Jennifer Carnahan and Ken Martin
Grabbing a beer in Omaha, Nebraska, during the NCAA Sweet 16 led to a Jayhawk garden gnome appearing at the Minnesota GOP convention this June. That’s what happens when you’re the chair of the state’s Republican party and you lose a bet to your Democratic counterpart during March Madness. Jennifer Carnahan’s Syracuse Orangemen went up against Ken Martin’s University of Kansas Jayhawks and were defeated. “She honored the bet with the mascot gift,” Martin says with a smile. The two share a mutual respect and know it’s down to business when their candidates go head-to-head. But they arrived at the hottest year in Minnesota politics via two distinctly different paths.
Martin entered politics in 1990 as a volunteer for Paul Wellstone’s first campaign. After additional fieldwork, he became leader of the Kansas Democratic Party and soon was recruited to be Minnesota’s DFL party director. It was Governor Dayton, whom Martin helped with his 2010 recount, who ultimately persuaded him to run for party chair in 2011. He’s currently serving his fourth term and is the longest serving DFL chair in party history — as well as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“I don’t know if anyone should necessarily celebrate that statistic,” he says with a chuckle. What he doesn’t laugh about is the work to be done. “Minnesota is the epicenter of the 2018 midterms,” he explains. “There’s no other state with more targeted races on the ballot: an open governor’s race, two U.S. Senate seats and four nationally targeted Congressional races.” He admits that his party narrowly kept the state blue in 2016, adding that “Trump and the Republicans are looking at Minnesota as a real opportunity to flip this year.”
Flipping the top of the ticket and making Minnesota redder is exactly what Carnahan strives to accomplish. “The GOP is in a position of strength going into the generals,” she explains. “In Minnesota’s first and eighth districts, Trump won by double digits in 2016.” She predicts that the DFL will face trouble holding onto those seats this November.
If her DFL counterpart is a career-party type, she’s the exact opposite. Her humble beginnings go back to South Korea, where her parents left her on a hospital doorstep as an infant. A Minnesota family adopted her, and she grew up in Maple Grove. Her first job was with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Several sports teams followed, including the Los Angeles Angels, where she was the sponsorship marketing manager. From there, McDonald’s, Ecolab and General Mills. In 2013, she opened a women’s clothing boutique. Once in politics, she sold two of her three stores. In March 2016, Carnahan experienced her first caucus, which launched her journey to party chair in 2017. Ultimately, “I want to deliver 10 electoral votes in 2020,” she says. “The last time Minnesota went red [for president] was 1972.”
Martin’s teenage son is on the same page as Carnahan. He identifies as Republican and was thrilled to meet her and snap a photo. Martin says he and his wife don’t pressure their two sons in any political direction but do enjoy time spent together as a family. When he has downtime, he reads. Right now, he recommends Grant by Ron Chernow. “Grant was a smart politician who brought people together at a very difficult time and understood he was serving a broader community,” Martin notes. A quality both leaders hope their candidates embody.
Mylynn and Jerod Tufte
It’s not easy living the life of a North Dakota power couple when one of you is in the governor’s cabinet and the other sits on the state’s highest court. But for State Health Officer Mylynn Tufte and Supreme Court Justice Jerod Tufte, it’s actually easier than some other positions, like sitting in the car after their hourlong post-work commute to first watch their younger son’s T-ball game then make it to their daughter’s softball game. The role of sporting parents is one they can openly discuss. “We can’t talk about significant parts of our jobs with each other,” explains Jerod. “Mylynn has cabinet meetings that are segregated for what’s ready for public consumption.”
Theirs is a unique journey individually and together. Being assigned to the same dorm at Case Western Reserve University determined their cosmic meeting. They then attended Arizona State University, she for her MBA and he for his JD. Mylynn worked as a critical-care nurse and health management executive; Jerod clerked for a U.S. Court of Appeals judge then practiced law in rural North Dakota. His work in local legislative campaigns and the Army National Guard got the attention of then-Governor Jack Dalrymple, who made Jerod his legal counsel from 2011 to 2014. “If you’re open to unexpected opportunities, things come your way that you wouldn’t have thought to hope for,” Jerod muses. He was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2016.
“Jerod running for office got me excited about the idea of serving in a public role,” explains Mylynn. While on the campaign trail with him, she spent a lot of time listening to then-candidate Doug Burgum discuss what he wanted to do with “reinvention and main-street initiatives.” In February 2017, Governor Burgum appointed Mylynn state health officer. She oversees the North Dakota Department of Health and implements state laws governing it. “The health department has an eclectic variety of roles and a varied herd of cats to track,” says Jerod. “I can watch Mylynn take on something and be ready to learn.”
They appreciate country life’s slower pace and cherish time spent with their three children. “One of the reasons we like living here is that many residents are long-term,” explains Jerod. “We know almost everyone within a 10-mile radius.”
As far as time together, “the kids are into running,” says Mylynn. “That’s something we do together as a family.” It’s their family and their service-oriented attitudes that keep this power couple grounded. “You have to practice humility,” stresses Jerod. “You don’t have all the answers.” Adds Mylynn: “And have gratitude. It’s an honor to try to make a difference in someone’s life every day.”
Manny Lagos and Ethan Finlay
Coach Manny Lagos calls it “an amazing ride” that entailed “climbing mountains to get into Major League Soccer and to get the community excited” about Minnesota United. Now, that climb is showing some results for the soccer team’s first-ever sporting director with season two underway and season three slated to be played inside a brand-new privately financed $250-million stadium. Allianz Field will seat some 19,400 fans and feature the first-ever use of PTFE coating on a stadium, allowing LED lights to shroud the structure in any hue. A safe-standing area for 2,800 fans will have 38-degree seat angles — the steepest engineering allows — giving the feeling of being right on top of the opposing team’s goalkeepers. Home-field advantage, indeed.
A former professional soccer player himself, Lagos is responsible for player recruitment, acquisition and development. One athlete who can thank him for a job is winger Ethan Finlay. Born in Duluth and raised in Wisconsin and North Carolina, he returned to Minnesota from the Columbus Crew last year. Both he and Lagos focus on the long game for professional soccer in Minnesota — and in the United States in general. They agree that the strategy for a vibrant future involves getting young people interested early on and getting the community to buy into franchise strengths.
A rich gift lies in Minnesota United’s international fabric. Lagos emphasizes that the team is in a cycle of roster building with the goal of “competing as one of the upper-echelon teams in the league.” Having players from across the world — Brazil, Cameroon, England, Peru, New Zealand and the United States — has its advantages and its challenges.
“Culture doesn’t happen overnight,” says Finlay. He and his teammates try to strengthen their connections by sharing housing tips, inviting one another to barbecues and checking in on one another’s well-being. A leader on his own team and for the league as a whole, Finlay is one of seven executive board members for the MLS Players Association. His vision includes helping players develop the skills they need both today and tomorrow — once they become former soccer players.
Lagos admits that the explosion of World Cup fever in the United States has helped his brand, but he says that growing local talent and boosting local fan support are key to the team’s longevity. He’s looking to the third season ahead “as a really important one to push — for the playoffs and ultimately a championship.”
ONES TO WATCH
Lisa Lewis and Kathy Schmidlkofer
More than half a million people. That’s who Lisa Lewis and Kathy Schmidlkofer concern themselves with every day. That number represents total systemwide University of Minnesota alumni. Lewis is president and CEO of the alumni association, while Schmidlkofer holds those titles at the University of Minnesota Foundation. Of the nation’s top 50 public fundraising universities, the duo is one of only six all-female pairs to helm both. And over the past five fiscal years, private donations to the university have surpassed $1.5 billion.
Both leaders understand that a personal anecdote is the driver of action. University of Minnesota inventions show up in the operating room, the cornfield and nearly everywhere in between. Lewis takes these storylines and focuses on creating a sense of “connection to the magic of the brand.” Schmidlkofer, meanwhile, is jazzed by “one dream, one legacy at a time,” realizing that in today’s culture of competing interests, she and her team need to inspire engagement to help university enthusiasts pursue their own personal philanthropy. Because 67 percent of the institution’s alumni stay in the state, their work requires balancing the local and the global.
“Part of our mission is to bring people together,” explains Wisconsin husband-and-wife team Chris Meyer and Heather Wentler. They started dating at 16 with little knowledge that they’d become entrepreneurial engines by their early thirties.
The seeds took root in college. Back in 2005, Meyer built a dual monitor as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for an innovation competition. Though not a winner that day, the effort led to participation — and wins — in similar competitions throughout grad school. In 2010, he started Sector67 as a community hacker space. “MIT coined the term ‘hack’ to mean using things in unintended ways,” Meyer explains. “Here, it’s synonymous with creativity.”
Wentler says the two take turns as breadwinner. She started her teaching career in low-income schools but “felt like curricula had no correlation to everyday life.” So she founded STEAM enrichment program Fractal in 2011 to bridge the gap between school, home and the real world. Her latest baby? Doyenne Group, which aims to improve gender parity in startup land.
Jennifer Larrick and Kyle Johnson believe in the power of girls. The immigrant and refugee girls at St. Paul’s Como Park High School, where Johnson served as varsity soccer coach, were strong players but didn’t have resources to go to the camps that college scouts frequent. The duo saw a “blatant lack of diversity on the high-end soccer platform and in the overall ecosystem,” says Johnson, which led them to found nonprofit Like a Girl.
“We wanted to craft a way to keep these girls motivated and to stay in touch throughout the year,” explains Larrick, who’s also an Augsburg College assistant soccer coach. Their solution? In stark contrast to the pay-to-play climate, they advocate for a way-to-play model so that every girl gets a shot.
Like a Girl hosted its first college showcase in 2017, inviting 60 soccer coaches. Only two showed. But those two provided proof of concept. The organization has an advisory board, and its following continues to grow. Johnson even quit his high-school coaching gig to focus his energy here. This year’s showcase saw 22 college coaches commit. If you’re keeping score, Like a Girl is expanding into Minneapolis with dreams of moving beyond state borders in the years ahead.