Kelliher: 'I'm a mix of country and city, and I think that's OK'
Editor's note: This is the second of three stories profiling the new leadership taking over in the Minnesota Legislature in 2007. JUDSON TOWNSHIP -- Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis could become the most influential lawmaker in the Minne...
Editor's note: This is the second of three stories profiling the new leadership taking over in the Minnesota Legislature in 2007.
JUDSON TOWNSHIP -- Margaret Anderson Kelliher of Minneapolis could become the most influential lawmaker in the Minnesota Legislature next year, but she insists she is not far removed from her days chopping cornstalks and feeding calves.
Kelliher, who successfully led Democratic efforts in the Nov. 7 election to recapture control of the Minnesota House, represents an urban legislative district but will rely on her "farm-girl sensibilities" as she guides a DFL caucus with members from throughout the state.
"I'm a mix of country and city, and I think that's OK," she said.
After Democrats regained the House majority in the election, following their eight years as the minority party, they voted to make Kelliher the next House speaker. Pending a formal vote of all House members on Jan. 3, when the Legislature convenes for the 2007 session, Kelliher will assume control of the House. She will wield the speaker's gavel and be the lead House negotiator in budget talks with Senate Democrats and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was elected to another four-year term.
Republicans cite Kelliher's election as House speaker-designate -- and Senate Democrats' decision to make Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis their new majority leader -- as indications the DFL-controlled Legislature will push a metropolitan, liberal agenda.
Kelliher, 38, was raised on a dairy farm in Judson Township, along the Minnesota River west of Mankato. Her supporters point to that background in defending their selection of her for arguably the state's most powerful legislative post. The House speaker controls the chamber's committee structure and decides what bills representatives vote on. Kelliher likely will succeed Republican Steve Sviggum of Kenyon, who served as House speaker since 1999.
It has been about two decades since Kelliher lived on her family's farm, but she said the experience continues to influence her. Kelliher still visits the property and a nearby lake cabin she and her husband own.
During a recent trip to the area, she stopped at the Nicollet Veterinary Clinic, whose staff treated animals on Kelliher's farm.
"Oh my gosh, the Honorable!" a surprised Gala Beckendorf said when she saw Kelliher in the lobby of the small clinic. Beckendorf, a veterinarian, said that she has known Kelliher for 25 years and that she remembers when the teenager was tasked with cl-eaning man-ure "gutters" in the barn.
"She was a punk," Beckendorf joked.
Later, as Kelliher walked around her family's Blue Earth County homestead, she talked about how the dairy operation ceased 10 years ago, around the time her father died. But she remembered numerous farm jobs growing up.
"They taught me how to drive tractor when I was 6," Kelliher said of her siblings, "and one time we nearly went over the embankment by the river."
Lawmakers say Kelliher's appreciation for agriculture is legitimate. Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said he remembers talking about agriculture with her when they first met.
"It's not just a come-lately song for the press. I think she really does understand her background," said Juhnke, who was Kelliher's pick for chairman of a House agriculture finance committee next year.
Kelliher often shares stories from her youth, including her involvement in the 4-H program and when she was Blue Earth County dairy princess.
"You can't get more farm and rural than that," Juhnke said.
Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton said he doesn't doubt Kelliher recognizes the importance of farm issues to the state. Magnus, who grows crops in southwestern Minnesota, said he has worked with Kelliher and plans to continue doing so next year. However, like other Republicans, Magnus said he believes rural Minnesota could be overlooked by Kelliher and other Twin Cities-area legislative leaders. That concern was highlighted when House Republicans recently elected Rep. Marty Seifert of Marshall, in southwestern Minnesota, to be their new leader.
Pawlenty, who served in the House with Kelliher for four years, has said he plans to work with her and the other new Democratic leaders.
Kelliher said she looks forward to her new position because she likes big challenges. She is a mother of two; both her son and daughter play hockey.
Kelliher said watching her 12-year-old son play goalie is more nerve-racking than anything she experiences at the Capitol.
"It's more stressful than any of this," she joked.