Margaret Anderson Kelliher: the MinnesotaBrown interview

The governor interview train keeps on a’ rollin’ today with a post featuring Minnesota Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher. The interview took on special meaning as it happened the day before Kelliher filed paperwork last week to run for governor in 2010, moving herself into the field of active candidates.

My candidate series is now nearing completion. Previous posts have included Tom Bakk, Paul Thissen, Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza, John Marty, Susan Gaertner and Tom Rukavina. Interviews are being scheduled with Steve Kelley and R.T. Rybak, leaving only Chris Coleman on the list after that. I expect to interview the whole group.

The interview

I met Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher (DFL-Minneapolis) at the Nashwauk Dairy Queen as she was touring my home district (Fightin’ 3A, covering northern Itasca, Koochiching and Lake of the Woods counties) on April 12, 2009. The irony of a former Minnesota Dairy Princess doing an interview at a Dairy Queen was briefly noted. She had a small cone. I had a Snickers Blizzard which melted before I could eat most of it. But that’s not what this is about.

“I have very strong skills for doing the job of governor,” said Kelliher. “The job of Speaker of the House means you are an executive, a leader of a staff of 250 with a $25 million budget.”

Kelliher quickly stressed specific legislative accomplishments as speaker to justify her candidacy three years after ascending to the speaker’s chair with the DFL legislative landslide in 2006. Her top three included the 2020 renewable energy standard (signed by Gov. Pawlenty), the 2008 transportation bill (passed by overriding Gov. Pawlenty with the help of six Republican House members) and the advancement of the Legacy Amendment (the voter approved sales tax increase to fund outdoors and culture initiatives).

These three different accomplishments all involved bipartisanship, fervent negotiations and hard won victories, she said, examples of how she would approach the job of governor.

“These are statewide accomplishments that took earning the support of allies and the respect of foes,” said Kelliher. “We need a governor who’s going to be respectful of people, a leader people want to follow.”

That’s all the more important these days, she said.

“We are in a time of change, change in our economy and in our government,” said Kelliher. “We need to be able to show people that another dollar spent means we’re going to move the meter of expectations up too. … We still have the ingredients to, as I learned in 4-H, ‘make the best better,’ but it will take time and a lot of hard work.”

Hard work is something that resonates with Kelliher, who grew up the youngest of six on a dairy farm in southern Minnesota before becoming the Minneapolis state representative she is today.

“I’ve lived half my life in rural Minnesota and half in urban Minnesota,” said Kelliher. She told the story of growing up in the 1980s, when family farms were failing amid spiking interest rates, falling prices and economic collapse. She said at the time she could feel a connection between what was happening there and what was happening up north on the Iron Range, where a similar situation in the mining industry was stratifying Greater Minnesota from the metro area.

She described a moment with her father at dinner one night. Her dad was the classic stoic Scandinavian father, she said, who said goodnight with a handshake.

“I remember in the 1980s, my father pushed his plate away from him and cried at the table,” she describes. “He left to go for a drive and I asked my mother what was happening. Fortunately, she was very honest with me.”

The farm was overextended with an interest hike on its operations loan, something happening all over farming country at the time. Most people had to sell their family farms. Anderson Kelliher’s family managed to get through by scrimping, selling things and eventually divesting itself of the cows. Today her mother still lives on the farm. It’s that first hand perspective on how policies and economic trends affect people that shapes her policy priorities today, she said.

“We need economic success throughout the state, an economic blueprint for each region and the state overall that works together,” said Kelliher.

Here on the Iron Range, Kelliher remarked on the region’s history and contribution to the state’s economy and education system through mining revenue. On her visit to the western Iron Range that day Kelliher got a look at the region’s mining economy, which is currently operating well below normal but that is showing signs of thawing in recent weeks. Her prescription for the Iron Range includes expanded broadband access in the rural areas, the streamlining of the Minnesota Pollution Control permit process and an educated workforce.

“Education is the base of all of this,” said Kelliher, who also complimented early childhood programming in Itasca County for its integration with K-12 curriculum.

Education, said Kelliher, stands as her campaign’s focus and her showpiece among the similar policy positions of the other candidates. She draws from her personal experiences with Minnesota’s education system.

“My experiences (on the farm in the 1980s) really taught me the importance of a really good public education,” said Kelliher. “Not just the education, but the access to activities and specialized programming. There are too many school districts where that’s not the case anymore.”

Included in that list are several districts that Kelliher saw that day. She met with Nashwauk-Keewatin school board members who are trying to figure out a way to weather a fiscal storm created by the state funding shortage, a failed operating referendum and declining enrollment. Fundamentally, Kelliher said the primary task of the next governor will be budget stability, likening the current situation — with its massive deficits and declining revenues — to a Tilt-o-Whirl ride.

“The hardest thing to do on the Tilt-o-Whirl is to fix your gaze on the horizon,” she said. “In our case, that’s the future. Doing that, focusing on stability in the future, is the most important thing we can do in Minnesota.”

This interview took place on Aug. 12, the day before Kelliher files papers and released news of her impending official announcement. With at least 11 potential candidates vying for the DFL endorsement, primary nomination and the evenutal prize in the general election, strategy takes on even more meaning.

Kelliher is abiding by the June 2010 DFL endorsement and will not run if delegates endorse someone else. If successful in winning the endorsement, she would face a primary field that would include former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, who has announced plans to sidestep the endorsement process, and probably also former State Rep. Matt Entenza, who is seeking the endorsement but has said he would run anyway if others do not honor it. In any event, Kelliher believes she can compete at every level right now.

“I can win the endorsement. I can build a winning campaign. I can win a primary. I can win the general. Many can claim one of those things, I can claim all of them.”

Central to that claim is that she raised $7 million for the House DFL caucus as speaker and brings experience in statewide organization that rivals any of her opponents.

“I’m confident in a dairy barn,” said Kelliher. “I’m confident in a meeting with school board members. I’m confident in a room full of kids. I’m confident ina board room talking to business leaders. And I’m confident in a hockey arena as the mom of a goalie and defenseman. I’m part of all of these places and that’s an important part of the path to victory.”

My analysis

Margaret Anderson Kelliher is currently the “highest ranking” DFL candidate in the race and deserves obvious attention for that. She has a host of other factors working in her favor right now and important hurdles to overcome, but perhaps smaller hurdles than many of her opponents.

First off, nice rollout. Her official papers were filed last Thursday when I know she was participating in a tour of Koochiching County in far northern Minnesota along the Canadian border. She was probably looking at Canada when a massive outflow of Tweets, Facebook invitations, press release e-mails and other information about her candidacy poured to Minnesota’s DFL political class. That suggests a highly mobile, functional campaign.

Kelliher is not assured the DFL’s endorsement next June. If she underperforms in the caucus and local convention process she might bust at the state convention, but more likely she’ll be a strong contender. Here’s why. 2010 is going to be very different than 2008. Turnout at caucuses and local conventions will be much lower and much less dominated by new delegates. That’s an environment that favors name recognition and a bit more old school political calculation than even 2008. While, as I’ve mentioned, DFL delegates and later primary voters may seek an “outsider,” Kelliher represents something of a go-between among many groups.

Kelliher’s initial strength lies in her role as speaker. Though many superdelegates may back other candidates on the first ballot, she represents a logical choice on future ballots because she is essentially a co-worker and known commodity. Her gender will offer some hope to many delegates who hope to break Minnesota’s unfortunate streak as a state that has never elected a female governor. Though Susan Gaertner has an equal claim on that mantra, she’ll have to survive the first ballot to cash in on it.

While her initial strength might be her speaker’s office, Kelliher’s connections between a rural upbringing and an urban existence will resonate with many, including the suburbanites who have made the same switch. Kelliher seems to have learned that a good biography, or rather autobiography, is becoming a more and more important part of the identity politics of our day.

Kelliher is probably right that she represents a candidacy that could compete not just for the endorsement, but in a likely primary against Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza as well. (Entenza is, however, aggressively seeking the endorsement and will likely be a factor at the convention). Of all the candidates whole-heartedly honoring the endorsement outcome, Kelliher is among the best positioned to compete against what will likely be the well-funded campaigns of Dayton and Entenza. She is not assured victory in that scenario but could probably raise as much or more money than some of the alternatives.

Kelliher’s biggest early challenge will be in assembling committed delegates. The district she represents is in Minneapolis where tough hometown rivals R.T. Rybak and Paul Thissen will compete. St. Paul and the suburbs also have their share of candidates vying for hometown favorites. That means Kelliher (like everyone else, including the dual Iron Range candidacies of Tom Bakk and Tom Rukavina) will have to build up the difference in places like Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud and farm country. What what? Farm country. Kelliher’s farm heavy narrative might be more than a charming back story.

Her biggest challenge probably comes in the hypothetical general election. As she faces a yet unknown Republican opponent in a year that will be more akin to 2004 than 2008, she’ll have to answer for how Gov. Tim Pawlenty gamed the legislative process so well last year. (I think he was wrong to do so, but he did score political points). If I were picking candidates in a political vacuum it might make sense to go with somebody less associated with the 2009 session who can also raise money and do the job. Any candidate would face attack ads. Kelliher’s would be about the failed 2009 session and her status as an insider in DFL politics. Politics, however, abhors a vacuum and Kelliher’s connections make her a contender. Like every other year with a contested primary DFLers will just have to figure out the general election when they get there.

As to her style, Margaret Anderson Kelliher is a very skilled one on one communicator. She draws people in with her personal story. About the only criticism I can offer is that she tracks toward platitudes in some policy matters. I haven’t seen her give a speech in person yet, but we’ll all get to see her do that over the next year. Her and 10 other people. I hope you like speeches.

Summary: With an explosive debut, a powerful position and a compelling story, Margaret Anderson Kelliher is a first tier candidate. The gravitational force she’ll fight will be the unpopular conclusion to the 2009 session.

(As we approach the end of this series fans of one candidate or another should know that I plan on a final post that details the potential path to victory for all of the candidates after the conclusion of the interviews).

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