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Former Minnesota legislative leaders together again, this time as university regents

The Minnesota House chamber is packed with state representatives and senators Wednesday night, Feb. 22, 2017, gathered to elect University of Minnesota regents. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 4
Steve Sviggim talks in the state House gallery before the Minnesota Legislature elected him to the University of Minnesota regents Wednesday night, Feb. 22, 2017. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 4
Chairman Dean Johnson of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, right, talks to journalist Eric Eskola Wednesday night, Feb. 22, 2017, before the Minnesota Legislature elected four regents. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 4
Steve Sviggim talks in the state House gallery before the Minnesota Legislature elected him to the University of Minnesota regents Wednesday night, Feb. 22, 2017. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL—Steve Sviggum is about to rejoin Dean Johnson, but the pair from opposite political parties who held the top legislative positions a decade ago say it will be different this time as they work together as University of Minnesota regents.

A joint session of the Republican-controlled Minnesota House and Senate elected Sviggum, a former GOP House speaker, to the university Board of Regents Wednesday night, Feb. 22. That means he will join a board where Johnson serves as chairman.

Sviggum and Johnson said their past political differences will not play into their jobs as regents.

"There may be policy differences," Sviggum said, but not partisan ones.

Sviggum, a farmer and former teacher, said he is a fiscal conservative and university spending, including on administration, has risen too much and needs attention.

The former speaker said he does not expect past differences to color their future relationship.

While the pair and then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty often were "locked in the governor's office" during tense negotiations, Johnson said, that partisan conflict is in the past.

"We are a couple of Norwegian Lutherans," Johnson said. "We have known each other since 1971."

That was when Johnson worked at St. Olaf College and Sviggum was a student who played safety on the football team.

"He plays for keeps," Johnson said of Sviggum, on the football field and in politics.

Laura Brod, who Sviggum will replace as regent, was a conservative representative with him and said that while the Legislature's election of regents is political, work for the university centers on policy, not politics. "It just isn't a partisan place."

Sviggum, who lives near Kenyon, was speaker of the state House when Johnson, a Willmar resident, was Senate majority leader and a Democrat in the Senate. While the two often seemed to get along, they also sparred as they represented very different caucuses.

Sviggum was one of four members of the university's governing board elected in a joint House and Senate session. He will represent the 2nd Congressional District, which includes the southern Twin Cities and areas to the south.

But his victory was not a given. Democrats put up an opponent, although the ex-legislator won 111-90 over Sandra Krebsbach.

Ken Powell, chief executive at General Mills, easily upset incumbent Tom Devine of Chanhassen for an at-large position. Powell took 124 votes to Devine's 22. Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, nominated Powell Wednesday night after a legislative committee endorsed Devine for re-election.

A host of other at-large candidates were nominated during the joint convention, including former Govs. Pawlenty and Arne Carlson. Pawlenty got three votes, while Carlson gained one.

Darrin Rosha of Independence won another six-year regent term from the 3rd Congressional District, in the western Twin Cities. He beat Devine 110-87. Devine was nominated for the district seat Wednesday night as lawmakers knew he faced a tough challenge in Powell, but some wanted Devine to remain on the board.

David McMillan of Duluth from the 8th Congressional District, the northeast, east-central and north-central part of the state faced no opposition, gaining 197 votes.

Four six-year positions of the 12-member board are elected every odd-numbered year. One regent is picked from each of the state's eight congressional districts, with four others elected at large.

This is not the first time legislators named Sviggum a regent. He also was picked in 2011, but less than a year later he became the state Senate Republican communications director and executive assistant, which was alleged to be a conflict of interest with his regent post. Sviggum resigned from the university position and kept the Senate job.

Republicans encouraged the former speaker to get into this year's regent hunt at the last minute, which meant he avoided a vetting process other candidates went through.

Thirty-six people applied to the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, which narrowed candidates to a dozen finalists. A legislative committee took over from the council, and it put Sviggum on the Wednesday night ballot.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.