Former DFL legislator who helped flip MN Senate hired as chief Capitol lobbyist at U of M

The Edina resident was chosen for a newly-created chief lobbying position at the U of M just three months after former DFL congressional candidate Jeff Ettinger was named interim president of the university.

Melisa Lopez Franzen, center, talks with her Senate colleagues on the floor in February 2022. (Catherine J. Davis/Minnesota Senate Media Services)

A former DFL legislator credited with leading a campaign to help Democrats recapture the state Senate in 2022 has landed a new job as a top lobbyist for the University of Minnesota.

Melisa Lopez Franzen, who served in the Minnesota Senate for a decade before choosing not to seek re-election last year, was announced as the U of M’s new executive director of government and community relations on Wednesday.

The Edina resident was chosen for a newly-created chief lobbying position at the U of M just three months after former DFL congressional candidate Jeff Ettinger was named interim president of the university.

Melisa is a knowledgeable and dynamic leader,” said Jeff Ettinger, who lost a bid last fall to represent Minnesota’s First Congressional District to Republican Brad Finstad, in a statement. “Her meaningful experience in the legislative process, as well as the respect she’s earned from a broad array of state, federal and local officials, will make her an outstanding leader for our government relations work.”

“Under Melisa’s expert leadership, we will build a balanced, effective government relations team to continue advocating for the University of Minnesota and advancing the work we do every day to serve Minnesotans,” Ettinger added.

DFL taking the reins on U of M campus

Lopez Franzen and Ettinger (the only U of M president with prior involvement in partisan politics) won’t be the only DFL-branded glitterati working on campus this fall. Last month Gov. Tim Walz moved to Eastcliff Mansion, where he and his family will reside during a multimillion dollar renovation of the Governor’s Mansion. This all comes after the DFL-controlled legislature this spring elected three of their top candidates to the 12-member Board of Regents that governs the University of Minnesota. All 12 of regents currently serving have been elected by DFL-majority legislatures. Walz also recently named his former Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm to lead a new task force that will examine the future of health sciences programs at the university.

And while the DFL has all the levels of power at the University of Minnesota, it comes at a time when the institution just reported it has a nearly 6-percent decrease in enrollment since 2019.

“I am eager to advocate on behalf of the University of Minnesota,” said Lopez Franzen, whose previous connection to the school was as a student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “Its research focus and land grant mission are significant assets to our state, and I am humbled by this opportunity to contribute to this great institution.”

Lopez Franzen’s short, but influential stint leading Senate DFL

Lopez Franzen was first elected to represent Senate District 49 in Edina in 2012, when she unseated Republican two-term incumbent Keith Downey. Lopez Franzen was an outspoken progressive on many issues during her tenure in the legislature, which culminated with her being elected by DFL colleagues as the Senate minority leader in October 2021. Just four months later Lopez Franzen announced she wouldn’t seek re-election, citing legislative redistricting changes that put Lopez Franzen in a new Senate District 46, one which was already represented by longtime DFL Sen. Ron Latz of St. Louis Park.

Her decision to step away didn’t come without intra-party controversy. Her planned departure reportedly caused frustration among some Democratic operatives, who believe that Latz should have stepped aside for “an ascendant woman of color.”

Lopez Franzen then spent the remainder of her term leading the “FlipMNSenate” campaign to a narrow victory in November 2022, where Democrats won 34 of 67 seats up for grabs — giving them a one-seat majority. Lopez Franzen told media it was a “Minnesota Senate miracle.”

Following her departure from elected office Lopez Franzen was named to serve on the Board of Directors for FairVote Minnesota, a progressive political organization that’s lobbied at the state legislature and campaigned during election season to turn Minnesota into a ranked choice voting state.

Lopez Franzen has been outspoken on a number of political issues, including expanding abortion rights and recreational marijuana legalization. She also has been open about her interest in higher office. She told the Minnesota Reformer during a 2021 interview that “I always have my résumé ready” when asked about the one-time possibility of her being considered among a crop of Democrats Gov. Walz could appoint to replace Amy Klobuchar in the U.S. Senate if Klobuchar were to be named to a cabinet position by newly-elected President Joe Biden.

Lopez Franzen is also well-known in DFL-fundraising circles for her “Paella For the People” events she has hosted every summer for more than a half decade.

In 2021, she was the passenger in a car driven by Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha when the vehicle collided with a semi and rolled off the road. An open alcohol container was found in the vehicle and Lopez Franzen called DFL Party Chair Ken Martin to the scene.


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.