Margaret Anderson Kelliher: The fight for Minnesota governor

Margaret Anderson Kelliher
Nick Vlcek

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."

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.

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.

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.

Kelliher made clear she wanted to put the contentious campaign behind them. "To a class act, the mayor of Minneapolis, my good friend, and it's always hard to run against a good friend. Thank you, R.T. Rybak. And your family."

A week later, Kelliher courted the crowds in a white circus tent on the State Fairgrounds while waiting for a debate on clean energy policy to begin at 1 p.m. sharp. It was a few minutes late getting started, and even a slight delay could spell disaster for Kelliher's tight schedule.

Dayton and Entenza were at the debate too, as well as Independence Party candidates Tom Horner and Rob Hahn. Emmer was noticeably absent, a fact everyone seemed to remark upon. (Emmer's campaign later told reporters that he was at his son's First Communion ceremony.)

When it was her turn to speak, Kelliher pointed to her legislative record. Three years ago she helped pass a bill that forced utility companies to commit to generating 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025.

"We have been—and I have been—a champion of protecting our air, water, and land," Kelliher told the crowd.

At 1:45, less than halfway through the debate, Kelliher stood up suddenly. "I have to leave and I'm sorry about that," she told the crowd, and all in one motion left through a flap in the tent and boarded a waiting car.

The crowd looked confused. After a few minutes the debate resumed.

In the meantime, Kelliher and her campaign press secretary raced to Minneapolis, where they joined the tail end of the May Day parade. For the next hour, while her opponents debated recycling in St. Paul to a couple hundred people, Kelliher was the only gubernatorial candidate in front of a crowd of tens of thousands.

On May 5, Kelliher was on a flight bound for Washington, D.C., to attend a Cinco de Mayo event at the White House. During a layover in Chicago, she checked her Twitter account and learned that the Minnesota Supreme Court planned to make a ruling on Pawlenty's unallotment case later that afternoon.

Before her plane left the ground, Chief Justice Eric Magnuson had made his decision. Pawlenty's unilateral cuts to the budget were ruled unconstitutional.

Kelliher was a loud critic of the unallotments, so she immediately trumpeted the decision as a victory. She was doing reaction interviews with Twin Cities news outlets as soon as she landed in Washington.

By the time Kelliher returned to St. Paul, the Capitol had melted down. The legislative session was almost over and the court's ruling unraveled nearly $3 billion in cuts.

Kelliher's critics blamed her for a potential governmental gridlock. With only two weeks left to balance the budget, options were limited and the resolution had dire implications for her campaign.

The final week of the Legislature's session, the important work was done behind closed doors. All week, legislators met with Pawlenty behind the scenes to try to negotiate a deal that would end the session on time. Given that it was the last week, the Legislature had no choice but to ratify the majority of Pawlenty's cuts, but the Democrats wanted something in return. Namely, they wanted Pawlenty to budge on a bill unpopular with Republicans that would put poor and low-income Minnesotans on a Medicaid program.

The political aspirations in the room were immense, and nobody wanted to give an inch. Few had more at stake than Kelliher. Much of her campaign is based on taking on Pawlenty, and leaving the negotiations as a loser could have been a crippling blow.

Hashing through the particulars would require a special session. The session went all night and into late morning. At one point, Rep. Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) fell asleep during the negotiations and hit his head, sending him to the hospital.

The Legislature adjourned around 10:30 a.m. with a passed budget. A couple of hours later, Pawlenty was bragging about his win to the national press. He didn't budge on Medicaid. The Democrats had come out with almost nothing to show for all their squawking.

"We have some pretty clear values and principles in mind that we adhere to and when it relates to those core values, and principles we don't compromise," Pawlenty righteously proclaimed to the national media.


Kelliher doesn't concede defeat, however. Just because the Legislature ratified most of the unallotments doesn't mean Pawlenty got off scot-free.

"The whole point is no one person gets to make those decisions," she says. "His national Washington, D.C., spin-folks are out there working Politico and working Time magazine and working the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And the reason they're doing that is because that unallotment lawsuit was a giant black eye to Tim Pawlenty. And if I helped land that punch a little bit, I'm proud of that work."

Twenty-seven hours after the all-night finale to the legislative session, Kelliher relaxed in her campaign office near the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It was a grueling last few days, but a climactic ending to her career as the House speaker.

Kelliher is tired. After the session, she got only about three hours of sleep. The next day was her son's birthday, which didn't allow for much rest either.

Now that the session is over, campaigning is Kelliher's full-time job. Her two DFL opponents already have a head start—they haven't been cooped up in the Capitol for the past four months—so Kelliher has a lot of catching up to do.

Moving forward, Kelliher's campaign strategy will mirror the one that won her a spot in the House of Representatives 12 years ago: door-knocking across the state. She will bang the drum for a state commitment to funding public education, job creation, and a governing style that brings sanity to the budget process.

An early poll put Kelliher in second place to Dayton by 10 percent, but she downplays the significance. "It's so early. I really don't think that's a big margin at all for him. I mean, think about it: He's been in DFL politics for 30 years. His name's been out there for 100."

Money may prove to be Kelliher's biggest obstacle, says DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez. "When you're running against millionaires who are willing to spend their own money and you're limited to $2,000 per donation, that is not a level playing field."

No matter the odds, Kelliher isn't about to go quietly.

"I've always taken on tough fights," she says, "and I don't quit. I win."

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