Charlie Weaver

Charlie Weaver

For 20 years, he forged public-private partnerships to boost Minnesota’s economy, improve educational achievement, and tackle tough economic and social problems.

Charlie Weaver was just a boy when he learned how to form and keep good relationships with politicians. His teacher was his father, Charles, who served in the Minnesota House. In 1971, he authored the landmark fiscal disparities law that established regional tax-base sharing.

Weaver recalls how his parents would host poker parties in their Anoka home for conservative and liberal legislators. “I got to meet them and watch them have fun together, fight like crazy, but develop really strong bonds and friendships on both sides of the political aisle,” Weaver says.

Those social gatherings left a major imprint on Weaver about the human side of politics. He went on to serve in the Minnesota House for 10 years, as Gov. Jesse Ventura’s public safety commissioner, and as Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s chief of staff. With that political pedigree and a law degree from the University of Minnesota, Weaver was chosen in 2003 to become executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.

After 20 years in that influential role, Weaver, 65, is retiring this year.

The Minnesota Business Partnership consists primarily of CEOs of the state’s largest privately held businesses and publicly traded corporations. Altogether, Partnership members employ about 500,000 Minnesotans.

Consequently, Democratic and Republican governors and legislators frequently make time to listen to the policy arguments made by Weaver, his staff, and Partnership members. Weaver, a former moderate Republican legislator, says everything the Partnership does flows from its overarching goals to ensure a great quality of life in Minnesota and to support policies that enable companies to grow their businesses in the state.

When Weaver left Pawlenty’s administration to join the Partnership, he didn’t walk away from the leadership principles he adopted while watching his father maneuver in the public policy sphere.

“The impressions were that relationships matter, that you can get a lot done if you don’t need credit, and public service is enormously rewarding,” Weaver says. Those guideposts have shaped how Weaver operates and help explain how he thrived in his Partnership position even as Minnesota politics became more polarized.

Pawlenty, who served with Weaver in the Minnesota House, says Weaver has been particularly effective in his Partnership role because his engaging personality and collaborative leadership style are a good fit with CEOs and politicians. “He’s smart, he’s likable, he’s strong when he needs to be, he has empathy when he needs to have it, he’s kind, and he’s strategic,” Pawlenty says. “He’s got more than one gear.”

It’s been Weaver’s job to represent Partnership CEOs on priority topics that include jobs and the economy, education and the workforce, and health care. “They play the long game in their companies, and they play the long game when they are looking at how to solve challenging public policy issues,” he says. “We aren’t an anti-tax group. But our overall perspective is: Just do no harm. Don’t make it harder for Minnesota companies to compete in this hyper-competitive global economy.”

Over the past several years, Weaver and Partnership CEOs have focused on strategies to close the achievement gap between white and Black students in urban schools. Calling it the “civil rights issue of our time,” Weaver stresses that young Black students who lack a good education could easily become trapped as underemployed Minnesotans or fall into the criminal justice system.

“We’ve got to improve their opportunities at ages 3, 4, and 5,” he says. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of over my career, is [helping create] the early education scholarships, the work with Art Rolnick.”

In 2003, Rolnick, then the research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, released a study that showed tremendous benefits when at-risk children had access to high-quality early education. By 2005, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) was established.

“He’s smart, he’s likable, he’s strong when he needs to be.”

—Tim Pawlenty, Former Minnesota Governor

“Charlie was at the first [MELF] meeting,” Rolnick says. “Charlie clearly was bringing the business community to the table. I knew that this organization was a very powerful business organization. To have them involved on this issue was going to give us a much better chance of having success in the political space.”

Today, state government allocates substantial funding for scholarships, so young children can attend high-quality early-childhood programs and get ready to succeed in kindergarten.

Mike Christenson first crossed paths with Weaver in 1981 when both were in their first year of law school. They’ve been friends for 42 years, and Weaver has helped Christenson, a Democrat, gain important business and political support for major projects in Minneapolis.

From 2003 to 2011, Christenson held leadership roles within the community planning and economic development agency for the city of Minneapolis. Christenson’s father, Gerald, served as chancellor of the community college system and was a friend of Charlie Weaver’s father.

“Charlie understood, especially as the Minnesota Business Partnership head, the value that immigration brought to economic growth in the state,” Christenson says. “One of the secrets of the renaissance that Minneapolis enjoyed between 2000 and 2020 was basically the city turned around its long-term decline in population through immigration.”

Christenson says that Weaver recognized the importance of targeted initiatives to increase the vitality of Minneapolis, and he supported them at the State Capitol. “Whatever we asked for in terms of the city’s needs, commercial corridor development funding, tax increment financing policy, Charlie would help us with the committee chairs at the end [of the legislative session]” to try to secure development funds, he says.

The Partnership reflects a “modernization of business perspective,” Pawlenty says, because it gets involved in issues that go well beyond concerns over tax rates and government regulation. Now, he says, many CEOs are taking a broader approach to address “the needs of society.”

Weaver says that was the case after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Now diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as public safety are key issue priorities. In July 2020, Gov. Tim Walz signed a special session bill containing “police accountability [measures] and police reforms that we championed,” Weaver says.

Weaver’s leadership path

Charlie Weaver’s path to the Minnesota Business Partnership came through law and politics. After graduating from the University of Oregon and the University of Minnesota Law School, he went into private practice at the Lindquist & Vennum law firm.

He was a criminal prosecutor in Anoka County for several years before serving five terms in the Minnesota House. Weaver was Gov. Jesse Ventura’s public safety commissioner, then became Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s first chief of staff. He joined the Partnership as executive director in 2003.

Andrea Walsh, president and CEO of HealthPartners, says she witnessed Weaver’s agility in  March 2020 when he reinvented the Partnership’s operations during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Weaver set up a weekly call for the Partnership CEOs. From 7 to 8 a.m., Walsh says, “CEOs would share what was going on in their industry and how we were thinking about a whole host of topics, from employee safety to remote work to supply chain challenges.”

Weaver was the Partnership’s point person in coordinating a second weekly call between Partnership businesses and the Walz administration, where they discussed everything from state Covid rules to sourcing personal protective equipment. “Charlie did a remarkable job of helping the state identify business leaders and companies that could help the state respond to the pandemic in the best way possible,” says Walsh, a former Partnership chair.

Beyond Weaver’s reputation as a savvy advocate for workable policy solutions, he’s known for his sense of humor and making fun of himself at the Partnership’s annual dinners. The event attracts about 1,000 people to the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Each year, Weaver coaxed CEOs and politicians to appear in a funny video with him that was played at the annual dinner. Weaver’s favorites were spoofs of the Wizard of Oz and carpool karaoke.

Weaver viewed the dinners as opportunities for politicians and business leaders to get to know each other. “It’s a lot harder to fight with someone or take shots at someone if you’ve had dinner with them,” Weaver says.

See the other 2023 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductees.