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Walz, Flanagan bring ‘unlikely friendship’ to governor’s office

By Briana Bierschbach

MPR News/90.1 FM

Peggy Flanagan was 25 years old and fresh off a victory for a Minneapolis school board seat when a geography teacher in jeans and a T-shirt strolled into her class at Camp Wellstone.

It was her job at the camp — named after the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone — to train Democrats how to run for office. And the schoolteacher from Mankato was as green as they got. At 41, his only experience in politics was a stint volunteering for John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

And he wanted to topple a giant: Republican Gil Gutknecht, a six-term congressman representing Minnesota’s conservative 1st District.

“As a Democrat? Running against Gil Gutknecht?” Flanagan remembers saying. “And we’re like, good luck, but come on in!”

With Flanagan’s help that candidate, Tim Walz, went on to beat Gutknecht in 2006. They became friends, and more than a decade later, Walz sought her help again: running alongside him in his race for governor.

Now a year into their administration, they’re establishing their own model for governor and lieutenant, with Flanagan staking out a prominent role. She moved into an office down the hall from Walz. She has a big say in policies and positions as his top adviser behind the scenes. In public, she flanks him at nearly all public appearances, often speaking before the governor.

That’s in part because of how they met — Flanagan as the experienced politico, showing Walz the way.

“It seemed to me at that time that a schoolteacher with no experience should not be in Congress. It was a horrible way to look at it, but we were conditioned to think that. There were people who were groomed to do this,” Walz remembered. “It was with Peggy for the first time I realized that good candidates are the ones that didn’t plan their life to be in office but their life prepared them well.”

In Minnesota, the governor and lieutenant governor are a package deal on the ballot, so the pick is typically a political one.

The lieutenant governor candidate can help make the ticket more balanced — in terms of race, gender, geography or ideology — and therefore palatable to a broader swath of voters.

Once they’re in office, however, lieutenant governors tend to fade to the background. That was the case with former DFL Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner-Solon, who left her Duluth seat in the state Senate to run alongside Minneapolis Democrat Mark Dayton in 2010. They won but were rarely seen together working on issues. By the time Dayton’s 2014 reelection came around, she wasn’t on the ticket again.

But when Walz was preparing to launch his gubernatorial bid in 2017, Flanagan, then serving in the state Legislature, was the only name on his list. He pitched to her something different: running together as a team from day one. Most gubernatorial candidates wait until months before the election to decide who their lieutenant candidate is.

That approach has translated into their work in St. Paul, where Walz describes Flanagan as his top adviser.