Chief lobbyist ends 20 years of telling the University’s story at the Capitol

Donna Peterson will retire from the University in January.

Assistant vice president for the Office of University Relations and director of the Office of Government Relations Donna Peterson poses for a portrait Thursday in Morrill Hall.  Peterson, the chief lobbyist for the University, is retiring in January after more than 20 years managing the school’s government relations department.

Image by Mark Vancleave

Assistant vice president for the Office of University Relations and director of the Office of Government Relations Donna Peterson poses for a portrait Thursday in Morrill Hall. Peterson, the chief lobbyist for the University, is retiring in January after more than 20 years managing the school’s government relations department.

by Greta Kaul

Donna Peterson has gone to the State Capitol every winter for more than 30 years, first as a legislator and then as a lobbyist.

In January, she will hand off her role in securing more than $1 billion in biennial state support for the University of Minnesota to someone else.

Peterson, the chief lobbyist for the University, is retiring in January after more than 20 years working in or managing the schoolâÄôs government relations department. Many who worked with Peterson called her the calm and collected face of MinnesotaâÄôs single land-grant university.

Her successor, Jason Rohloff, will have to deal with continuing state budget cuts âÄî the UniversityâÄôs state aid has fallen below late 1990s funding levels âÄî when he assumes the job before the next legislative session and orients President Eric Kaler with MinnesotaâÄôs political machine.

Along with PetersonâÄôs departure, many champions of higher education are leaving the Legislature, or at least considering it. Former Sen. Larry Pogemiller, who served on the Senate Higher Education Committee, was named director of the Office of Higher Education in late October. Sen. Sandy Pappas, former chairwoman of the committee, is considering not running again.

âÄúThatâÄôs just part of the job is you lose one [ally at the Capitol], hopefully youâÄôre gaining two more,âÄù Peterson said in an interview. âÄúYouâÄôve just got to keep at it âĦ The face of the University has to be there every year and in a strong way.âÄù

In the face of declining state funding from former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the new GOP majority, Peterson âÄúhonestly tried to represent the University the best she could,âÄù said Republican Rep. Bud Nornes, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee now.

But during her time as a leader in government relations, state support has dropped from nearly 30 percent of the UniversityâÄôs revenue in 2001-02 to less than 15 percent in 2011-12. Undergraduate tuition has doubled in the past decade âÄî in part to compensate for those cuts.

In 2010, she made about $160,000 working for the University, according to salary data.

âÄúSheâÄôs got a remarkable ability to tell the story of the University of Minnesota,âÄù said Bernie Omann, a lobbyist for MinnesotaâÄôs state college system. âÄúShe hasnâÄôt always had the easiest job as far as selling tough issues, but she always did it with a smile.âÄù

Peterson, who served as a DFL lawmaker in both the state House and Senate, didnâÄôt focus on higher education during her policymaking heyday in the 1980s.


âÄòSmart as a whipâÄô

The University has been significant in PetersonâÄôs life since her childhood, she said.

âÄúI grew up in northern Minnesota and my dream was to go to the University, and I got to do that as an undergraduate,âÄù Peterson said.

Beginning in 4-H and ending with a degree in anthropology, PetersonâÄôs dedication to the University didnâÄôt stop at education. She took an office in Morrill Hall in 1990 after serving a decade in the Legislature.

But Peterson, who has remained in the building during her more than 20-year tenure at the University, is rarely in the same place every day.

âÄúI have to be careful because sometimes I get on the freeway and start for the Capitol and IâÄôd remember I have to come to the University,âÄù she said.

Peterson said she thrives in uncertain environments. The trait suits her well in bringing the UniversityâÄôs interest to 201 lawmakers with strong opinions theyâÄôre not afraid to voice.

Multiple times every year, she sat before the LegislatureâÄôs higher education committees with CFO Richard Pfutzenreuter. Peterson touted the UniversityâÄôs mission, aims and accomplishments, while Pfutzenreuter gave lawmakers the UniversityâÄôs fiscal picture.

âÄúSheâÄôs smart as a whip,âÄù Pfutzenreuter said. âÄúShe could look three, four days into the future and know exactly how things were going to come out and get everybody ready for what was going to happen.âÄù

That echoes a large part of PetersonâÄôs job that she said can often go unnoticed âÄî dealing with problems before they appear.

In the 2011 legislative session, a policy provision attached to several funding bills raised an alarm at the University. If signed into law, the provisions could have permanently inhibited the future of stem cell research in Minnesota.

Gov. Mark Dayton often said he would veto any funding bills with policy provisions attached, but asked the University to make an appeal to the public to back him up.

âÄúAs we talked to [the governorâÄôs office], they would say âÄòWell, if you want us to take some action on your behalf, youâÄôve got to make some noise,âÄôâÄù said Martin McDonough, a member of PetersonâÄôs team.

The University responded with press conferences and public relations campaigns âÄúto raise awareness, but also to have the governorâÄôs back,âÄù McDonough said.

The past session was difficult in particular because so many lawmakers were new. The landslide 2010 elections that led to sweeping Republican majorities in both legislative bodies at the Capitol brought a lot of new blood with them.

Meeting with freshmen legislators and selling the UniversityâÄôs mission occupied a lot of time for Peterson and her team.


Capital projects and the Capitol

Peterson has tangible achievements to look back on. Key state support for the UniversityâÄôs building projects and maintenance have come during her tenure, but Peterson stressed that itâÄôs been a team effort.

The UniversityâÄôs building spree has been a direct product of legislative support. Enormous projects like TCF Bank Stadium and the biological science and nanotechnology research buildings have come from the UniversityâÄôs partnerships at the Capitol.

McDonough looks to capital projects as âÄúthings that they canâÄôt retract and take back,âÄù he said, referring to declining state support for the University.


Into the future

Peterson said itâÄôs helpful that lawmakers wonâÄôt be dealing with a contentious budget when the Legislature reconvenes in late January. Budget fights typically occur in odd-numbered years, when the state budget works through the Legislature.

New chief lobbyist Jason Rohloff and Kaler âÄî both fresh in their posts âÄî need time to meet lawmakers and forge relationships, Peterson said.

Before this month, the stateâÄôs fiscal picture for this year was uncertain. Although it could change in February, what was expected to be a budget deficit is forecasted to be a nearly $1 billion surplus.

âÄúThis time at least you can breathe and know that the budget is stable for this coming year,âÄù Peterson said.

The University will work this session to secure as much support as possible for construction projects.

Rohloff, whose position has undergone a title change, will become a special assistant to the president.

Rohloff has worked as a Minnesota House committee administrator, director of House Legislative Services and legislative director to the Speaker of the House.

âÄúHe has a deep knowledge of Minnesota politics and the people involved in Minnesota politics, so heâÄôs going to bring a really good set of skills,âÄù Kaler said.

Rohloff also worked as the director of federal affairs for Pawlenty and as a senior policy officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Peterson said sheâÄôs confident in RohloffâÄôs ability to take the helm. SheâÄôs 65, and itâÄôs time to leave.

âÄúTo me, there are lots of things to do in life, and this was great while I was doing it,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs been a great job, but I get to do something else now.âÄù