In an old hay shed 40 miles outside of St. Paul, Steve Sviggum stood boot-deep in cow manure on a grey Saturday morning, wrestling a three-week-old calf with a broken leg.
He was gentle but firm as he handled the small cow and explained the passion he and his brothers have to help the calf survive.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Sviggum roamed the halls of the state Capitol, shaking hands with almost everyone he encountered — with the same approachable attitude he’s had since he came into state politics more than 30 years ago.
Both scenes star the same man that was the subject of much criticism and controversy for almost a year as he twice wrestled with the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents over potential conflicts of interest before resigning in early March.
It’s his desire to serve his community and state that Sviggum and those who have worked with him say drives him to continue to work in public service and often causes him to take on numerous — and what many have said are unmanageable — obligations.
Twice since his appointment to the board in February of 2011, Sviggum has come under fire for conflicts of interest.
His first, soon after he became a regent, regarded his role as a senior fellow at the University’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. After the board decided he must choose between his two roles, Sviggum decided to stay on the board.
His second conflict came to a dramatic conclusion March 8, a week after an ad hoc committee decided that Sviggum’s new position as executive assistant and communications director for the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus was unmanageable.
Only this time, Sviggum chose his new position and left the board — almost a year to the day after being sworn in as a regent.
A Republican state representative for 28 years, eight of which he served as speaker of the House, Sviggum entered politics in a Republican sweep in the 1978 election with dozens of other freshmen Republican legislators.
Born and raised on a farm in Nerstrand, Minn., Sviggum, like much of his community, is a full-blooded Norwegian.
Sviggum’s home in southern Minnesota is surrounded by lush, green farmland filled with rolling hills, rippling creeks, big red barns and aging white farmhouses that preserve the memory of the immigrant settlers that built them.
On Sundays, Sviggum goes to an old church atop a valley a few miles from his home.
“He never misses church,” said his Norwegian-born pastor Terje Hausken, who, with Sviggum as his head waiter, serves lutefisk once a year to 1,600 reluctant locals.
Farming has been in Sviggum’s family since the late 1800s.
Although all three have other jobs, Sviggum and his brothers, Dick and Jim, raise beef cattle and grow corn on Dick Sviggum’s farm. Steve Sviggum lives in nearby Kenyon, Minn., with his wife, Debra.
Dick and Jim agree their brother Steve is the most diplomatic of the three. Working on the farm has instilled individual responsibility, but also the ability to relate to “common folk.”
A kid with a competitive streak, Sviggum was passionate about football and basketball and, after high school, went to nearby St. Olaf College, where he played both sports and majored in math.
The competitiveness helped make him a formidable legislator who was unafraid to spar with political opponents.
“They ought to have other opinions than me,” Sviggum said of political opponents. “I just think they’re wrong.“
After college, Sviggum, like his two younger brothers, taught high school math and coached prep sports. He fell into politics six years later.
His family wasn’t political, but he said his father was always involved in the community, like by serving on the school board. It showed Sviggum the importance of public service.
One night after a football game, Sviggum said he got a call from community members who urged him to run for state House.
With little political background, Sviggum was unsure about running but took the opportunity and won the 1978 race for state House, where he would stay until 2007.
Sviggum said he had considered leaving politics in the early ’90s, but after winning his 1992 House race, the party caucus appointed him minority leader. With a fresh take, Sviggum said he decided to stay, and in 1998 Sviggum’s campaigning helped Republicans gain control of the House. In early 1999, he was made speaker — a position he kept for eight years.
He was known within his party for his ability to find the right candidates for the job and then campaign vigorously for them.
He didn’t leave the house until July 2007, when then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Sviggum as Minnesota Commissioner of Labor and Industry. He served until 2010, when Pawlenty appointed him Commissioner of Minnesota Management and Budget. He held that position for a little more than a month before stepping down in early 2011.
The first conflict
Sviggum’s appointment in February 2011 to the board was contentious as his fellow freshman regent was Laura Brod, another former Republican state representative who served for eight years.
Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, and other Democratic-Farmer-Labor party members opposed more former legislators on the board and labeled the selection process as partisan. The joint higher education committee vote that recommended four regent candidates fell largely along party lines, with Republicans favoring Sviggum and Brod.
“Bipartisanship at the Board of Regents has ended,” Rukavina said after the vote.
Soon after Sviggum’s appointment to the board, regents raised concerns of a conflict of interest with his position as a senior fellow at the Humphrey School — a job that paid him $80,000 a year.
Eventually, the board said the two positions weren’t compatible, and Sviggum was forced to choose. He chose the board.
“I thought it was an excellent message to the other regents and to the University that I was willing to give up and forego something I really love: teaching.”
After he resigned from the Humphrey School, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, authored a bill that would have required the board to have a University faculty member as a regent. The bill made no progress.
In February this year, the board went the opposite direction, adding a policy — in light of Sviggum’s previous conflict — to prevent University employees from serving on the board.
Kahn said it’s not uncommon for universities to have faculty members as regents and pushed for Sviggum to keep both positions.
Although they’re on opposite sides politically, Kahn said she respects Sviggum.
“My highest recommendation for anyone is that they’re smart. And he’s smart. That, to me, is more important than if they’re in line with me politically.”
Sviggum also had support from those within the Humphrey School.
Larry Jacobs, a professor at the school, wrote a letter urging regents to find a way to make both roles work.
Another friend of Sviggum’s, Jacobs followed him closely in the Legislature and when he left, recruited him to teach at the Humphrey School, in part because “it would be healthy to have some diversity of perspective.”
“He’s part of an old style of Minnesota politics where you can disagree with people and not be disagreeable,” Jacobs said.
Sviggum’s students also considered him a valuable asset to the classroom.
Jacob Millner was a graduate student at the Humphrey School in 2008 and took Sviggum’s class on state politics. He said Sviggum brought a practical approach of teaching to the classroom. And although he considered himself at the time to have mildly liberal opinions, Millner said he enjoyed Sviggum’s conservative background and perspective.
A dissenting voice
Sviggum often brought a dissenting and critical perspective to the board. Sviggum said he raised questions about administrative bloat and the Carlson School tuition surcharge, among other University policies.
He said it was important that the board have a questioning voice.
Many Republicans saw Sviggum’s conservative voice on the board as essential.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of Steve to the University,” Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said.
Board of Regents Chair Linda Cohen said Sviggum and Brod’s opinions were valuable but that others’ opinions were as well.
“I think there has been a great deal of differences of opinion and perspectives and that Steve Sviggum and Laura Brod are not the only two who bring that to the board,” she said.
At the board meeting last June, in which regents reviewed the University’s 2012 budget plan, Sviggum said he thought the University needed to make cuts to its nonacademic and non-research positions.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough, folks,” Sviggum said at the following meeting when the board approved the budget.
Sviggum and regent Brod were the only dissenting votes.
“I want to be remembered as someone who was willing to challenge the status quo, willing to question and not be part of the approval from the president,” Sviggum said. “I want to be remembered as one who was willing to question the cost-shifting to tuition to students, question the increase in size of bureaucracy, question whether a program is really performing or not.”
Cohen said Sviggum’s time on the board was incredibly valuable and praised him for his public service but thought the most recent conflict of interest was a distraction to the board’s work.
She said the board may go back to its recently-revised code of ethics and conflict of interest policies to prevent another situation like what happened in March.
Leaving the board
Although Sviggum has been praised for public service, he has also been the subject of much debate and criticism. His second conflict of interest in his one-year term on the board drew harsher critics than the first.
Opponents have criticized Sviggum for not telling the board that he would take the Senate job until after accepting it.
Sviggum said he examined and vetted board policy closely to make sure his new position wouldn’t conflict with it. But he didn’t mention the specific position.
“In retrospect, could I have told them about the job [specifically]? Yes,” Sviggum said.
Sviggum has said he can understand how his two positions may have been perceived as a conflict of interest, but he maintains the same attitude he had while on the board — he was right.
Sviggum is adamant that there wasn’t a real conflict of interest, but Cohen said the perception of a conflict is still problematic under board policy.
Unlike his previous conflict, Kahn was less supportive the second time around.
“As solidly political person as he is, that seemed a little problematical [sic] to me.”
His wife, Deb, said Sviggum is open-minded but stern in his beliefs.
“He does listen, but he doesn’t change his mind very often. When he’s right, he’s right,” she said.
Sviggum said a lot of what drove him and his desire to stay on the board is his regard for higher education.
“It really is the great equalizer,” he said. “The University is, in my mind, a greater asset to the state of Minnesota than the Legislature.”
After two months of battling between Sviggum and the board, an ad hoc committee of three regents eventually decided his roles were not compatible. Two legal opinions obtained by the board concurred.
In a tearful speech in front of the board March 8, Sviggum resigned as a regent.
“My reputation means a lot to me,” he said. “I love this University unconditionally. This hurts bad.”
Commenting on his decision to leave, Sviggum said, “I didn’t see there was going to be a win-win for anybody here.”
“I made a commitment to Sen. Senjem that I would be with the ‘new face of the Senate.’ I’d be there throughout the session; that I would be there for him.”
Sviggum’s time on the University’s board is one of the shortest in recent history and likely one of the more tumultuous. But Sviggum stands — and will continue to stand — by his convictions that his conflicts were simply another part of too much service to the state, community and the university he loves.
Speaking to a group of Republican college students Friday, Sviggum reaffirmed his outlook on public service.
“Life can’t all be about taking,” he said. “You got to give back.”
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