Rep. McCollum fights her own party on Stillwater bridge

Betty McCollum
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn, rarely breaks from party policy, but finds herself opposing her colleagues on the issue of a new bridge in Stillwater. McCollum appears in her St. Paul office in this photo taken Jan. 10, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

For more than a decade, DFL Congresswoman Betty McCollum has represented St. Paul and the surrounding region. And while a staunch member of the Democratic caucus, rarely breaking from the party on policy, McCollum has recently broken with her DFL colleagues on several issues close to home.

After being in the majority for four years, the demotion to minority status in the House this year has been a change of pace, McCollum said.

"I don't get to set the schedule, I don't get to decide what bills come up, any of that, so I have very realistic expectations," McCollum said.

McCollum has spent much of this year waging trench warfare against House Republicans, arguing that the GOP has been taken over by the tea party movement.

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But even as she's been part of the partisan rhetorical struggle, McCollum hasn't been afraid of lobbing a few salvos at her own side, particularly on legislation to authorize a new bridge over the St. Croix River.

McCollum strongly opposes a plan to build a new four-lane span over the river at a cost of nearly $700 million to replace the aging two-lane Stillwater bridge.

The plan has strong support on both sides of the river. In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken — all Democrats — as well as GOP Congresswoman Michele Bachmann back the bridge plan.

Stillwater bridge
Up until a few weeks ago, congressional action on the proposal for a new St. Croix bridge looked likely. The bipartisan bill cleared a major Senate hurdle last month, and was awaiting floor votes by the House and Senate. But the current impasse is yet another delay for the project, which has taken years to get this close to approval. A major repair for the Stillwater bridge, pictured, is scheduled for 2012.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

McCollum says the bridge is too expensive.

"We could fix a lot more bridges and do a crossing at Stillwater if we used, in my opinion, more common sense on how we spend the dollars," she said.

McCollum argues that building a larger bridge will set an unhealthy precedent for the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which protects the St. Croix River. McCollum is unapologetic about leading the resistance against a project that is backed by people who are nominally her political allies.

"That's my job, and people respect you when you do your job," she said.

The only other member of Minnesota's congressional delegation who supports McCollum's stance on the bridge is fellow Rep. Keith Ellison DFL-Minneapolis. He says McCollum is unlikely to back down just to maintain party unity.

"She doesn't absorb the pressure," Ellison said. "She just does what she thinks is right and marches down the field with a smile on her face."

Klobuchar concedes that McCollum's opposition has likely slowed down the House bill to build a new bridge.

"Well, obviously, things are obviously easier when you have no opposition," Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar notes the bridge itself isn't even located in McCollum's district.

"But in this case we really don't have opposition from people that represent the actual area, which is helpful," Klobuchar said.

With Washington highly polarized, local issues such as the bridge often expose the biggest cracks in state delegations, said Kathryn Pearson, a University of Minnesota political scientist.

"If you look at most issues, most of the Minnesota delegation pretty consistently follows the party line, but this is not an issue where there are clear partisan cues," Pearson said.

The St. Croix bridge isn't the only issue on which McCollum has recently spoken out. When the DFL released its proposed congressional redistricting map in November, it redrew McCollum's district to include parts of Washington County, including Stillwater.

That map could set up a race between McCollum and Bachmann, if Bachmann quits her presidential bid and runs for Congress again. McCollum's chief of staff released a statement calling the proposal "hyper-partisan and bizarre." McCollum said she was blindsided by the new map, which was approved by DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.

"I will run in whatever map is drawn, but to not to speak out when something doesn't make sense or to me, when something looks like it's done strictly for political gain, I'm going to speak out," McCollum said.

Martin said he kept DFL officeholders informed as the maps were being drawn up but admits the matter could have been handled better.

"I feel really awful that there is this sort of public dispute had to be aired publicly and I feel bad that Congresswoman McCollum feels slighted here," Martin said.

With redistricting and the St. Croix bridge issue both still unresolved, McCollum said she is happy to work with those she disagrees with. But she says that doesn't mean she'll quiet down.