ST. PAUL — In a surprise move, retired Mayo Clinic Dr. Patricia Simmons jumped into the University of Minnesota Board of Regents race, making a run at a third term on the board.
Simmons told members of a joint-legislative committee on Tuesday that she hadn't planned on running for the 1st Congressional District seat but said she "felt a responsibility" to run after one of the finalists for the seat, retired Mayo Dr. Claire Bender, dropped out last week. Simmons said Rochester leaders urged her to run again for the seat, as they see it as important to have local representation.
During the regent selection process, some had expressed concerns about Simmons having to recuse herself from some votes because of her ties with Mayo Clinic. The Rochester pediatrician said that is no longer an issue since she retired from Mayo Clinic in December.
"I have now eliminated a conflict of interest or a perceived conflict of interest," Simmons said.
The Regent Candidate Advisory Committee had recommended to lawmakers two finalists for the 1st District seat — Bender and Randy Simonson, of Worthington, the CEO of Grazix Animal Health. After Bender dropped out last week due to personal reasons, former Hayfield Republican Rep. Randy Demmer announced he would make a bid for the seat.
In the end, members of the House and Senate higher education committees voted on Tuesday to recommend both Simmons and Simonson for the 1st District seat. Members of the Minnesota House and Senate will decide who gets the seat during a joint convention of the Legislature. The process has become a partisan one in past years, and this Legislature's close partisan split, with 101 Democrats and 100 Republicans, could make for a tight vote.
The Board of Regents is the governing body of the University of Minnesota and its five campuses, including the University of Minnesota Rochester. There are five open seats on the 11-member Board of Regents, including the 1st Congressional District seat.
Demmer said in an interview after the vote that he's dropping his campaign for the seat and won't lobby lawmakers in hopes of getting nominated during the joint legislative convention. Demmer said he jumped in at the last minute because he felt it was important to have at least two candidates for the seat and one of them be from the Rochester area. With Simmons competing for the seat, those concerns have been addressed.
"It would have been a great honor, and it was great to be part of the process," Demmer said. "The dynamic really changed when Patti decided to run again."
Simonson was guaranteed an interview during the joint legislative hearing because he was a finalist. Members of the House and Senate higher education committees also supported motions that allowed Demmer and Simmons to participate.
During the hearing, Simonson emphasized his business experience and passion for research. He said he's concerned about the high cost of tuition. He also told lawmakers he believes it's important that the university not just focus on medical research but also agricultural research.
"We're an agricultural state, whether we want to think of it that way or not," he said.
Simmons highlighted her work at Mayo Clinic, which involved prioritizing spending while always remembering Mayo's mission. She said that is her approach to budgeting at the university.
"I firmly believe when one looks at the cost of education and looks at the distribution of resources to deliver, we start with what does Minnesota need? We need to figure out what the priorities are," Simmons said.
Committee members asked about her decision to seek a third term. She said there is no law prohibiting a regent from serving a third term, and it has been done in the past. In recent years, regents generally have opted to retire after two terms.
Demmer touted his background as a former lawmaker and business owner. He said when he first arrived at the Legislature in 2003, the state was faced with a $3 billion deficit. He learned how to analyze budgets and come through looking for savings, he said. When regents are determining the university's budget, he said it's critical they have a strong understanding of where the dollars are going.
"In my mind, it's about trying to find value and value is a big part of what we're trying to create for students and researchers," he said.
Demmer was knocked out of consideration after the first round of voting by the committee. On a second vote, the committee deadlocked over which candidate to recommend to the Legislature. The majority of House members favored Simonson while most Senate members backed Simmons. In the end, the committee took the unconventional step of forwarding both names for consideration.
Rochester Mayor Ardell Brede, who chaired the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, said this year's regent selection process has taken plenty of unexpected turns. He said he hopes legislators will elect Simmons to a third term and that she is uniquely qualified because of her connections to Mayo Clinic, the city of Rochester and the University of Minnesota Rochester.
Brede added, "She has that experience that will be valuable, I think, on the Board of Regents."