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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama named a Minnesotan to one of the most powerful jobs in his administration on Friday when he announced Stillwater native Denis McDonough as his chief of staff.
During the president's announcement in the East Room of the White House, the applause and cheering for McDonough was loud and hearty. It is a big promotion for a low-key staffer who has been part of Obama's inner circle for years.
McDonough, 43, has been Obama's deputy national security adviser.
"Part of the reason you saw such warmth and applause is that in addition to being an incredible talent and such a hard worker, Denis is also a pretty humble guy," the president said. "To many of his friends and admirers, he's still just 'the dude' from Stillwater, Minn."
McDonough was an adviser to Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Before working for Obama, McDonough was a Capitol Hill staffer, working for former Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Ken Salazar, D-Colo.
Unlike Obama's other chiefs of staff, McDonough doesn't have a high profile in the capital. Colin McGinnis, a senior Senate staffer who got to know McDonough well on Capitol Hill, is confident McDonough will be able to manage the complexities of running the White House, managing big egos and responding to constant crises.
"Lots of what he'll be doing is air traffic control but also building consensus in a group of really smart, savvy people," said McGinnis, a senior adviser to the U.S. Senate Banking Committee.
McGinnis and others say that McDonough and Obama have bonded over shared values. For McDonough, they come from his Catholic faith and his roots in a family of 11 children.
Even as a young man, McDonough showed a willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, said Kenneth Jones, a history professor at St. John's University in Collegeville who was McDonough's academic adviser there. Jones oversaw McDonough's college thesis about the lynching of three black men in Duluth in 1920.
"Part of his argument was -- I'm making this too simple -- but that Minnesotans like to think that they're better than that, and yet this happened and we don't pay enough attention to it," Jones recalled.
McDonough has a habit of writing thank you notes to his colleagues. That's endeared him to many in the high-pressure environment in the White House and on Capitol Hill, McGinnis said.
"He recognizes that people, both members and staff, work hard and work on weekends and do their best to get the right result," McGinnis said. "And he appreciates it."
McDonough will replace Jack Lew as chief of staff. Lew is staying on in the administration as the president's nominee for Treasury secretary. He, too, has a Minnesota connection after attending Carleton College, where Paul Wellstone was his adviser.
McDonough is the second Minnesotan named to a high-profile slot in the Obama administration in just over a week. The president last week nominated U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones as the permanent head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
McGinnis got to know Jones in the 1990s when Wellstone, who was then his boss, was looking for a candidate to serve as the top federal prosecutor in the state.
"One of the things that was most attractive to Paul was that he was tied into local communities and he had a community-based law enforcement approach," McGinnis said.
Jones, 55 is a graduate of Macalester College and went to law school at the University of Minnesota. He also did a stint in the Marine Corps.
Between two nonconsecutive stints as U.S. attorney, Jones was a partner at the Minneapolis law firm Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, where he worked on several high-profile criminal defense cases.
Martin Lueck, the firm's chairman, said Jones has a keen eye for talent, which could be useful in an agency that's been a political punching bag on Capitol Hill.
"He's gone around town and gone through a lot of the ranks of law firms and pulled out some of the best, young, aggressive, hungry trial lawyers and put them in that office," Lueck said. "I have no doubt he's going to do the same thing at ATF."
With Obama having already laid out a goal to enact gun control legislation, Jones will no doubt have a more prominent role than previous ATF directors.
Although Republicans on Capitol Hill appear ready to challenge his nomination, at least one member of Minnesota's congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, will try to help him win Senate confirmation.