Weather Forecast


Finance commissioner brings long background

ST. PAUL - Minnesota may have Richard Nixon to thank for attracting its finance commissioner to government.

"I was upset that Gilligan's Island wasn't on (television) because of Watergate," Tom Hanson, now 43, said about the early-1970s scandal involving the Republican president. "I remember John Dean (testifying) day after day."

Hanson watched from his Mahnomen, Minn., home and the testimony stirred an interest in government.

Today, Hanson is Gov. Tim Pawlenty's top budget guru as state finance commissioner.

As such, he is point man to get legislative approval for the governor's $34.4 billion, two-year budget.

Pawlenty "has the ultimate say," but Hanson has worked with him 13 years, so he knows a lot about how the governor thinks. "I have learned how he likes to make decisions."

Some of the major funding decisions fall to Pawlenty and Hanson.

"In the end, you can't have 23 commissioners in the room," Hanson said.

He took the Cabinet position late last year after working for years behind the scenes, but at the elbows of Minnesota's best-known politicians.

Those who worked with him say Hanson is a good fit to run the Finance Department, the state agency that has overall control of the budget.

"The governor trusts him, legislators -- of both parties -- respect him, and he knows how to close a deal," said Corey Elmer of Moorhead, a long-time Hanson friend. "He also keeps his word. That's pretty important for someone in his position."

Added Elmer's wife, Brenda, who worked eight years with Hanson: "His people skills are unbeatable, a necessary, but oftentimes a lacking skill around the Capitol. He is a good listener, and he is a coalition-builder who gets things done among polarized parties. He is one of the best trouble-shooters in state government, as evidenced by top leaders often times putting him in charge of sensitive issues over the years."

And Hanson's boss, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said the Mahnomen native has been one of his top advisors for years for a reason.

"Tom understands how to put together the right mix of policy and people to make things happen," Pawlenty said.

Hanson worked for then-House Majority Leader Pawlenty before his 2002 election as governor. Hanson moved to the governor's office, serving as legislative liaison, then deputy chief of staff.

Don't look for Hanson's name to appear on the ballot any time soon. "I've never had the desire" to run for election, Hanson said in a recent interview.

Politics and policy run deep in Hanson's background. His great-great-uncle Arthur G. Sorlie was the 14th North Dakota governor when he died in office in 1929.

Hanson's first foray into politics came in fourth grade, when he became class president on a 29-1 vote. When a high school senior, he duplicated the feat by becoming student body president.

The western Minnesota native attended Concordia College Moorhead with Kevin Goodno of Moorhead - later a state representative - and went on to George Mason University to earn his law degree.

After a stint with then-U.S. Rep. Arlan Stangeland, Hanson began working for House Republicans in 1994.

If Pawlenty moves on to Washington, as many observers suggest is likely, Hanson said he has no desire to go along.

"There are other types of challenges," Hanson said

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.