Ex-legislator Steve Sviggum on baling hay, Labor Day, and his new post

In July, Steve Sviggum packed up the honorary plaques and meet-and-greet photos that had accumulated during his 29 years in the Minnesota Legislature and decamped for a new job: Governor Tim Pawlenty had appointed the Republican from Kenyon as the commissioner of labor and industry. Critics promised a fight over confirmation when the Legislature reconvenes in 2008, complaining that the former Speaker has often favored industry over labor. But Sviggum, a lifelong farmer, has already rolled up his sleeves and begun to work.

Labor Day is just around the corner. Can we talk about work?
Work? Real work is therapeutic. I don’t do as much on my farm as my brothers, honestly, but yesterday we were baling hay—the old way. First, you have to cut it in a windrow—

You rake the grass into a row—a windrow. You roll it together, bale it in small squares of 50 or 55 pounds, bring ’em into the barn, and stack ’em on the haymow…. We have enough to do that we could work all the time, but we go to the football game on Friday nights and we go to church on Sunday.

You grew up on that farm. What was your first job?
Baling hay, picking weeds out of the bean field, picking rocks.

What’s harder, picking rocks or keeping a caucus together?
I would liken [leading a political caucus] to being the coach of a football or basketball team. You understand people’s differences, but you pull them together so they will work for each other’s success.

Is having one full-time job easier than having several part-time jobs at once?
Speaker of the House might be a part-time job, but if you’re going to do it right, you’re going to run from Warroad to Worthington, speak to the Lions Club, the chamber of commerce. It’s about time and a half. A job that’s more 8 to 5 is a reduction in hours.

You took some unexpected positions during the 2007 legislative session, when you weren’t Speaker….
I got involved in some issues that you might not think I was interested in: medical marijuana—I became chief spokesperson for that—and education equity and nursing-home equity funding. Some of those things I’ve believed in for a long time, but as Speaker I couldn’t get down on the House floor. Speakers don’t participate.

Are you ready to take off your political hat?
It’s a change going from legislator to executive. There are laws I voted against that I will be enforcing. No longer will I be advocating for workers’ comp changes. Now it’s going to be my job to fairly enforce the law that’s there, as made by somebody else