DFL gubernatorial candidate Margaret Kelliher profiled

One image of her childhood she likes to conjure is the girl on the tractor.

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

One image of her childhood she likes to conjure is the girl on the tractor.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher

And although a state representative from Minneapolis for more than 10 years, DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher depicts herself as standing with one foot on asphalt, the other in tilled earth.

“It’s who I am. I think I can really cover Minnesota in terms of my understanding of the state,” said Kelliher of her country and big city background.

Kelliher, 42, is locked in a race with former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton and former Minnesota House Minority Leader Matt Entenza for the right to represent the party in November.

Recent changes in election law have moved the state primary forward, so the culling of candidates will take place on Tuesday, Aug. 10.

Kelliher — who served under Entenza as an assistant minority leader — was elected speaker by her caucus after the 2006 election in which Republicans lost control of the House and saw two of their constitutional officers swept from power.

She has presided over sharp budget fights with Republican governor and No-New-Tax advocate Tim Pawlenty during her speakership.

While last session produced a brief special session, in general lawmakers have gone home at close of session during the Kelliher years — there’s been no government shutdowns, no lingering summertime sessions.

Capitol insiders have viewed Kelliher as serving as a conduit between Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, the senator publicly acknowledging having a difficult time in working with the governor.

One of the most dramatic legislative moments of Kelliher’s tenure as speaker came late winter in 2008 when House DFLers assisted by the soon-dubbed “Override Six” — a group of six House Republicans — combined to override Pawlenty’s veto of the transportation finance bill.

Kelliher sometimes points to the epic vote as evidence of her ability in building winning collations.

But one member of the Override Six, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said just short days before the big vote that he was “astounded” by how little Democrats had worked with House moderates on the transportation issue.

Kelliher has been praised by DFL House colleagues for having the ability to remain calm under pressure.

“It’s very important for leaders to understand that part of their job is to absorb the stress of others and to absorb the anxiety, and sometimes even the anger, and then find effective ways to let that go,” said Kelliher. “And so that’s what I do time and time again.”

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, once described Kelliher as the mother of the Legislature.

“And I mean that in the best sense of the word,” said Sertich, speaking some time ago.

Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin, dismissed the notion of a mothering figure, seeing instead a drive in Kelliher toward self-improvement.

“She is a skilled-based individual,” said Dittrich at one recent session. “Self-improvement is a big thing for her — continually.”

Should Kelliher win the governor’s office, she would enter state history as Minnesota’s first woman governor.

Recently, appearing before the ECM Editorial Board, Kelliher was asked whether achieving that historic plateau was a big deal with voters.

Kelliher indicated there was a degree of excitement. “I think the biggest thing people want is they want a governor who’s qualified to do the job, and who’s going to stand up and fight on their behalf,” she said.

“For some Minnesotans it’s very motivating to think about that being a working mom — they have a trust level with me about that.”

The youngest of six children — her sister and four brothers are 14 years to 20 years older — Kelliher grew up on a 300-acre dairy farm near Mankato.

She easily transitions into detailing the competing costs of maintaining dairy herds indoors versus outdoors.

Her mother and father, Elaine and Carl Anderson, though active in the Lutheran Church and in the community, were not politically active, Kelliher said.

“Not at all. I am not from a political family,” she said.

A former teenage 4-H state president, it was when serving as president that she first learned how diverse Minnesota was, according to Kelliher.

Kelliher was Blue Earth County Dairy Princess — once in a moment of self-indulgence on the speaker’s platform she recited a singsong sales pitch about the marvels of diary products.

Kelliher’s interests in politics were kindled by the farm crisis of the 1980s when the gnawing combination of high interest rates and low milk prices threatened the family farm with foreclosure, she said.

“It was really that that got me interested in who makes decisions about policy,” said Kelliher. “That moment, as a teenager, was a really important moment.”

Kelliher moved to the Twin Cities as a Gustavus Adolphus College student to work on Dayton’s state auditor campaign and to be near her future husband, David Kelliher.

“I moved for a job and for love,” she said.

Kelliher met her future husband as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

Although she no longer hunts — she remembers her late father as raising pheasants and turkeys on the farm — Kelliher, her husband and two children, enjoy fishing.

She jokingly speaks of winning the marriage negotiations about the use of prime fishing seats on the pontoon boat — the family has a retreat on Lake Jefferson in Le Sueur County.

After moving to Minneapolis, Kelliher for a time worked as an aide for former House Speaker Bob Vanasek.

As an adult, Kelliher converted to Roman Catholicism. “It was really a calling to be part of a church community that I really love and enjoy, the Basilica of St. Mary,” she said. “I really needed a church community at that point.”

“My dad became sick and died within that year. My nephew actually died three months later in a drowning accident.”

“I really needed a spiritual community to be in.”

Kelliher believes she represents a generational change within the DFL Party, a falling away of the old for the new.

“I think the (DFL) convention chose wisely when they endorsed — they chose the next generation of DFL leadership in this state,” said Kelliher.

“(It’s) an energetic leadership, a leadership that doesn’t stop, a leadership that doesn’t quit.”

“I’m also pretty fearless about making Minnesota the great place that we can be.”

In discussing preventative health care, Kelliher said that she doesn’t exclude herself from making a personal commitment to wellness.

“And that’s why I run every other day. I have lost over 75 pounds from a few years ago,” said Kelliher. “It takes a lot of work to be able do this and make a personal commitment to it.”

Kelliher selected former Arne Carlson Administration finance commissioner John Gunyou as her gubernatorial running mate.

She heralds Gunyou, currently city manager of Minnetonka, as possessing an “unmatched” knowledge of government finance.

Kelliher holds a masters of public administration degree from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The winner of the DFL gubernatorial primary will likely face Republican candidate Rep. Tom Emmer and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner in the November election.

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