The busiest man in Minnesota had made three trips past the front steps of the State Capitol before lunch.
Tom Hanson had listened to a roomful of nervous big shots, including lobbyists for the Mall of America, wondering whether a state-backed loan guarantee might be created to kick-start construction projects stalled in an economic slump.
He had soothed health care providers worried about possible surprises in the governor's revised budget plan. He had sparred with the speaker of the House during a committee hearing over the details of billions in federal stimulus money coming to Minnesota.
He was still at it that afternoon, standing at Gov. Tim Pawlenty's shoulder as the governor announced a new budget plan. "Total stimulus that's in the budget?" asked Pawlenty, leaning back to Hanson for the answer to a reporter's query. "Roughly, $2.6 billion," Hanson replied.
Since January, Hanson has been in the hot seat -- two hot seats, to be exact. As Pawlenty's management and budget commissioner, he was already in charge of fixing a $4.6 billion state budget deficit when Pawlenty tapped him to become the state's coordinator for an unprecedented infusion of billions of dollars in federal stimulus money.
Some are skeptical of such supersized multitasking, saying that Hanson has no formal financial background and way too much to do. "The task of keeping an eye on the spending of federal recovery dollars should be handled by someone who does not already have a full plate," House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said in January when Hanson was given two hats to wear.
The governor disagreed. "It's a big job, but Tom's up to the task," Pawlenty said in an e-mail. "It makes sense to have your key budget adviser also oversee the stimulus funds."
Hanson agrees that the job is manageable. "The people in most other states that have my job are [also] doing the bulk" of the federal stimulus coordinating, said Hanson, 45, whose great-great uncle was North Dakota's governor in the 1930s. His job, he added, is more managerial and "that's much different than having to know everything about everything."
Yet as Hanson sat in a fourth-floor conference room one day last week, pondering dense documents detailing limitations on the use of federal stimulus money to see whether it could be employed to remodel nursing homes, an assistant interrupted to tell him Pawlenty was on the phone, calling from somewhere in northern Minnesota.
"They need you again. Sorry," she said as Hanson rushed out.
The man to see
No one doubts that Hanson is the proverbial man to see. Last Monday, he said, his workday began with a 7:30 a.m. meeting with Pawlenty and ended at 10 p.m.. His calendar is dotted with stimulus-related meetings big and small, ranging from a discussion of Elk Run, a proposed development near Rochester that wanted stimulus money for roads, to a meeting regarding Wal-Mart Day at the Capitol.
So far, many give Hanson more than a passing grade. "He's unflappable," said Patti Cullen, a health provider lobbyist who said she has known Hanson since his days as a mid-level House Republican aide.
Others see Hanson caught in the awkward position of overseeing a federal stimulus program that his boss -- Pawlenty -- has criticized. Then there is Hanson's role in the political crossfire between a DFL-controlled Legislature and a Republican governor that do not trust each other. On top of all that, according to some DFLers, is the belief that an assurance from Hanson does not necessarily mean his boss, Pawlenty, is likewise on board.
"The frustration, privately, has to be enormous," said Rep. Alice Hausman, a longtime DFLer from St. Paul, who said Hanson was left in the dark last year when at one point Pawlenty pulled funding for the Central Corridor light rail line. (It later was restored.)
Hanson, while acknowledging he misread Pawlenty's intentions on the project, said "most of the time we're on the same wavelength."
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, speaks fondly of Hanson and said it is clear that Hanson has Pawlenty's back, if not always his ear. "He does ... bring a real political angle to the job," she said. "Finance commissioners in the past, for the most part, have strong rooting in the finance department or in past finance activity."
On the intricacies of figures, Hanson often defers to aides, including Assistant Commissioner Jim Schowalter and his wife, Deputy Commissioner Stephanie Andrews. But Hanson defends his financial skills. "I know my way around a spreadsheet as good as anyone," said Hanson, the son of a banker from tiny Mahnomen.
Despite a jocular and cooperative nature, Hanson has been criticized for the way he runs his department. In one recent biting exchange, veteran legislator Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, reprimanded Hanson at a committee meeting for what she said was foot-dragging by his department in responding to information requests from lawmakers.
"[Your] staff work[s] for both us," Berglin admonished Hanson. "They don't work for the governor first."
Hanson interrupted: "Well, he was elected, Sen. Berglin, by the people of Minnesota to administer the executive branch. We are answerable to you, but we have an ability to utilize our personnel."
"We were elected, too," Berglin replied.
Earlier this year, Hanson's department was the focus of an unusually blistering report over another of its missions: acting as the state's financial monitor. Following embarrassing revelations of financial improprieties in Health and Human Services and the Department of Natural Resources, a legislative auditor's report faulted the Finance Department for not properly monitoring employee access to state business systems. Hanson announced plans to add eight auditors to his staff.
On the inside
Hanson first got to know Pawlenty in the mid-1990s, when Hanson was a legislative staffer and Pawlenty, a legislator, was rising to become majority leader before being elected governor. Hanson followed Pawlenty to the governor's office in 2003, acting as his assistant chief of staff and director of legislative and cabinet affairs. He is now considered part of Pawlenty's select inner circle, along with Revenue Commissioner Ward Einess, Chief of Staff Matt Kramer, First Lady Mary Pawlenty and, occasionally, former House Speaker Steve Sviggum.
Kevin Goodno, a former legislator and Department of Human Services commissioner, now a lobbyist, has known Hanson since their days at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., when Goodno ran for class president and Hanson supported his opponent. Goodno won, as he reminds Hanson occasionally to this day.
Goodno said Hanson, because of his history with the governor, can speak his mind with Pawlenty or play the devil's advocate, roles others might find uncomfortable.
"You are never going be as close to the governor if you are on the outside," Goodno said.