Kelliher makes pitch to party as rivals run flush with cash

Kelliher accepts
Margaret Anderson Kelliher accepts the endorsement of the DFL Party for governor Saturday night, April 24, 2010 in Duluth, Minn. Kelliher won the endorsement after the sixth round of balloting by convention delegates, when R.T. Rybak dropped out.
MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher says her bid to become Minnesota's first female governor is relying on a grassroots campaign organization rather than a million-dollar bank account.

Kelliher has the DFL party endorsement and the backing of several key labor unions, but she's facing a competitive primary battle on August 10 against two other Democrats with significantly more money than she has.

When Kelliher talks about wanting to be governor, she emphasizes her rural roots.

She grew up on a dairy farm near Mankato, but has lived most of her adult life in Minneapolis with her husband, David, and their son and daughter.

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'NOT A QUITTER'

Kelliher also emphasizes the leadership style she developed during 12 years in the Minnesota House, including four years as speaker. Kelliher said she has proven that she never quits, even when the task is hard.

"Whether it's passing the best renewable energy standard in the nation; whether it was overriding Gov. Pawlenty; whether it was joining the court brief to sue Gov. Pawlenty," Kelliher said, "I don't give up. I don't quit. And I won't quit on Minnesotans."

This could be a tough election year for incumbents, but Kelliher says she thinks voters are attracted to her experience and her message.

Kelliher announces
DFL Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher officially launched her campaign for governor at the farm where she grew up near Mankato.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

She's promising a balanced approach to solving a projected $6 billion state budget deficit that will include raising some taxes and cutting state spending.

"As a working mom, I know what it takes to get to the end of the month, to the end of the year, to make things work. And I think people really like that experience," she said.

Kelliher stresses the same theme on the campaign trail, speaking to groups large and small. A recent weekday stop at South Central College in Faribault, as part of a statewide jobs tour, drew just a dozen supporters and one reporter. Still, Kelliher delivered her message as if the room were packed.

"I'm fighting for you, because I believe that Minnesota is worth fighting for, and I know our best days are yet to come," she said. "That's why I'm traveling the state, coming here to Faribault, going over to St. Peter next, talking to Minnesotans about how to get back to work."

Despite arriving 40 minutes late due to car trouble, Kelliher was warmly received at the Faribault event. Local resident Chris Gamer was particularly impressed. Gamer said he became a Kelliher fan while watching her in action as Speaker of the House.

"She knows how to build consensus and bring people together," Gamer said. "This is a really contentious time. We need consensus builders. I also -- this is just my own personal bias -- but I think we need more women in politics."

Kelliher and her supporters often mention the potential of making history as Minnesota's first female governor. She's working hard to attract female voters, and even though the primary is designed to allow Democrats to choose a candidate, she's reaching out to independents.

BUILT BIPARTISAN BRIDGES

Kelliher picked former Republican John Gunyou as her running mate. Gunyou, who served as state finance commissioner under Republican Gov. Arne Carlson, says he thinks Kelliher has a broad appeal.

"I've heard from a lot of people, in fact surprisingly many more than I might have thought, that have always been what I would characterize as moderates, saying, 'we like her balanced approach to everything,'" Gunyou said. "In other words, willing to fight for the things that are the values that I think we should, but still being able to get things done."

Governor and legislative leaders
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller and other legislative leaders announce that they reached a budget deal.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

When Kelliher became speaker of the House, the self-described hockey mom promised to build bridges across party lines. Those bridges paid off in 2008, when six House Republicans broke party ranks and helped the DFL majority override Pawlenty's veto of a transportation bill that included an increase in the state's gas tax.

Republican state Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, who was first elected to the Minnesota House in 1998, the same year as Kelliher, said the override is "the high water mark" and a highlight for Kelliher.

Ten years after they were both first elected, Abeler crossed party lines to vote for the override with Kelliher. He said she scored a big win getting those six Republican votes, as well as the support of business leaders and truck drivers, for the resulting gas tax increase.

But Abeler says Kelliher also had some losses as speaker. One came earlier this year when the Legislature failed to pass an education policy bill, he said.

"The whole issue about alternate licensure and achievement gap and all that. There was no education bill this year at all, over that issue. She was in the middle of that," he said. "I don't think it's a victory to come home with no bill at all, and make no changes with the education challenges."

NOT TOUGH ENOUGH WITH PAWLENTY?

Some Democrats also raised questions about Kelliher's leadership during a hotly contested endorsing process. There were allegations that she and other DFL leaders had too often caved in to Pawlenty. Those concerns still linger.

"I think there are significant problems with Margaret's campaign," said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.

Madame Speaker
Margaret Anderson Kelliher talks to reporters after being named the Speaker of the House in Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

He said he thinks Kelliher's track record is a reason some key labor unions have not backed her bid for governor, and why she's not leading in the polls.

Pelowski, who is supporting former state Rep. Matt Entenza for governor, points to what he calls the 2009 budget meltdown. In that session, Pawlenty bypassed the Legislature and balanced the books with unilateral spending cuts, which were later undone by a court challenge.

"We needed to have leadership that was willing to not just state a position in a cut line or in a crafted statement for the media, but to stay with that position and sometimes to take very difficult positions, and simply say 'no,'" Pelowski said.

"That hasn't occurred over the last four years, and that I think is the problem."

The issue also came up last week in a radio debate. Kelliher defended herself when Minnesota Public Radio's Kerri Miller asked if she was unwilling to stand up to Republicans.

"Standing up was joining that lawsuit, which the state Senate did not do. And that was gusty and risky," Kelliher said. "We had eight days to go, and you know what? Gov. Pawlenty was in the position, if he had a budget shortfall again, he could start unalloting again, and we'd have the same cycle going."

BANKING ON GRASSROOTS SUPPORT

Since the DFL convention, Kelliher has tried to distinguish herself from two formidable primary opponents, Entenza and former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton.

There are a few differences among the DFLers in policy areas such as taxes and job creation, but the biggest difference is money. Dayton and Entenza have significant personal resources; Kelliher doesn't.

Still, Kelliher says she's counting on the party machinery and her own grassroots campaign operation to win the Aug. 10 primary.

"A primary is a very targeted race. And so, you could make the argument that being up on the air with TV ads is kind of like trying to finding the needle in the haystack, or trying to find the voter," she said. "We are going directly to those voters who are going to be motivated to come out in this primary election."

While Kelliher downplayed the impact of the Dayton and Entenza television ads, she also used them in an appeal to supporters to raise money for her own ads.

KELLIHER AD: I'm Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and my Minnesota story starts here, with mom, dad and the six of us. Then in Minneapolis with David and our two kids...

Kelliher' first TV ad finally went on the air earlier this month, at about the same time her campaign fundraising hit the $1 million mark.

OTHER FACTS ABOUT KELLIHER

Born:

March 11, 1968

Mankato, MN

Husband:

David Kelliher

Children:

Patrick (16) and Franny (13)

Religious Affiliation:

Catholic

Political Heroes:

Paul Wellstone

Eleanor Roosevelt

Allan Spear

Most Important Vote in the Minnesota House:

Overriding Tim Pawlenty's veto of the 2008 transportation bill

Childhood Dream:

To be a large animal veterinarian

Best High School Job:

Being a 4H ambassador at the Minnesota State Fair, as a volunteer for 12 days

Favorite Movie:

"The Wizard of Oz"

Favorite Band:

Johnny Cash

Favorite Food:

Ice Cream

Pets:

Irish Terrier