A pink feather boa frames the computer monitor in University Regent Michael O’Keefe’s downtown office, and a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt sits on his desk — gifts from friends helping the regent to dress like his new boss.
Since Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed O’Keefe as Commissioner of Human Services — the state’s largest department, which oversees programs like welfare — he’s getting ready to leave his post at the McKnight Foundation to serve the governor.
Empty moving boxes clutter his floor, as the regent waits for the state Senate to approve his appointment and make the move official.
O’Keefe, 59, is in high demand at the moment but he’s also in limbo. He departs from the $1.7 billion McKnight Foundation in about three weeks, but his next step is still under debate. Some state senators are scrutinizing his future dual position as regent and state commissioner, which they say vie for the same state funds.
In with the in crowd
For O’Keefe, the government and regent positions are not unfamiliar, but the scrutiny surrounding them is. Senators lauded his 1996 arrival as a University regent by unanimously re-electing him in 1997.
O’Keefe came to the Board of Regents as an appointment of then-Gov. Arne Carlson in 1996 to replace resigning Regent Jean Keffeler. Then in 1997 even his opponent for the position, William Drake, asked the Senate to vote for O’Keefe.
“I urge you to support the outstanding candidate here in Michael O’Keefe,” Drake told Senate.
Now, the Senate members who oppose O’Keefe’s commissioner appointment do not doubt his ability to handle the position. But they say as regent and commissioner, O’Keefe would need to “serve two masters.”
Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, called for O’Keefe to step down as regent if he puts on the commissioner’s hat, where he would oversee an annual budget of over $2.5 billion.
“I think he’s fabulous,” Pogemiller said. But the senator, whose district includes the West Bank campus, questioned whether O’Keefe could be an independent voice.
Pogemiller said he believes O’Keefe could do either job well, but not both.
Indeed, officials at his current “master,” the University, said he is doing a great job.
“He’s been a stellar member of the Board of Regents,” said University President Mark Yudof.
Making welfare work
O’Keefe said he didn’t plan on a career in higher education policy as a college student.
After completing a graduate degree in nuclear physics at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968, O’Keefe decided his talents were not in the lab but in policy — the big picture.
He eventually made it into the big picture, working under presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter as the deputy assistant secretary for education.
In addition to creating the policy affecting college boards, O’Keefe served on several boards himself, including the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the University of Illinois.
In 1989, O’Keefe turned from public to private endeavors and started working at the McKnight Foundation, the largest foundation in the state.
Philanthropic payouts increased from $33 million to $74 million under O’Keefe’s leadership. The CEO also took a special interest in welfare programs and offered grants to communities to help get workers off welfare, rather than working solely through the state.
These accomplishments caught the attention of Ventura’s transition team. Several long discussions with the team eventually led to an offer for the commissioner’s job, O’Keefe recalled.
O’Keefe said he and Ventura are of the same mind — when it comes to welfare.
They both want to stop duplication of services in state aid programs. They also want to bring services in line with the federal welfare reform act of 1996.
O’Keefe said Ventura’s plans for welfare have a theme of self-sufficiency, but he also understands that you “don’t throw people out on the street.
“He listens well, is respectful, has an open mind and is willing to change it, which are all things I agree with,” said O’Keefe.