Farming, union voices on the line

Two former House members could change the board’s demographics.

by Emily Cutts

Organized labor and family farmers could each lose a voice on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Board of Regents if the Legislature approves the recommended candidates today.
First-term Regent Steven Hunter, who is also treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, lost the at-large seat to former Republican Rep. Laura Brod. Regent Dallas Bohnsack, a self-employed farmer from New Prague, did not seek a third term.
The 12 regents represent the stateâÄôs eight congressional districts with four additional at-large members.
Jody Ebert, member of AFSCME Local 3937, which serves University technical staff, lamented the surprise vote for Brod âÄî Brod was originally a candidate for BohnsackâÄôs seat, which former House Speaker Steve Sviggum won âÄî and said that it broke a decades-long tradition of having a labor-friendly representative on the board.
âÄúWorking people will have been stripped of their voice on the Board of Regents,âÄù added Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, which represents 1,600 clerical workers at the University.
Regents Chair Clyde Allen said HunterâÄôs experience in organized labor helped to bring different viewpoints to the board.
âÄúI was disappointed, frankly,âÄù Allen said of the LegislatureâÄôs vote. âÄúThat clearly was an area of strength and it was of value.âÄù
That perspective occasionally pitted Hunter against large majorities on the board. Notably, his was the lone dissenting vote against mandatory staff furloughs last May. He said in his experience as a city employee in the 1980s, voluntary leaves of absence helped save jobs.
Hunter also opposed the UniversityâÄôs closure of its General College in 2006, but said last month he approved of how University President Bob Bruininks handled that transition.
While BrodâÄôs familiarity with members of the Republican-controlled Statehouse makes it unlikely that her selection for the seat would be changed before a scheduled approval vote this afternoon, Ebert and Walker said they were lobbying legislators to keep Hunter in place.
Walker also said she was hopeful that labor unions could forge a closer relationship with Regent Maureen Ramirez. Ramirez, whose term expires in 2013, is director of the Minnesota Civic Engagement Table, an association of progressive nonprofits.
âÄòSomebody will pick up the mantleâÄô
With the end of his term go BohnsackâÄôs years of experience working with the University Extension program.
Bohnsack said he saw the extension help his grandfather and father. This firsthand experience carried onto his work as a regent. He said he would make visits to regional offices whenever he was near one.
âÄúI was a great advocate, of course,âÄù Bohnsack said. âÄúI made a lot of visits to regional extension offices âĦ The people were happy to see that, it wasnâÄôt me personally, it was the position.âÄù
Bohnsack said he is not worried about future representation the extension will have on the board.
âÄúSomebody will pick up the mantle,âÄù he said.
Allen said Bohnsack often spoke of agriculture and that someone who often thinks of farming remembers to advocate for those issues.
But BohnsackâÄôs departure will not be leaving an agricultural void. Sviggum will bring his experience as a farmer in Goodhue County and as a member of the stateâÄôs agricultural committee.
âÄúWeâÄôre not completely losing that [agriculture voice] on the board,âÄù Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, said.