Margaret Anderson Kelliher: The fight for Minnesota governor

MAK faces her toughest test yet, but could make history

During the 1988 election, she met David Kelliher, a young organizer for the Michael Dukakis campaign. The two hit it off right away, and substituted official dates with hanging campaign signs.

"At least one good thing came out of the Dukakis campaign," David jokes.

After earning a Bachelor's degree from Gustavus, Margaret became an organizer for Minneapolis's Bryn Mawr neighborhood. She married David and had two children.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
Margaret Anderson Kelliher

In 1997, Kelliher saw her chance to truly plunge into politics when a Minneapolis seat opened up in the House of Representatives. Kelliher tossed her hat in the ring.

She lacked the personal fortune of some candidates, so she took a grassroots strategy to campaigning. In the course of the race, she knocked on the door of every house in the entire district twice.

"I knew I couldn't take anything for granted, so I just door-knocked like crazy."

It paid off. At age 30, Kelliher was elected to the House of Representatives.

On August 1, 2007, Kelliher was speaking to a crowd at a fundraising kickoff event in Grand Rapids when she noticed a sheriff's deputy with a ghastly look on his face. He had some terrible news: The 35W bridge had collapsed into the river. The cause of the disaster was unknown. So was the death toll.

Kelliher raced to Minneapolis, where she connected with a group of politicians gathered in City Hall. Around midnight, she gazed at the mess of girders and concrete floating in the black Mississippi River.

"It was the visible symbol of disinvestment in our state," says Kelliher. "It couldn't get any clearer than that."

When the legislative session convened a few months later, DFLers held a press conference at the Capitol. Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing) introduced a bill to reporters that would raise the gas tax to put more money toward road construction. When it landed on Governor Pawlenty's desk, he killed it with a red pen and a smile.

In her second year as the speaker of the house, Kelliher argued for a veto override. It was a long shot. Passing it would take 90 votes, requiring at least five Republicans to cross party lines. Supporting the tax was one thing, but a Republican going against the Republican governor was quite another.

Yet Kelliher rallied the troops, and six House Republicans joined the DFL push and overrode Pawlenty's veto. It was the first shot fired in the war between Kelliher and Pawlenty.

The next year, after Pawlenty unilaterally cut nearly $3 billion from the budget through a virtually unknown power called unallotment, Kelliher decided to run for governor.

"I had to stand up and say, 'No, that is not how we are going to continue to lead the state. We need a leader who is going to believe in Minnesota first,'" recalls Kelliher. "I just thought, 'I'm not going to sit by anymore.'"

In December 2009, Minnesota GOP Chairman Tony Sutton sat down to write a letter to the state Campaign Finance Committee. The DFL party had footed the bill for the Kelliher campaign to have access to the expensive DFL voters database, wrote Sutton, an arrangement that violated state law.

"I think she has experienced people working on her campaign," says Sutton. "These are not newbies, these are not people who this is their first time around the block...they surely knew the rules."

The Campaign Finance Board agreed. The board fined Kelliher's campaign $9,000 for intentionally violating campaign regulations and slapped the DFL with $15,000 in penalties.

The bad press was an early blow to Kelliher's campaign. A few of her DFL opponents used the ruling as ammunition to criticize her judgment. Entenza, in particular, blasted it as an inside deal between Kelliher and the DFL party.

Kelliher dipped slightly in the polls, but she was still a frontrunner. On April 24, thousands of supporters and delegates traveled to Duluth for the DFL convention. Entenza dropped out of the race for the endorsement that morning, announcing he would ignore party preference and run for the primary without the DFL nod.

By late day, state Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Roseville) realized he was beat. "I was going down a little bit, and when that happens it happens quickly," says Rukavina. "I had to make a decision—I had to make a decision in about six minutes."

Rukavina pulled Kelliher aside and told her that his decision was to throw his support behind her. Wearing a blue sport coat and a red tie, Rukavina stepped up to the podium.

"I'm gonna tell you that I was the best damn progressive in this race and there's no damn doubt about it," Rukavina told the rowdy convention crowd. "But now I want you to vote for the second best progressive in this race."

Rukavina clipped on a Kelliher button and the crowd erupted in applause.

The Rybak campaign was devastated. Rukavina's concession was the best speech all night—one of the best all year. After the next round of voting, Kelliher's lead over Rybak jumped from 4 percent to 14 percent.

Rybak knew it was over. The Minneapolis mayor graciously dropped out, offering Kelliher his full support and calling for party unity.

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