Walz fills out top agency posts ahead of second term

Man gestures at podium with hand
Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan host a press conference the morning after Walz's reelection. On Wednesday Walz named some new commissioners for his second term.
Kerem Yucel | MPR News

Gov. Tim Walz filled some key openings in his administration Wednesday as he prepares to start a second term next month, opting for a few state government insiders and some who have built up their professional reputation working elsewhere.

The six new commissioners will replace agency leaders who stepped down in recent months or who will retire at year’s end. Turnover between terms is not uncommon and the Walz cabinet openings were in line with past governors.

They appointments are: 

  • Willie Jett II, former St. Cloud superintendent, for education commissioner.

  • Bob Jacobson, former New Brighton police chief, for public safety commissioner.

  • Brooke Cunningham, assistant health commissioner, to take the lead role in that department.

  • Nonprofit leader Ida Rukavina to run the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Agency.

  • Paul Marquart, retiring DFL state legislator, as revenue commissioner.

  • Nicole Blissenbach, acting commissioner, to be the full-fledged labor and industry commissioner.

Many commissioners aren’t that well known outside their areas of expertise but some have become important public figures during major crises. For instance, the commissioners of education, health and public safety appeared often alongside Walz and in front of TV cameras during the pandemic and the spurts of civil unrest.

The administration will have an easier time winning confirmation for commissioners. The Senate flipped to DFL control in the last election, meaning the likelihood of nominees being rejected is slim.

Walz has tried to form a diverse cabinet to lead the 24 state agencies in the executive branch, picking agency leaders from different backgrounds and parts of the state.

With his current appointments, the cabinet will have 11 commissioners who are women and 13 who are men. Eight are people of color. 

Among the new agency heads:

  • Jett stepped down as superintendent of St. Cloud schools last year after nearly a decade in charge. Since then, he has been a lecturer and program coordinator at an educational instruction school within the University of Minnesota. He replaces Heather Mueller.

  • Jacobson has been inspector general and interim deputy commissioner at the department of human services following a 33-year career in law enforcement, including 16 as the top cop in New Brighton. He’ll take over for John Harrington.

  • Cunningham has overseen health equity work at the health department and is a trained doctor of internal medicine. She succeeds Jan Malcolm.

  • Rukavina is executive director of the range association of municipalities and schools and has been active in labor union affairs in northeastern Minnesota. She’ll take the job held by Mark Phillips.

  • Blissenbach has been temporarily in charge at labor and industry. She helped administer the frontline pandemic bonus program. She has been in her role since the retirement of the former commissioner Rosyln Robertson.

  • Marquart is retiring from the Legislature after 11 terms representing a northwestern Minnesota district. He had been the tax committee chair in the House, making him well versed in issues the revenue department handles. Robert Doty was commissioner for most of the initial Walz term.

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