State to ‘fix’ elections

Many legislators dislike recent changes to the Board of Regents election process.

Courtney Blanchard

Being old fashioned might be the popular route when it comes to choosing regents.

When the House reconvenes next week, it will take on the regent selection process after a contentious election last month.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said he wanted to go back to the old process to select regents, and included the measure in the higher education omnibus bill that includes University funding.

“The best possible Board of Regents (includes) the regents who talked to every legislator and ran for election,” he said

Last month, lawmakers worked within a revised process to select four new regents, Venora Hung, Maureen Cisneros, Dean Johnson and Linda Cohen.

Changes to the process allowed an advisory council to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty to suggest four of the candidates after reviewing most of the applicants.

Rukavina said the Minnesota Constitution directs the House and Senate to choose the regents, and a gubernatorial advisory council “convoluted” the process.

“The governor has never been in this process until two years ago,” he said. “So my proposal is just to go back to what the constitution says.”

Rukavina said the governor shouldn’t be involved at all, and criticized the system in which staff members interviewed candidates and never met face-to-face with the governor.

With the new proposal, Rukavina said candidates would need to introduce themselves to legislators to gain support for a Board of Regents appointment.

“I think that the Legislature and every legislator should know who’s running for the Board of Regents and why,” Rukavina said.

The appointment of Johnson, former DFL Senate majority leader, also raised questions about party politics on the board.

Johnson said after his appointment that people should get to know him in his new role as a regent and keep his politics out of mind.

When lawmakers cast votes during the joint session to elect the regents, many voted along party lines: Republicans for incumbent Cynthia Lesher, Democrats for Johnson.

Nearly all agreed on Cohen, however, the only candidate recommended by the governor to be elected.

Described by supporters as “apolitical,” Cohen said after the joint session that she agreed.

“I do think it’s true, I’m a moderate,” she said. “I span both sides of partisan politics.”

Former Regent Peter Bell, who did not win re-election, said it’s not in the interest of the University to have Democrat or Republican regents.

“The process should be transcendent above partisanship,” he said.

Former Regent Lesher, who also lost her re-election bid, said Monday that she’s not bitter about losing to Johnson, but disappointed that she can’t serve more than one year on the University’s governing body.

“I don’t think the process this time worked the way people thought it would,” she said. “I prefer the old system.”

Lesher said the new system has the potential to be “less democratic” because it could get too political.

Like Cohen, Lesher described herself as apolitical even though she will serve as the president of the Minnesota host committee for the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

The next round of regents up for re-election in 2009 are Patricia Simmons, Clyde Allen Jr., John Frobenius and David Metzen. If the measure passes, they will compete with other candidates without a formal review by the governor’s staff, though he could still make recommendations to the Legislature.

-Bryce Haugen contributed to this report.