DFL Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan and Republican Matt Birk are 40-something parents who live in Twin Cities suburbs and are seeking the second-highest job in the state.
One is the nation's highest ranking Native American woman elected to executive office, the other a former pro football player who started a Catholic school. And both say they accepted their No. 2 roles with an agreement they would be partners, not subordinates.
"The beauty of being in the role of governor and lieutenant governor is you don't have to do things alone," Flanagan said recently, referring to DFL Gov. Tim Walz. "We lift each other up."
Birk initially told GOP governor candidate Scott Jensen no, but then he signed on because he didn't like how Walz handled the COVID-19 pandemic. "You came into our houses. You messed with our kids. You messed with our churches," he said to supporters recently. "We're not going to stand for it anymore."
Both candidates say they want what's best for Minnesotans. But their paths to this point and their visions of the future couldn't be more different — and that's intentional, said Steven Schier, an author and retired Carleton College professor.
"They both represent the activist core of their parties and that's, by the way, why they were chosen," Schier said. "There's a big difference between Jensen and Walz but there's a bigger difference between Flanagan and Birk."
"They are divergent by design," Schier added. He said the two were chosen not to help their respective tickets make inroads with moderate voters but to energize the base in their parties. With Flanagan, that's the progressive DFLers and with Birk, it's the more conservative Republicans.
The lieutenant governor's job is secondary in salary and standing. She earns $82,956 to the governor's $127, 639. The ambitions of those who hold both jobs shape them, but ultimately the governor gets most of the fame or blame.
Before winning statewide office four years ago with Walz, Flanagan, 43, built a career in progressive politics, beginning on the campaign of the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone while she was a student at the University of Minnesota.
She trained candidates, including her current boss, at Wellstone Action. She was on the Minneapolis school board and was executive director of the Children's Defense Fund. She was a two-term state representative from her hometown of St. Louis Park, where she still lives with her husband and daughter.
Birk, 46, is a married father of eight who grew up in St. Paul and lives in Mendota Heights. He's a Harvard graduate who was a two-time All-Pro center for the Minnesota Vikings, where he played for a decade before signing with the Baltimore Ravens in 2009 and winning a Super Bowl. After retiring from the sport, he started Unity Catholic High School in Burnsville.
Since taking office, Walz and Flanagan are usually side-by-side at public events and private cabinet meetings. She described the relationship as a collaboration where her presence and positions are valued.
The two are focused on work most of the time, but they also look comfortable together in more casual settings. During the Twin Cities Marathon, Flanagan was beside Walz at the governor's Summit Avenue residence cheering on runners.
"We do a lot of things by consensus. We're fairly aligned on things and where we're not, we talk about it," she said.
By stature, Birk towers over his slight running mate. He adds star power and a playful presence to the ticket, but he and Jensen are politically aligned and appear to have an easy relationship. They hold campaign events in bars to watch football games.
When Birk wanted his running mate's attention at a recent event in Hermantown, he called out across a crowd of supporters, "Hey, Scotty." A few moments later, Jensen, a family physician, shouted back, "Hey Birk, how many closed-head injuries did you have?" Birk responded, "You mean like concussions?"
Before joining the ticket, Birk said Jensen promised he'd never tell him what to say. "Personality-wise, he lets me be me," Birk said. "He respects everybody's opinion. He's not an authoritarian."
The differences between Birk and Flanagan go beyond what's apparent at first glance, but appearances aren't insignificant to her.
As the first woman of color elected lieutenant governor, Flanagan said representation matters. She said their ticket of a Native American woman running with a white man reflects the diversity of the state. She talks about the importance of making sure all people feel "seen, heard, valued and respected."
She said she hopes this administration can continue to be a model for how to engage with the state's tribal nations. In contrast, Flanagan called the GOP ticket with two white men "an interesting choice."
Birk responded, "I don't know what that has to do with how you govern and run a state." In an administration with numerous commissioners and tens of thousands of employees, Birk said there's "plenty of room for diversity."
Both Flanagan and Birk have been in the public eye for a couple of decades. She's disciplined and on message, rarely making a misstep. He's done stand-up comedy and is quick with extemporaneous quips.
Of his running mate, Birk told a crowd of supporters recently, "He's not interested in being a career politician," Birk said. "He can't; he's too old."
Birk's free-wheeling approach has brought occasional condemnation. Last summer on the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned constitutional protections for abortion, Birk told the National Right to Life conference in Georgia that American culture "promotes abortion" by "telling women they should look a certain way, they should have careers."
Birk said some abortions-rights activists play the "rape card."
Then in response to Flanagan's criticism of the comment, Birk said, "Aren't you a mother? Isn't that more important than being lieutenant governor?"
Flanagan said recently she's devoted not just to her daughter, Siobhan, whom she mentions often, but to fighting for affordable child care, access to health care and abortion rights. "I can't think of a better way to be a great mom," she said.
She draws her own sharp contrast here, pointing out that in 2012 she was pregnant and working on the Minnesotans United For All Families campaign to defeat a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage.
Birk waded into politics that year, writing a newspaper opinion piece saying that redefining marriage will affect children and "the welfare of society."
The two diverge on environmental issues as well.
In recent days, Birk has been sharing videos from northern Minnesota, saying mining isn't just part of the region's past, but its future. "There will be no bigger champion of mining and the Iron Range way of life than a Dr. Scott Jensen and Matt Birk administration," he said.
Flanagan's much more concerned about land conservation. She and Walz differed on Enbridge's Line 3 oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. Flanagan calls it a "really painful issue." The Walz administration supported the pipeline over extensive protests by tribes.
Ultimately, Flanagan and Birk both say voters need to weigh what they bring to their tickets.
Birk said he brings expertise in economics and education as a businessman who has run a school and he can follow Jensen, whom he calls a leader. Describing his role, he recalled the advice the former Vikings coach Dennis Green gave him on his first day, "Know your role, accept your role and be the best at your role," Birk said.
Flanagan said she's been asked if she would have taken her position knowing the trauma of the past four years — the murder of George Floyd, the riots and the pandemic. She says, "Unequivocally yes."