Madam Speaker

With DFLers in control of Legislature, Kelliher steps into leadership role

As legislators milled about the state Capitol’s House chamber just before the start of one of this year’s first sessions, a face familiar in Minneapolis took her place behind a desk overlooking the entire room.

With the drop of a gavel, Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-60A) set the early January hearing into motion. Kelliher has represented a large portion of Southwest – including Bryn Mawr, Lowry Hill, Lowry Hill East, East Isles, Kenwood, CIDNA and parts of Lyndale and CARAG – in the Minnesota Legislature for nearly a decade. After the DFL won back control of the House in commanding fashion in November, Kelliher was tapped to take the powerful position of speaker of the House. Just weeks into her new role, Kelliher deftly led legislators through a tax conformity bill hearing that consumed most of the morning and generated a smattering of partisan bickering.

After several jabs between Republicans and Democrats, House Minority Leader Rep. Marty Seifert (R-21A) accused DFLers of working along partisan lines.

“A lot of people campaigned last year on working in a bipartisan manner,” Seifert said. “Instead of working on a party line vote, let’s work together.”

Rep. Tony Sertich (DFL-05B) retorted by accusing Seifert of political grandstanding.

“So begins the food fight and the 10-second sound bytes,” Sertich said.

The exchange was one of several that illustrate the important role Kelliher will have in generating bipartisan cooperation on a wide range of issues by finding common ground between DFLers and Republicans.

“The ability of us to get along better and to act more civilly certainly is not going to mean the absence of conflict on issues,” Kelliher said. “It’s a matter of how that conflict is handled.”

The mediator

One way Kelliher plans to handle conflict is to listen carefully to those around her.

“That’s one of her great skills,” legislative assistant Dianne Ruppert said. “She’s a great listener.”

Ruppert began working with Kelliher when the now-speaker of the House was first elected in 1998 and has been with her for all but two years since. Ruppert said she’s been impressed with the new speaker’s leadership so far. Kelliher’s schedule has been flooded with meetings with legislators and Capitol staff members, Ruppert said, as many of the organizational issues such as committee structures and assignments were worked out.

Now that many of the administrative issues are out of the way, Kelliher said she’s focused on some of the most functional parts of her new role. She and other DFLers have pledged to focus on the “bread and butter” issues of education, affordable health care, a reduction in property taxes and [providing] transportation funding. From her new leadership post, Kelliher is working to ensure those issues receive ample attention this year.

“I think as a part of the branches of government, the speaker has a lot to do and say in terms of end-of-session negotiations, representing the House’s point of view in legislative negotiations, and working with the governor and Senate to make sure we have a productive legislative session,” Kelliher said.

To work toward that end, Kelliher said she’s trying to meet regularly with Sen. Larry Pogemiller (DFL-59), a fellow Minneapolis DFLer who has assumed the leadership role in the Senate, as well as Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Seifert.

She’s also been in contact with Minneapolis leaders, who have had a strained relationship in recent years with the GOP-controlled House and Republican governor. Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), who chairs the City Council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, worked with Kelliher as the city developed its legislative agenda for this year and praised the new House speaker’s willingness to have an open dialogue about the issues.

“I very much feel like the lines of communication are open,” Hodges said, adding that the political atmosphere is noticeably different from last year. “There’s more opportunity for movement on our priorities.”

Hodges said she also sees strong leadership qualities in Kelliher’s ability to see the big picture on the issues that come before her and her ability to hold the line while at the same time working effectively with a wide range of people. And, Hodges said, the new House speaker has a great sense of humor that will only serve to make her job easier.

“She has the capacity to wear the world loosely, which will serve her well as speaker,” Hodges said.

While it is also beneficial for Minneapolis that Kelliher hails from the city and understands the needs of the state’s urban areas – and especially those of its largest city – Hodges said she also understands that Kelliher has a position now that requires her to represent the needs of the entire state.

Kelliher said even though she has a new role, her first responsibility is to her district, and she will continue to meet regularly with constituents and respond to their concerns. Other than shouldering new responsibilities, Kelliher said little will change in her representation other than the number of bills she puts forth.

“I’ll probably carry less legislation and ask others to do that,” Kelliher said. “That’s been a tradition of the House.”

One of the people Kelliher will likely ask to carry that legislation will be Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B). Kelliher works closely with Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60) as part of a Senate District 60 “team” that Hornstein said works much more closely together than many other districts. He calls Kelliher a “good friend” and said while her role may change to accommodate her new leadership position – a subject Hornstein said he and Kelliher discussed shortly after she was awarded the position – he expects to still see her out in the district regularly.

“She’s still very involved and engaged, and people will still see her in the community,” Hornstein said.

Hornstein called Kelliher one of the more bipartisan members of the House and said he’s confident she will maintain a good working relationship with GOP members and the governor. He said despite the “political theater” in the Capitol during the tax conformity bill hearing, Kelliher and Seifert have a good working relationship.

Kelliher pointed out that there has already been media attention around the fact that she and Seifert are related by marriage. Kelliher’s third cousin is married to Seifert’s first cousin.

“Only in Minnesota, right?” Kelliher said with a laugh.

Rural roots

Although Kelliher has lived in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood in Minneapolis for 16 years, she got her start in rural Minnesota. Kelliher grew up on a farm in Southern Minnesota, just outside of Mankato. She attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and it was there that someone told her for the first time that she should run for office. The suggestion surprised Kelliher, but it got her thinking about whether she’d be interested in a career in politics. She later moved to the Bryn Mawr neighborhood in Minneapolis and became active in the neighborhood organization. The experiences she had in community organizing, especially in seeing how the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) empowered residents, prompted Kelliher to consider running for office.

“Someone called me when Pat Scott retired from the City Council and asked me if I wanted to run for City Council. And I thought, ‘I think if I was going to run for anything, I’d run for the Legislature,’” Kelliher said. “Looking at policy from a statewide perspective is really important to me. Š So that was sort of the first moment.”

Within a year, Rep. Dee Long (DFL-60A) – the first woman ever elected as speaker of the House – retired, and Kelliher won the seat in 1998. Republicans took control of the House that year and held the majority until this year. As her party assumes control for the first time since she’s been a member of the House, Kelliher is eager to get to work. She said local government aid will likely be an important component to any property tax relief package passed and suspects transportation funding will be one of the areas the Legislature differs most with the governor and may have to flex its muscles on. But Kelliher said finding common ground on the issues won’t be nearly as challenging as finding the time to fit everything in to her newly packed schedule.

“Like any role when you’re in charge of an organization, there is never enough time in the day to get everything done,” Kelliher said. “And so I think balancing that is probably going to be one of the more important things to work on.”


Reach Kari VanDerVeen at [email protected] or 436-4373.