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Dayton cabinet is diverse. but Republicans question some commissioners

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ST. PAUL -- Gov. Mark Dayton's cabinet may be the most diverse in Minnesota history, but it still is dominated by white males.

It also may be one of the least partisan, but Senate Republicans who must confirm commissioners cast a wary eye on some appointments.

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And Twin Cities residents are a majority on the 25-member cabinet, but at least 10 bring strong greater Minnesota connections.

"It is very important," political science Professor Kathryn Pearson of the University of Minnesota said of cabinet picks. "Running a state, there are a lot of agencies that affect a lot of different sectors and a governor can't do everything."

Of the 25 cabinet members, 18 are men. Three are African-American. All but one member had government experience and 17 have a private business background.

"I went with the best person for each job," Democrat Dayton said in an interview. "I never have had to compromise quality for diversity."

Pearson likes what she sees in Dayton appointees.

"Dayton has the most diverse cabinet to date, even if it is still a majority of white men," Pearson said.

With just three minority members in the cabinet, the governor said, that is higher than the state population percentage.

Dayton does not want diversity to end at the cabinet level.

"We have sent a memo to all agency heads about the need for diversity," he said, including gender, racial-ethnic and geographic.

Pearson said it appears that Dayton looked at experience other than politics. "It is a group with not a lot of political experience, but with a lot of experience (in areas) that they now are overseeing."

Many commissioners took pay cuts to work for Dayton. They make up to $108,000 a year.

Even if most live in the Twin Cities, many commissioners have worked elsewhere in the state. For instance, Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman, most recently Maple Grove police chief, worked in the rural communities of Marshall and Glencoe after growing up in southwestern Minnesota's Vesta.

Dayton said that he still would like more diversity. He admitted, for instance, to lacking any American Indians among his top aides, but said he would like to recruit in that community.

Apart from the cabinet itself, the governor's office staff features more women and more racial backgrounds. About 23 women and 15 men are in his office; five staffers are minorities.

Seven of Dayton's earliest hires in the governor's office were women, a batch he calls "the magnificent seven."

Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said some cabinet commissioners could win full Senate approval within a week. Most commissioners need to wait, some maybe until next year, before a Senate vote to allow them to stay in office.

Senate committees have recommended confirming Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel and Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito.

In most cases, committees have yet to begin holding hearings on commissioners, and some appointees will not be well received.

"There are a lot of questions that need to be answered," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Doug Magnus, R-Slayton.

Magnus would not talk about specific commissioners, but said some have strong environmentalist credentials, something Republicans may not want in a person leading an agency.

At least two commissioners have those backgrounds: Pollution Control Commissioner Paul Aasen was with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and Natural Resources Commissioner Ted Landwehr comes from the Nature Conservancy.

Another GOP concern goes beyond the person at the top of the agency.

"Some of (the questions) are the people that they hire, the upper level management that either they have put in or what Dayton has put in," Magus said.

While Dayton said he lets commissioners hire who they want, Magnus said those hires are important regardless of who makes hiring decisions.

"I am concerned with several folks who I think certainly have put a left-leaning bent toward this whole thing," the senator said.

An example of someone Magnus likes, but he has not decided whether to support confirmation, is Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson.

"I want to see how they will manage the Department of Agriculture," Magnus said.

Pearson said the Dayton cabinet is less political than seen in most recent administrations.

"Many more of (GOP Gov. Tim) Pawlenty's appointees came from the Legislature or were former legislators," the professor said.

Iron Range Resources Commissioner Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, is the only cabinet member to leave the Legislature for the job. And Frederickson spent six years as a lawmaker.

Coming from outside government brings pluses and minuses. Magnus said one minus is that senators do not know them.

"It adds some uncertainty to the situation," Magnus said. "We have not sat around the table with these folks, see how they act under pressure."

Pearson expects this cabinet to work well.

"As with everything in the beginning of a new administration, time will tell in terms of whether or not the criticisms are warranted, the praises are warranted," she said. "But just looking at the background of these commissioners and their expertise, it is an impressive group."

Dayton certainly will not argue.

"I looked for people with proven administrative management background," Dayton said. "Some of these agencies have not been well managed over the years."

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.

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