Kelliher downplays gender issue, touts her experience as key in DFL battle for gubernatorial endorsement

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher: “There never has been a candidate quite like me. I’m a 42-year-old mom who is able to run the House, run for governor and connect with people across the state.”

Elizabeth Glidden is a member of the Minneapolis City Council, meaning she’s in constant contact with the city’s mayor, R.T. Rybak.

“I love R.T.,” Glidden said. “He’s a wonderful mayor.”

But … she supports House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher for governor.

“She’s the best candidate for governor,” Glidden said. “She’s historic — she’d be the first female. But more importantly, you need to be ready to go to work from the first day in a much different environment than a mayor operates. You have to be able to bridge divides immediately. She can do that. We are in a crisis situation in our state. There are no chances for do-overs. She’s ready to do the job on the first day.”

What more could underscore the closeness of this race than an “I love R.T.” person supporting Kelliher?

Both candidates draw unexpected support
Both candidates are drawing support from places that might seem unexpected. Both say their race is close, though Kelliher is quick to add, “I’m winning.” Both, of course, say they’d be the more electable candidate in November, which assumes the endorsed candidate can get past Mark Dayton, Matt Entenza and Susan Gaertner in the August primary.

Despite the closeness of the race, it’s probably been easier for Rybak to pick up positive headlines than Kelliher. In terms of statewide politics, he’s the new face on the block. When he picks up support in Greater Minnesota, the story reads: “Rybak shows surprising strength.”

Mayor R.T. Rybak
Mayor R.T. Rybak

When she picks up outstate support, it’s ho-hum. He came in as an underdog, while Kelliher, the powerful House speaker, started picking up traditional institutional DFL support from the time she announced she was entering the race.

Is there almost a Barack Obama (Rybak) vs. Hillary Rodham Clinton (Kelliher) aura to this race?

“He would like to make it Obama-Clinton,” said Kelliher, “but it’s absolutely not.”

She says that “there never has been a candidate quite like me. I’m a 42-year-old mom who is able to run the House, run for governor and connect with people across the state. I’m the former 4-H president who has been president of the PTA in a city public school. It’s hard to put me in a box, though I think R.T. is trying to do that.”

With the Legislature out of session for the rest of this week to observe Passover and Easter, Kelliher finally has a chance to spend a few days campaigning full time. But she won’t use this time to knock on doors and shake hands with delegates and alternates.

“People don’t want to see you the week of Easter,” she said. “They don’t mind talking on the phone, but they really don’t want to see you in their living room.”

So for the rest of this week, she will be attached to a phone, constantly talking to delegates, more of whom are coming to her side each day, she says. (Rybak also says he’s winning over delegates each day.)

Kelliher says significant endorsements imminent for her
She also said political observers will see a series of significant endorsements coming her way in the next two or three weeks.

Some members of Kelliher’s campaign staff seemed upset over my Tuesday story on MinnPost. The story, covering the fact that Rybak had picked up his first legislative endorsements of the campaign, noted that four of the seven legislators who came out for Rybak are women. The story also raised the question as to whether gender is an issue in this campaign.

The Kelliher staffer grumbled, “R.T.’s making an issue of gender.”

I explained to the Kelliher supporters that I was the one who had raised the gender issue and that Rybak was responding to my questions.

The campaign — even Kelliher — seems of two minds on the gender question. The campaign’s knee-jerk belief is that it should not be an issue.

“This race is about who’s qualified,” said Kelliher. “It’s about real experience of reaching across the aisle to accomplish things. People are looking for a candidate who’s qualified. … I don’t think that it [gender] is the decision-making point. There are men and women, young and old, who think the fact that I grew up on a farm is more important. They like that I have that experience. They like the fact that my kids are in public school. I understand the [education issues] in a very real way. I’ve run those book sales to raise money for my kids’ schools.” (This appears to be a shot at Rybak, whose kids went to private schools, as did the mayor.)

But the Glidden comment — “she’s historic” — shows that Kelliher’s gender is meaningful. No Minnesota woman has represented a major party for governor on the November ballot. There are many DFL activists still fuming over the fact that, eight years ago, Roger Moe won the endorsement over two qualified women, Judi Dutcher and Becky Lourey.

But without much prodding, Kelliher does admit that gender is a factor in the race and that delegates should be aware that a qualified woman would be an asset on the ticket, particularly in the primary.

“DFL primary voters are 58 percent women,” she said. “I’m qualified, and we can make history here.”

Electability is ultimately the key to the hearts of most long-suffering DFL activists. Rybak and those legislative supporters he introduced Monday push the idea that he’s the fresh face, not tainted by Minnesotans weariness with the partisan fighting between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the DFL-controlled Legislature. The Rybak campaign also tries to score with the idea that he has “executive experience,” as a mayor.

Rybak comes close to being openly critical of the Legislature.

“There are a lot of wonderful people in the Capitol,” Rybak said Monday, “but there’s a sense in the state that not all the answers can be found in the Capitol. I offer the chance to use the talent in this building [the Capitol] but bring a fresh set of eyes and executive experience.”

Criticism of Legislature annoys Kelliher
The Kelliher comeback to that sort of campaign talk is quick, firm — and almost tinged with anger.

“Haven’t we had enough bashing of the legislative branch?” she asked. “He’s on thin ice. Maybe the ice has gone out. I think people have had enough of that blame-someone-else stuff. … I’ve got both executive and legislative experience,” she said. “I’ve hired, I’ve fired, I’ve built bridges in a highly partisan environment; I’m not sure he has that experience.”

She doesn’t believe that voters have a built-in negative response to legislators. She believes she’s proving it this session, with a governor not known for compromise, that the Legislature is getting things done.

Mostly, though, she talks about the next governor having no time to practice. The budget crisis gets dramatically worse in the next biennium, and the problems are complex.

“Delegates get it,” she said. “The next governor will have to propose a budget 12 and a half weeks after getting elected. Six of those weeks, you’re not even governor. You’re not going to have time to read a lot of studies about what other people think. You’d better have a clear sense of what you’re dealing with and your plan for the future of the state.”

Who’s better equipped to be the state’s top executive, a powerful legislator or a big-city mayor?

Rep. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis worked as an aide to Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff. He watched Rybak closely and likes the mayor personally.

“He’s got a vision,” said Hayden, “but I’ve learned as a legislator that it takes a different skill set to work at the Capitol than it does at City Hall. The mayor only has to count to seven [the number of city council votes needed to win support on an issue]. The mayor is working with a small group of people who usually only disagree on technicalities.

“Even in our [DFL] caucus,” Hayden continued, “she’s dealing with people who are very moderate to very liberal. You can disagree with her, but there’s never a sense of retribution. She’s willing to work across the aisle. … She’ll be a great governor.”

Passions among the two candidates’ supporters are only going to increase as the April 23-25 convention nears.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/01/2010 - 08:29 am.

    Doug,

    Why not ask Kelliher about the increase in taxes she will propose (“revenue enhancements” for advocacy journalists) and how much will she grow the budget?

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/01/2010 - 08:51 am.

    To suggest any Democrat campaign will not focus on race and gender is really laughable, isn’t it?

    As Ron, rightly points out, Kelliher offers no tangible details about what she thinks makes her the best choice…she won’t; she can’t.

    The last thing the people of Minnesota want to hear is that the government “has no choice” but to raise their taxes to support the Democrat appetite for spending, and Kelliher knows it.

    Expect nothing but meaningless buzz words and inconsequential, anecdotal stories focused upon gender…..Hopey/Changey Rev. B.

  3. Submitted by Howard Salute on 04/01/2010 - 11:04 am.

    We must first see Kelliher model some pant suits before we compare her to Hilary.

  4. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 04/01/2010 - 02:33 pm.

    (Two anti-tax (regardless of the harm to the common good) and one anti-female/sexist commenter so far. Maybe I can counter them a bit.)

    Thanks for this article, Mr. Grow. I might ask, though, that you and other journalists not limit the field in your reporting to a few candidates labeled as “front runners” very early in the campaign.

    Speaker Kelliher is surely correct in stating that qualifications and experience are more important than gender. Many of the candidates shine in both areas, but I personally would like to see John Marty discussed more often because of:

    (1) his passion for health care for all as proposed in his Minnesota Health Plan. It could complete for Minnesotans the job that the newly passed but imperfect federal plan has started. (See http://www.muhcc.org).

    (2) his many bills during his terms in the Senate, all of which make life better for ordinary people as well as those who are marginalized and/or poor.

  5. Submitted by Roy Everson on 04/01/2010 - 08:38 pm.

    The questions of “who is most qualified” or “who would make the best governor” are important, but not paramount. The candidates should all be considered qualified and each an improvement over the present guv.
    Who is best positioned to win in November, now that is the question. Delegates and alternates owe it to long suffering DFLers to be open minded to new impressions in these next weeks and in Duluth– which man or woman creates can lead the best race through the summer and fall.

  6. Submitted by Sarah Taylor-Nanista on 04/02/2010 - 08:18 am.

    As the Executive Director of womenwinning, an organization that has been endorsing smart, qualified, viable, pro-choice women candidates at all levels of office for 28 years, I want to explain our strong support for Margaret Anderson Kelliher:
    We support the best candidate in the race that happens to be a woman. Women are underrepresented at every level of elected office. To remedy this, we need to recruit, train and support women candidates who can win and excel in office. We know that Margaret can win, and she’s proven that she excels in public office. Yes, electing Minnesota’s first woman governor will make history. And Margaret will make history with the support of women of all ages and backgrounds throughout the state. But supporting women is not a gimmick; it is about promoting outstanding candidates, important policy agendas, and the effective leadership style women bring to public office.

  7. Submitted by Colleen Morse on 04/02/2010 - 09:23 am.

    Rybak definitely has more charisma and personality than Kelliher does. Of the two, I would say Rybak has more chance of getting the most votes. I’ve seen Rybak in action at events. He generates so much energy and enthusiasm. Ofen the crowd goes wild before he even opens his mouth to speak.

  8. Submitted by Jeff Goldenberg on 04/02/2010 - 11:03 am.

    I’m a basketball fan and this column feels like a “make-up call” a pressured ref makes on the hardwood. Sometimes that’s justified, but not here.

    Grow made a good call earlier this week when he argued R.T. is showing some momentum in the endorsement battle. I support a different candidate, but I’ve watched Rybak at two district conventions over the past few weeks and I’ve gone from thumbs-down to “eh” when it comes to Rybak. He’s climbing.

    On the flip side, Margaret seems to have hit a wall. Loud complaints from her staff to the contrary shouldn’t influence coverage the way Grow acknowledges in this column.

    Nobody’s got this thing wrapped up – undecided wins today by a mile. But practicing tit-for-tat grease-the-squeeky-wheel coverage is a disservice to your readership.

  9. Submitted by Dave Eldred on 04/02/2010 - 09:05 pm.

    Still can’t get over the debacle that was the legislative session for Kelliher last year. How am I supposed to look by that? That was her big chance to show she could play on the statewide stage, and it quite simply did not go well.

    Everything else being equal, I’d love to see a woman as governor — but here, I don’t think all things are equal.

  10. Submitted by Lauren Maker on 04/07/2010 - 09:39 am.

    So let’s take a look at RT’s executive experience. He’s responsible for two departments (and his own office)–Civil Rights and the Police Department. Neither one is the poster child for effective, efficient government.
    RT conistently underfunds Civil Rights, guaranteeing it cannot do its’ work. Two examples– Civilian Review Authority is understaffed, and cannot process complaints within the timelines necessary to have their findings used for discipline against offending officers. By the time they finish their CRA process, the complaints are considered too stale for MPD to use for internal disciplinary purposes. Contract Compliance monitoring is mandated by HUD regulations, yet in the $1.5 million admin. money from the most recent HUD allocation of $15.4 million–not one dime for contract compliance. Contract compliance monitoring for Davis Bacon wages kicks in at $2,000 HUD $ into a project–so clearly Davis Bacon monitoring is going to be required. MDCR just has to do it for free, apparently.
    As for the MPD–well, crime is down (in 2009). But the department was $3 million over budget in 2009. Better than 2008, when it was about $6 million over budget. And the CFO that brought about that decrease in the overrun–she lost her job. And police brutality complaints among new officiers is up dramatically.
    His appointments are nothing to write home about either. There’s a reason he’s called the Music Man around City Hall.
    It’s foolish to believe the GOP won’t be using his track record against him. It does way more damage to his electability than his gender.

  11. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 04/12/2010 - 02:33 pm.

    “Still can’t get over the debacle that was the legislative session for Kelliher last year. How am I supposed to look by that? That was her big chance to show she could play on the statewide stage, and it quite simply did not go well.”

    Bingo.

    Kelliher and the DFL have repeatedly been flat-out rolled, despite having a near veto-proof majority. They have underperformed their numbers in the House. These past few years have been Kelliher’s dress rehearsal to determine if she’s ready to be governor. If you want continued frustration with Democrats being unable to get the job done, Kelliher’s your candidate.

    Conversely, RT and Minneapolis’ city council have handled with aplomb the job of balancing the state’s budget that Pawlenty subcontracted out to local governments. Minneapolis’ debt rating is better than Minnesota’s in large part because the city’s financing has been handled very well.

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