Margaret Anderson Kelliher: The fight for Minnesota governor

MAK faces her toughest test yet, but could make history

On a gray afternoon in St. Paul, Margaret Anderson Kelliher walks purposefully into room 125 of the state Capitol, accompanied by an entourage of family members and friendly politicians. Single file, they line up in front of a red "Margaret for Governor" campaign banner.

Wearing a black suit and short brown hair cut just above her shoulders, Kelliher steps up to the podium to address the assembled throng. The crowd falls silent, save for the quiet clicks of a half-dozen cameras and the sharp ring of a cell phone that just won't behave.

"The Minnesota I grew up in was a special place," begins Kelliher. "But for eight years, the severe neglect of an irresponsible governor has threatened the values that have made Minnesota great. It's time to close the chapter on the Tim Pawlenty era."

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
Nick Vlcek
Margaret Anderson Kelliher
Margaret Anderson Kelliher
Nick Vlcek
Margaret Anderson Kelliher

Kelliher desperately wants to win the DFL primary and crush Republican-endorsed Tom Emmer in the general election. She wants to be Minnesota's first female governor and break the DFL's 24-year drought.

She's already come a long way. At 42 years old, she's a 12-year veteran of the Legislature and the second woman in state history to be elected speaker of the House of Representatives.

In a race that began so saturated with wide-eyed DFL candidates that no one could take the lead for months, Kelliher punched her way to the front. She won powerful endorsements from former Vice President Walter Mondale, a deep bench of vanquished opponents, and the Minnesota DFL Party.

But those victories came at a cost. After months on the campaign trail, she's like an arm-weary prizefighter heading into the late rounds.

"She's tapped out," says Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political science professor. "Her resources have been depleted. She's exhausted and her supporters are exhausted. The kicker is she hasn't won anything at this point."

Kelliher faces stiff challenges from her two DFL opponents, former state Rep. Matt Entenza and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton. Both claim a fortune in personal piggy banks. Entenza has told reporters he is willing to spend $6 million of his own money on the campaign. Dayton is a household name across the state, and early polls indicate that he already holds a commanding lead.

Still, if Kelliher runs a smart campaign, she has a chance to make history. Already she's scored points with insiders by plucking John Gunyou—an experienced money manager with roots on both sides of the political spectrum—as her running mate, says Kay Wolsborn, chair of the political science department at St. Benedict and St. John's universities.

"She's actually positioned well in terms of working hard and developing some momentum," says Wolsborn. "Obviously, she can't win in November if she doesn't win in August."

As she sat at the dinner table with her parents one night in the early 1980s, Kelliher could tell something was wrong. Her father, Carl, had always been a stoic, but never like this. During the meal he hardly said a word. When it was over, he pushed his plate aside and laid his head down on the table. Then, for the first time in her life, Kelliher saw her dad cry.

"I didn't know what was wrong," she remembers, "I had no idea."

Afterward, mother Elaine sat Margaret down and explained that the family's recent decision to add to their herd of cows had been ill-timed. Milk prices had plummeted and interest rates skyrocketed. They were in danger of losing the farm.

"My dad only knew farming," says Kelliher. "When his parents made him quit going to school after the eighth grade, the whole idea was that he would farm for the rest of his life. It was scary to be in a situation where everything you know could go away."

Seeing her dad at his weakest imbued Kelliher with a desire to help others like him. She wanted to know who was making the decisions that trickled down her family's small southern Minnesota farm. It would be her introduction into a lifetime in politics.

Kelliher became president of the state 4-H federation and got involved in local DFL events. At home, she got a firsthand look at farmer-lender mediation, a statewide program borne out of the Midwest farming crisis. Through this program, Kelliher's parents were able to save the farm at the cost of their life savings.

Because her family's finances were in tatters, Kelliher was a prime candidate for scholarships, which paid her way at Gustavus Adolphus College, where she majored in political science and history. One class sent Kelliher to New Hampshire, with an assignment to work on any presidential campaign she wanted. Kelliher chose to work for Paul Simon, a former U.S. senator from Illinois who was running for president. After the three-week class ended, she invited Simon to come speak at Gustavus.

"I was like, this is kind of a long shot, but whatever," remembers Kelliher.

To her surprise, Simon agreed. The day of Simon's visit, students packed the auditorium at Gustavus. Though Simon eventually ended up losing the Democratic nomination for president, he won the caucus in Gustavus's district.

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