5 Questions with Steve Kelley, New Minnesota Commerce Commissioner
Steve Kelley has traded his role in academia for a return to state government. After nearly 12 years as a senior fellow in science, technology, and environmental policy (STEP) at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Kelley is taking on a new challenge as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce. Gov. Tim Walz appointed Kelley to that post earlier this month.
State government is familiar territory for Kelley, who previously served in the Minnesota Legislature for 14 years—10 in the Senate and four in the House. During that time he chaired the Senate education committee, and served on committees in both houses dealing with energy and telecommunications regulations.
At the Humphrey School, Kelley taught and researched issues relating to energy and environmental policy, design thinking and innovation, STEM education, and public engagement with science. He’s also an attorney and previously practiced commercial litigation law.
The Commerce Department advocates for Minnesota consumers by overseeing activities of utilities, insurance companies, financial institutions, and telecommunications.
We asked Kelley about his transition from the Humphrey School to the Walz administration.
1. What led you to pursue a position in the governor's administration?
I applied to be a commissioner because I was excited about the opportunity to work with Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. The Commerce Department appealed to me primarily because of its ability to influence decision-making related to renewable energy production and energy efficiency, both of which are essential strategies in mitigating climate change. I also believe I have the experience to lead the other areas of the Commerce Department’s work in financial institutions and insurance.
2. What makes you most excited about this new role?
I like Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan as people, so working with them will be fun. They also selected a very talented team of people to lead other departments and agencies; collaborating with them will be exciting. We have already started working together on issues like health insurance and climate initiatives. And as I have been getting to know the team at Commerce, I am enthusiastic about what we can accomplish together.
3. What are three characteristics that you think all leaders in public service should have?
Limiting my response to three desirable characteristics is hard, and my choices are affected by the current state of politics.
- Integrity. Sticking by the facts and your principles acts like a keel or a centerboard to stabilize your direction.
- Humility. It’s essential, and not just because Gov. Walz has been talking about it. A public servant in a democracy has to remember that the people are in charge.
- Sense of humor. This is helpful in the face of the inevitable mistakes and misunderstandings that arise when people work together.
4. How has your time at the Humphrey School helped prepare you for this role?
The Humphrey School has helped me prepare for returning to state government in countless ways. Among them is the inspiration I gained from our students. Every year I had the chance to connect with students who came to the School to improve their capacity to make a difference.
I also learned new skills that I can apply, including design thinking, system dynamics, lean startup, and the art of hosting. And after asking students to do a better job of defining the problems over and over again, I think I’ll be much better at remembering to focus on the problem we are trying to solve, rather than any one solution.
5. What advice do you have for Humphrey students who aspire to hold influential positions such as yours?
My advice to students is to get engaged with problems in the world while they are in school and after they graduate. My qualifications for this job came not only from my professional practice as a lawyer, but also because I got involved in politics and nonprofits, and was willing to take risks as a leader.