Chris Schmitter: A 15 year relationship comes to fruition in St. Paul
On the night he won election last November, Gov. Tim Walz’s first decision was to turn to a 35-year-old Rochester native and ask him to be his chief of staff.
Chris Schmitter, a 2002 John Marshall High School graduate, and Walz had been bound together politically from the moment they first met. Fifteen years earlier, before Walz embarked on his own political career, Schmitter was the first politico he got to know.
“It felt almost like fate,” Walz said about naming Schmitter his chief of staff.
For Schmitter, the elevation to the second most powerful job in a governor’s administration — responsible for managing the state’s massive executive branch and controlling access to the governor — was a culmination of sorts. And perhaps not the last.
Schmitter dates the beginning of his fascination with politics to dinner table talks with his mom, Heidi Schmitter, and his grandfather, Clark Tuttle.
“I was probably 5 or 6 years old. I can remember sitting with my grandfather and my mom talking about politics,” Schmitter said.
As a student, Rochester Public School teachers who saw his promise would continue to nurture and foster that sense of civic responsibility. And it would lead to his rise in state DFL politics, as local and state political activists, seeing his ability to organize and lead, would reward him with roles of increasing responsibility.
“For me, once I got to that late middle school, high school point, it was a natural thing to say, ‘OK, I’m passionate about these issues, so how can I get more involved in local campaigns,’” Schmitter said.
Growing up a leader
Schmitter grew up in Northwest Rochester in the 1990s and early 2000s and attended Gage Elementary School, John Adams Middle School and John Marshall. To the teachers and political activists who got to know him, little is surprising about his political success. Former teachers brighten up when you mention his name.
“I remember Chris as just this go-getter kid,” said Jim Sonju, a sixth-grade teacher at the time when he had Schmitter in his homeroom. “He was just the most effervescent, outgoing, caring individual.”
Sonju recalled how Schmitter, during mock legislature, ran and served as Minnesota governor in the class. Even though it was only an exercise, Schmitter, then about 12, invested the role with great seriousness, researching and vetting bills and vetoing those that he felt were not up to snuff.
Even then, Sonju said, Chris displayed a sense of civic duty that set him apart. Sonju recalled telling Chris that he would be president one day, and he would be his vice president.
“He loved the experience (of politics),” Sonju said. “I feel like he was destined for it. He was going to find a way to serve others.”
Lynn Wilson, a DFL activist, recalled a teenage Schmitter walking into the DFL’s temporary headquarters on South Broadway in 1998, a group of kids trailing behind him.
“Chris walked in, this tall kid, with a string of kids after him,” Wilson said. “He was a leader from the moment I met him.”
In high school, Schmitter formed a DFL chapter at John Marshall. Julie Workman, then a JM orchestra teacher, recalled long political chats with Schmitter and other students during lunch time. Schmitter was signaling that politics lay in his future — even projecting the first presidential inauguration when he would be 35 and eligible to run for president.
“It was just so much fun to play devil’s advocate with him and to watch his brain work,” Workman said. “He was so good at putting things together. He is a rock star for critical thinking skills.”
In high school, DFL activists like Wilson began steering him into roles of increasing responsibility.
“I think a lot of people in politics, if a high school student shows up, would say, ‘look, we’re busy,’” Schmitter said. “Lynn Wilson said, ‘let me get you involved,’ and she did everything she could.”
In 2004, Schmitter took a semester off from Georgetown College to work for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. It was during that campaign that Schmitter and Walz, a Kerry volunteer, met for the first time, forging a political bond that would last, off and on, for the next 15 years.
“From the moment I met him, he was just the brightest, most organized person I’ve ever met,” Walz said in a phone interview. “He just had that attitude that I really loved to see in people, that it was about servant leadership, and he was in it for all the right reasons.”
At the time, Schmitter was a field organizer for the Kerry campaign, and Walz was a Mankato high school teacher and political novice. Back then, the roles were reversed. Walz worked for Schmitter, making campaign literature drops.
Schmitter returned to school after the campaign, but he and Walz stayed in touch. When Walz made his run for Congress, Walz asked Schmitter to serve as a field director.
“He saw that I had built in the course of (the 2004 campaign) strong relationships with volunteers, DFL activists,” Schmitter said. “I think a lot of it was just seeing my ability to organize and my relationships in that part of the state.”
Walz was elected to Congress, ousting then-GOP Rep. Gil Gutknecht in an upset victory. During many of the next several years, Schmitter would take on bigger roles on the campaign trail and in Walz’s office. In 2008, Schmitter served as Walz’s campaign manager for his first re-election bid, which Walz won handily.
In 2010, Schmitter took a break from politics, returning to Minnesota so he could attend law school, even though Walz wanted him to stay.
“I did all I could to try and talk him out of going to law school,” Walz said. “It felt like one of those situations where we were going to see each other again or be back together.”
Schmitter attended University of Minnesota Law School, became editor-in-chief of Minnesota Law Review and graduated first in his class. He clerked for a couple of federal judges, then began practicing law. He stayed active in DFL politics in the Twin Cities and raised money for Walz’s 2016 congressional race.
Schmitter was soon lured back into politics. When Walz decided to run for governor, Schmitter was among the first Walz talked to. Soon Schmitter and his wife, Erin, were spending every free moment they had on the campaign trail, even as they were raising a family. The couple’s daughter, Francis, was born soon after Walz announced his candidacy.
Schmitter said his decision to leave a “wonderful law firm” and return to public service as Walz’s chief of staff was driven by two factors: The chance to serve the state, which was “too great an opportunity to pass up,” and Walz himself.
“He’s an incredibly hard worker, really smart,” Schmitter said.”He really cares about doing what’s right. I’ve seen him make the decision he believes in, even when it may not be the easiest decision politically.”
Walz said he understood the implications of asking Schmitter to work for him, which would involve taking a pay cut “by many fold” even as he is raising a young family
“That was the first decision I had to make after being elected, and I think it was a good one,” Walz said.
Schmitter said there have been “pinch me” moments since becoming chief of staff. One of them was when Walz released his first budget. The moment reminded Schmitter of their first campaign together, when Walz would talk about how budgets were moral documents, a statement of values.
“I feel very lucky and very fortunate to get this chance to serve and to see someone who I really care about and really believe in get the chance to have this kind of imprint on the state,” Schmitter said.
Sonju, now a principal at Lincoln K-8, said he lost track of Schmitter for a while. Then, one day last November, Sonju was watching TV when he saw his one-time student on TV, being named Walz’s chief of staff.
“I had to rewind it. It was a big moment of joy,” Sonju said. “That’s as great as it gets being an educator. When you see your students and former students find that kind of success, that’s what education is all about.”