding access to health care coverage in the state. The 51 year old is also a farmer and teaches at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.
• Bureau of Mediation Services Commissioner: Janet L. Johnson, 66, is a 42-year employee at the Bureau of Mediation Services who started as a hearing reporter and rose to the position of labor mediations manager. She will become the bureau's first female commissioner.
• Department of Human Rights Commissioner: Rebecca Lucero, 37, serves as the public policy director at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits where she has shaped inclusion and equity frameworks. Prior to working at the council, Lucero worked in public policy and advocacy, as well as in the legal field.