By Mark W. Olson
On Jan. 3, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon took the oath of office.
The date marked another significant occasion. It was the first time in more than two decades that Carol Molnau hasn’t held public office.
“Once the arm goes up. I go out,” Molnau said of the swearing-in ceremony, during a Jan. 3 phone interview.
For the past eight years, Molnau served as lieutenant governor.
“It’s a great experience, and I loved every minute of it, for the most part,” Molnau said.
For much of two terms, she also served a dual role as Minnesota Department of Transportation commissioner. Molnau came under intense fire following the August 2007 I-35W bridge collapse, and the Minnesota Senate, on a party-line vote, rejected her confirmation as commissioner in 2008.
However, area residents may recall Molnau long before her last gig.
Perhaps they remember her as the Ward 4 Chaska councilor or as Carver County’s 34A Minnesota House representative.
Or maybe they remember her as owner, with husband, Steve, of one of Chaska’s last local dairy farms (right next to Chaska High School); or a legendary arm wrestler; or the woman, as legend has it, who once bested future Gov. Jesse Ventura in a keg-tossing contest.
Commuters might also know Molnau as the woman who, as chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee and as MnDOT commissioner, pushed for completion of the 60-years-in-the-making new Highway 212.
Even local children might know Molnau as the giant furry Easter Bunny that makes an appearance in the American Legion Post 57 Auxiliary sponsored Easter Egg Hunt in Chaska’s City Square Park.
Since leaving Chaska about 10 years ago, Steve and Carol Molnau have lived and farmed near Lafayette (located near New Ulm in south-central Minnesota). They farm about 1,750 acres of corn and soybeans, with a daughter and son-in-law farming some of the land, Molnau said.
But Molnau still has a soft spot for the city that founded her political career.
“People of Chaska were really good for us,” said Molnau. “Being a farmer in the center of the city, when Chaska was developing quite a bit, all of these farm magazines came out and wanted to talk to us about the conflict between urban and rural. But I didn’t, because we had good neighbors. The people that were the saddest to see us leave were those around us.”
When asked why she still volunteers to dress up as Chaska’s Easter Bunny, Molnau replies, “It’s that one day of nostalgia. It’s that one day to go back home to Chaska.”
Q&A with Carol Molnau
Editor’s Note: Some of Molnau’s answers were edited for length.
Q: What mementos did you need to clean out of your office?
A: Some of the things that I really, really looked at and spent some time thinking of and who gave them to me were some of the military things …. [I think of] some of the kid’s faces I saw and wonder where they are now.
And a couple of the other things were the agricultural medals we won at the State Fair.
(Molnau’s State Fair team, which competed in cow milking, animal calling, wool packing, butter carving, faced off against groups such as Princess Kay, the FFA and the Department of Agriculture. “Those guys are overachievers,” she said of the MDA. The Canadian embassy also proved to be “pretty good.”)
Q. What did you look forward to every day as lieutenant governor?
A: Every day was different. What I really looked forward to was to see what the day would bring. You had a schedule, but [that’s] not necessarily what you’d do every day. Interaction with people; some crisis that comes up; immediate press conferences; the governor had to go somewhere so you had to speak to the ambassador of China. … You [never] really knew, which I found kind of exciting and I liked it.
Q. What were the highs of your job?
A: Some of the first 5-1/2 years as Commissioner of Transportation. Some of this had to do with infrastructure. I don’t have to tell you the importance of not just a project being completed, but the difference it makes in people’s lives – not just the time you save.
We redid the piece [of Highway 169] in Belle Plaine. Since we did that there’s been no fatality there. We [previously] had at least one or two or three a year. The difference you make in people’s lives when you focus on their needs and safety was the No. 1 thing ... Those were the kinds of things when I look back on and physically see and feel.
There were other things – when you help a young person that came to you with an issue and you talked to them and kept track of them and now they’re doing so well and you know you made a difference there.
Working 80 to 90 hours a week – that’s the work I like to do. After that, if you threw [in] a deployment or welcome home or school event or ambassador [visit], I did that too, but I also did the MnDOT thing from 6 in the morning to 6 or 7 at night – lots of weekend work. The only negative to that was not getting to see your family….
Believe me, everything you give in that kind of capacity you get ten-fold … I loved the people I worked with at MnDOT. We had some of the brightest and best in the country, and they were good folks.
Q: What were the lows of your job?
A: Obviously the hardest day of my life was the bridge collapse, because of the effect it had on so many people and their families – that was the hardest thing I went through while I was there.
The other part that was difficult were the soldiers’ funerals, and seeing their families and interacting with them and letting them know how important there job was – those were hard times.
The other hard part were the politics of [the job], because that can be nasty. That was the negative of taking on a cabinet position, because then people who chose to get personal and do the political stomping to get at the governor, so to speak, really had an opportunity. Rather than focusing on the job and what people needed, they went political. And that didn’t serve a lot of people well. And the general public did not appreciate that …
That’s part of the job. At least that’s the risk you take when you take on a position and do it well. Nobody likes you to do it too well. We did more in the 5-1/2 years I was there getting major projects completed and lowering fatality rates in the state because of the changes we made. We took out a lot of bottlenecks … Whatever we did made a huge difference.
Q. When you were stressed at work, what thought helped you relax?
A: If I got home, I’d go for a walk in the woods or start a fire out there in the woods. Some tribal friend told me that just sit there and watch how the flickers go up into the air and they disappear. Just send all that pain, or all that worry, all that tenseness, up to heaven and it disappears when it gets up there. God takes care of it. You’re not alone – that’s just a reminder to let you know that. That’s what I did.
And if at the Capitol, depending on the time of year, I always had a place to go to walk … Could you believe I picked morel mushrooms 15 miles from the Capitol? I’d do those kinds of things. You had to get people out of your face for a short time. That’s what I did mostly, and then I had a pretty supportive family. I had a sister and daughter who lived in Blaine. I lived with them rather than setting up a separate household. (The round-trip commute to Lafayette was 170 miles, rather than just 15-20 miles to Blaine, Molnau noted).
Q. How did the role of lieutenant governor change under the Pawlenty Administration?
A: I think in previous administrations they always had quality people in that second position. I don’t think they were utilized as well as they could have been. The governor and I had that discussion before I decided to run with him and that was that I’d do something of substance – not just ribbon cuttings and not just a spare tire that’s there and ready and [something you] hope you never need. I’d get too frustrated. We needed to find something … outside the box and commissioner of transportation was just that – the first time in history.
Transportation was always something that was a key government role – the one thing government can do – individuals can’t … When you get goods and services across the state [then] the state will do well. I saw the value of that and the government role in that, so it was always an important thing for me.
Q: What changes would you like to see in the lieutenant governor’s office?
A: It’s hard to say, because every governor, every administration, does something different, and every lieutenant governor does something different. Some are more comfortable, a little more laid back. Some want to get in there and do something … It really depends on the lieutenant governor and governor.
I wish it weren’t quite as political as it was, or personal. I think people of the state would be served better if it wasn’t. I think we made changes that we showed that position was very important.
Q: After years as a public servant, what are your plans?
A: I was eventually going to go to St. Paul for six years, and 18 years later, I’ll say I’ll visit the Capitol on occasion.
In January we’re going to go to Missouri to see our grandson graduate from Army M.P. school. He’ll be stationed in New York – then spend time in Tucson, then I’m going to do public speaking across the country on ag issues.
I have a friend in Wisconsin. She’s quite active and she needs speakers. [We’ll speak for a] national agri-women’s association and a few other groups like that – other ag groups that would like to have speakers.
I’ll spend more time watching my grandkids do their sports and be active in their schools. I have a 48-pound football player and the only thing that saves him is he’s fast – and some pretty active grandkids – five grandkids. I want to spend time with them and my mom is 88 and we expect to spend more time there in Norwood.
Q: On Washington, D.C.
A: I think everyone assumes [Tim Pawlenty is] going off some place – he’s always looked toward D.C. I never want to go there. President Bush offered me two positions there [for highway secretary and rail secretary].
I interviewed with [U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman] Mineta. I spent the day there. I walked back to the hotel and thought, “I wouldn’t do this. This sucks.” What that job is, is speaking on behalf of the president around the country – not a bad thing – on transportation and highways … but you’re never home.
Q: What advice do you have to your successor?
A: Do your homework. Being ready, being prepared is what it’s really about. I haven’t talked to [Yvonne Prettner Solon] about her plan yet. That’s something the governor and lieutenant governor have to work out themselves.
During a recent interview, the newspaper asked former Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau “What was the most important thing you learned in each of the following tasks?” Here are her replies:
Chaska councilor: “Listening and knowing you’re responsible to the people of that ward.”
State representative: “The good ideas don’t come from St. Paul. Most come from the people in the district.”
Lieutenant governor: “For me it was a very humbling experience. I often stood in awe when people called me lieutenant governor. … It was one of those positions that gave you an opportunity to meet people from all over the state.”
MnDOT commissioner: “[It was a] true management challenge and you have good people, you just need to direct them and lead them. Listening and working together making sure they knew they weren’t the problem [but] part of the solution.”
Farmer: “Do your homework and don’t sleep late. I still get up at 4:30 a.m. [Husband] Steve said it’s a shame we don’t have cows anymore.”
Arm wrestler: “Never underestimate your opponent. Know your weaknesses, but also look for strengths and weaknesses of your opponent.”
Easter Bunny (which Molnau portrays annually at the Chaska Easter Egg Hunt): “Not everyone sees things the same way.” Molnau’s granddaughter hated the Easter Bunny. When asked why, the granddaughter said she thought the Easter Bunny had eaten her grandmother. “[I] heard your voice coming from her and that’s the only way you could get in there.”
July 1971: Cologne native Carol Pautsch marries Chaska dairy farmer Steve Molnau. The couple has three daughters.
October 1982: Molnau becomes women’s world champion following her victory at a World Professional Arm Wrestling Association tournament in Memphis, Tenn.
Jan. 3, 1989: Molnau sworn into her first elected office as Ward 4 councilor following the November defeat of incumbent Leon Schmidt.
November 3, 1992: Molnau defeats Waconia incumbent Larry Bodahl for the 35A state house seat. Bodahl the last DFLer to represent Carver County in the Minnesota Legislature
May 2000: Molnau family sells 40 acres of land off of Pioneer Trail to Pulte Homes for approximately $84,200 an acre. The farmstead had been in the Molnau family for 90 years and now serves as a townhouse development and a soccer field.
Jan. 14, 2002: Gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty chooses Molnau as lieutenant governor candidate.
Nov. 5, 2002: Pawlenty and Molnau win the ticket. In January, Pawlenty chooses Molnau as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
July 31, 2003: Pawlenty and Molnau announce new highway projects, including the long-awaited New Highway 212. “About time,” writes Molnau on a Highway 212 marker created for the announcement. The ribbon cutting for the highway is July 1, 2008.
Aug. 1, 2007: I-35 bridge collapses, bringing heat on Molnau’s commissioner post.
Feb. 28, 2008: Minnesota Senate votes to oust Molnau as MnDOT commissioner.
Jan. 3: 2011: For the first time in over two decades, Molnau doesn’t hold a public office when Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon take the oath of office.