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Margaret Anderson Kelliher is back after eight years out of politics. Can she win over today’s DFL?

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Former House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher filing for the open 5th Congressional District seat on June 5.

On a recent rainy Saturday, Margaret Anderson Kelliher was strolling around St. Louis Park’s Parktacular Festival, stopping passersby so she could remind them of three things: one, that there is currently an open primary for the 5th Congressional District seat; two, that she, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, is running in that primary; and three, who Margaret Anderson Kelliher is, and what she’s been up to the last eight years.

Crossing a bridge over a pond — trailed by her college-age daughter, Franny, and aides carrying a big, purple “Margaret for Congress sign” — Anderson Kelliher caught sight of a man wearing a black hat with three crowns on it. “I see a Gustie hat, yes?” Anderson Kelliher asked, thinking the man was wearing the logo of her alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College, the Lutheran liberal arts college in southern Minnesota.

It turned out the man was simply a supporter of Sweden, whose sports teams use the same three-crown symbol, but Anderson Kelliher cornered him anyway, reminding him about the upcoming primary on August 14. “I’d love to have your vote here in the primary,” she told him. “You’re the only one running?” he cracked. “No,” Anderson Kelliher said, “no. You know that.”

Later, Anderson Kelliher would say that the barely week-old 5th District DFL primary — sparked by a complicated domino effect that prompted incumbent Rep. Keith Ellison to jump in the race for attorney general — is still news to a lot of voters. “I’ve talked to people who were like, I was out of town and I didn’t know the world shifted!”

That quick shift, and the frenzy it set off, has presented a challenge for each of the five candidates who are running to succeed Ellison. But two of Anderson Kelliher’s leading competitors — state Rep. Ilhan Omar and state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray — are sitting legislators and active political figures; Omar, now officially the party’s endorsed candidate, has something close to political celebrity status after becoming the first Somali elected to a state legislature.

Anderson Kelliher, meanwhile, has some more work to do: Though she once held one of the most powerful positions in state government — she was speaker of the Minnesota House for four years — she dropped off the political map after falling short in her 2010 bid for governor.

Eight years later, as she re-enters politics, Anderson Kelliher finds herself in an alien landscape: Moderate Democrats have been replaced with populist Bernie Sanders loyalists, and anger over Tim Pawlenty’s budget cuts has been replaced with the existential dread brought on by Donald Trump. Her task now is not only to remind CD5 Democrats of what she did in the Legislature a decade ago, but to convince them that any of that still matters in today’s politics.

A past political life

Though Anderson Kelliher, who is 50, made her name in Minneapolis politics, she’s a self-described farm girl and a one-time dairy princess who grew up in southern Minnesota’s Blue Earth County. She set down roots in Minneapolis, and after working as a legislative aide for two notable DFL legislators, state Rep. Robert Vanasek and state Sen. Allan Spear, she made the jump to elected office herself. In 1998, she was elected to represent House District 60A, which then included parts of downtown Minneapolis, and the Loring Park, Uptown, and Lowry Hill neighborhoods.

Ahead of the 2006 election, Anderson Kelliher ascended to minority leader of the House DFL, and then was elected Speaker when Democrats took control of the chamber in the 2006 midterm elections. For the next four years, Anderson Kelliher frequently did battle with then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and was tasked with spearheading DFL resistance to his agenda.

Anderson Kelliher scored a few notable wins against Pawlenty and the Minnesota GOP in that period: one she mentions often was statehouse Democrats’ 2008 passage of an increase in the state gas tax — the first in 20 years — over a veto from Pawlenty.

She also battled the GOP governor over spending, particularly Pawlenty’s use of so-called “unallotment,” through which he attempted to cut some $33 million from state budgets with the stroke of his pen, bypassing the Legislature. The Minnesota Supreme Court later ruled this move exceeded the power of the governor’s office.

Anderson Kelliher touted those successes when she officially jumped into the open-seat governor’s race in 2009, and beat out a crowded, competitive field to secure the party’s endorsement. Anderson Kelliher was challenged in the primary, however, by Mark Dayton — best known then as a former U.S. Senator and scion of the Dayton retail dynasty — who spent over $3 million of his own money on the primary campaign.

On primary day, Dayton defeated Anderson Kelliher by less than two percentage points, a contest so close that Anderson Kelliher did not formally concede until the next day. Finding herself out of elected office for the first time in 12 years, she took a position as president and CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association, a trade group that represents several hundred software, medical, manufacturing, and tech-related companies in Minnesota.

Despite occasional rumblings she could return to politics — she was mentioned as a potential replacement for Al Franken when his sexual misconduct scandal forced him from office last year — Anderson Kelliher remained at the High Tech Association, and took on jobs like heading up Dayton’s rural broadband internet initiative, until launching her bid for Ellison’s seat on June 5.

‘It makes a lot of people mad’

As she gets back on the campaign trail, Anderson Kelliher is touting her experience outside of politics as often as her long history in it. Strolling around St. Louis Park’s Wolfe Park, Anderson Kelliher said that voters will remember her time in the Legislature battling Pawlenty.

“They appreciated the service I did,” Anderson Kelliher says. “It was a really tough time, and it was the Great Recession. Tim Pawlenty is the governor. Standing up to him again and again — people remember that.”

At the same time, she says, “One of the things I consciously did eight years ago, after the governor’s race, I kind of decided to step back a little bit from that so I could give people space to move into roles and things like that. … And the other part of it is, I wanted to immerse myself more deeply in community work.”

In talking to voters on Saturday, Anderson Kelliher was quick to say she’s spent eight years away from politics, and she claims they respond well to someone who “hasn’t just been in it.”

While Anderson Kelliher’s bid is certainly motivated by opportunity — the 5th District seat has been held by just three people over the past 55 years, so Ellison’s departure leaves a rare opening — she says, like many other Democratic candidates, that she’s been spurred to run by the Trump presidency.

“What Donald Trump and the administration are doing, it’s motivating people. It motivated me to do this. So, that’s saying a lot,” Anderson Kelliher says. “People don’t always step up and run for office. I kind of know what could be done by having an effective resistance against the Trump administration, its dismantling of things like the EPA, the systematic taking apart of education policy.”

“It makes me mad,” she says, gravely. “It makes a lot of people mad.”

Those angry people will make up the DFL primary electorate, and most of the general electorate in the 5th, which is Minnesota’s bluest district and one of the most progressive slices of the country.

While Anderson Kelliher will be spending a lot of time denouncing Trump, she’s already running a campaign that is heavy on talk of the finer points of policy, working with local officials, and doing constituent outreach. Her rivals, meanwhile, are making big splashes by backing popular progressive policy: Omar, for example, won resounding applause at the CD5 DFL endorsing convention with her call to abolish the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Anderson Kelliher supports single-payer health care and in her time in the Legislature was a advocate for marriage equality and increasing the state minimum wage; however, she is not the firebrand progressive that many CD5 Democrats might be hungry for in the age of Trump and Sanders.

During a televised candidate forum organized by TPT, the five candidates in the race were asked who they supported for mayor of Minneapolis. Omar voted for state Rep. Raymond Dehn, a staunch progressive who earned the backing of Sanders’ Our Revolution group. Torres Ray supported Nekima Levy-Pounds, the former head of the Minneapolis NAACP.

Anderson Kelliher, meanwhile, said she supported Tom Hoch — a candidate who embraced a pro-business label and caught flak from critics, particularly Omar, over his campaign contributions to the Minnesota House GOP and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek, a Republican.

Some CD5 Republicans even had good things to say about Anderson Kelliher’s bid. Jeff Kolb, a Republican and a council member of the city of Crystal, a suburban community in CD5, said he is seriously considering voting in the DFL primary.

“I know I live in an area that will always be represented by a Democrat. My hope though is that we could elect a Democrat that is actually interested in being a serious representative of the whole district,” Kolb said.

Though he stopped short of saying Anderson Kelliher was that Democrat, he said that she is the only candidate in the field with a track record of being a “serious legislator.”

It’s all about turnout

The essence of Anderson Kelliher’s pitch is that she’s an experienced legislator and policy hand who can put up effective resistance to Trump.

Former DFL state Rep. Ryan Winkler, who took office when Anderson Kelliher took the speaker’s gavel, thinks the basis of the veteran lawmaker’s pitch is strong, and he’s supporting her bid for Congress.

“I have been in the foxhole with Margaret, battling Tim Pawlenty, taking on issues like climate change, the bridge collapse, the transportation override, and I know her mettle, and her strength and determination,” he said. “I think in these times, having strong, effective people who can not just take on people like Donald Trump rhetorically but actually in Congress, or the district, I think that is very, very powerful.”

But in this anger-fueled election cycle — and presented with the opportunity to make history yet again by electing Omar, who would be the first Muslim woman and Somali elected to Congress — CD5 voters may be tempted to overlook Anderson Kelliher’s deep background in policy and Minneapolis politics.

Increasingly, too, Democrats believe that whoever holds the CD5 seat, though it is a safe one for Democrats, has a responsibility to campaign and organize relentlessly to boost turnout in Minneapolis, in order to give statewide DFL candidates a critical boost.

Ellison and his allies are quick to point out that when he took office in 2007, CD5 had the lowest voter turnout in the state. Now, after several cycles of intensive field work by Ellison and his team it has the highest — and a Republican hasn’t been elected statewide since Ellison was sent to Congress.

When he addressed the DFL convention on Sunday, Ellison implored delegates to “never let anyone let the turnout engine die.” Omar has clearly positioned herself as the candidate who will mobilize and galvanize CD5 Democrats to the polls; she touts her 2016 campaign’s 37 percent boost in turnout in District 60B as much as any legislative achievement. Her supporters, like Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, believe Omar is clearly best-suited to carry on Ellison’s turnout tradition.

But Anderson Kelliher argues she is no slouch in this department: “You don’t build a House majority from where we were back in 2002, 2004, up to a majority of 85 and 83 elected members of the House without doing a lot of party-building work,” she says, referencing times when the House DFL was in something of a political wilderness.

“I think Rep. Omar being the first Somali immigrant elected to a legislature 18 months ago is a really great accomplishment,” Anderson Kelliher said. “What I would also say: I think people are looking broadly at the portfolio and how people can effectively represent them, and the entire district.”

On the campaign trail Saturday, Anderson Kelliher bounced from St. Louis Park’s rain-soaked parade to two sunny, hot events on Minneapolis’ North Side in celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in the U.S. in 1865.

At these gatherings, she left no stone unturned — her daughter pointed out that was the title of one of her 2010 campaign videos — talking to everyone from the grandmother running a cookie stand to young men talking over a stereo blasting the rap group Migos’ hit song “Motorsport” to a college student staffing the Planned Parenthood booth, whom Anderson Kelliher informed about her work battling back anti-abortion initiatives from Pawlenty.

Later, as she stood on stage speaking to a thin crowd in a field at North Commons Park — it was so sweltering, most had retreated to the shade — Anderson Kelliher declared “I want to work for you just like Keith Ellison has been working for you the last 12 years.”

‘Everything old is new again’

In those 12 years, the DFL has undergone major changes: not only in policy, but people, too. At the CD5 convention, Ellison asked those in the crowd to raise their hands if they were at the convention where he was endorsed in 2006 — perhaps a dozen raised their hands, out of the 200 or so in the auditorium. A few delegates looked young enough to have been in elementary school when Pawlenty and Anderson Kelliher were duking it out.

Observers have framed the contest in CD5 — like other DFL contests around the state — as a tug-of-war not over ideology, but between old guard and new guard. Steven Schier, professor of politics at Carleton College, quipped that with Anderson Kelliher’s bid — and the reemergence of her old foil, Pawlenty — “everything old is new again.”

“The question is,” he asked, “how can [Anderson Kelliher] fare in a district party that has changed both in its demographics and to a certain extent in its political orientation?”

“She’s a liberal, but she’s a consensus-oriented dealmaker. I think the activist party in the 5th District is more populated by the multicultural left. Those are two very different types of Democrats,” Schier says.  

But even new guard Democrats privately say Anderson Kelliher is not to be underestimated. Though Omar and Torres Ray have strong bases of support in their districts and among activist groups and labor unions, Anderson Kelliher will likely attract her fair share of support, particularly in the more suburban areas of the district.

Eight years may be a long time in politics, but Anderson Kelliher feels that the things that draw voters to a candidate — experience, track record, policy — haven’t changed.

“People are going to be putting their vote in one spot, that’s what they get to do here,” Anderson Kelliher says. “People who are voting in this primary seem to say, I’ve got to look at a number of factors, what’s the record, what’s the experience, are they going to be able to build the coalitions to fight back against these issues?”

People might be angry these days, herself included. “You’ve gotta figure out, how do you harness that?” Anderson Kelliher asked. “So you’re not sitting out there being angry, you’re actually moving forward.”

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/20/2018 - 11:25 am.


    I think Kelliher is overestimating her name recognition, she’ll need introduce herself, most voters couldn’t have told you then or now who the speaker of the MN House is or was. I liked Kelliher at the time, but the question is whether or not she’s joining the current liberal surge or reacting against it? Trump and his crew are way worse than Pawlenty, so I wouldn’t assume Kelliher is the foil we need, and if she plans to run against rather than FOR something, that’s a failed strategy. Simply attacking Trump won’t get her noticed among liberals.

    I’m still leaning towards Omar, but I’m interested in Kelliher.

  2. Submitted by Mark Viste on 06/20/2018 - 11:51 am.

    The entire district

    “I think Rep. Omar being the first Somali immigrant elected to a legislature 18 months ago is a really great accomplishment,” Anderson Kelliher said. “What I would also say: I think people are looking broadly at the portfolio and how people can effectively represent them, and the entire district.”

    Contrasting being a Somali immigrant and being able to represent the entire district is not pretty. It makes me suspect MAK doesn’t understand a significant portion of the district very well herself.

  3. Submitted by John Ferman on 06/20/2018 - 12:20 pm.

    Federal Service is not Trivial

    What CD5 needs is experienced representation with values important to all. I lean toward Kelliher because she has had legislative negotiating experience and Democratic values. Torres would be a second choice. The endorsed candidate is too inexperienced for Washington, DC big time.

  4. Submitted by Ian Stade on 06/20/2018 - 12:33 pm.


    In a recent discussion about racial disparities on TPT’s Almanac, she brought up access to healthcare as a panacea. She’s out of sync. Omar will win.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/20/2018 - 12:35 pm.


    I’m inclined to agree with Paul Udstrand about name recognition. I doubt that the necessary majority of voters remember who was speaker of the MN House 8 years ago. I’m also inclined to agree that simply being anti-Trump is not going to get Kelliher – or anyone – very far. That said, I come to a different conclusion than Paul. I’m leaning toward Kelliher, but interested in Omar. Torres-Ray would be my #3 at the moment, if we were doing ranked-choice voting.

    We still have a couple months to go to the primary, however, and a lot can happen in two months.

  6. Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/20/2018 - 12:58 pm.


    The Hoch support is a signal that she’s the conservative (relatively speaking) candidate in the race. It might work.

    • Submitted by Josh Lease on 06/20/2018 - 04:36 pm.


      Silliness. Answering the question honestly is a sign she’s playing for the moderate-to conservative votes? More likely answer for why she supported Hoch: he’s an old friend and political ally who supported her campaigns back when she was in politics so they knew each other well.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/21/2018 - 11:52 pm.


        Maybe I was hoping she was being strategic. If she actually supported Hoch at the time, I’ve lost all respect for her.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/22/2018 - 09:00 am.


        Whether its strategic or just an honest expression of her vote (for whatever reason) the effect is the same. Hoch was the conservative in the Minneapolis race. And her endorsement of Hoch signals that she’s the conservative (again relatively, speaking).

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/21/2018 - 09:17 am.

      If she is the conservative…

      Then she’s the wrong candidate for the MNDFL AND MN. Again, we need a liberal Party, we already have a conservative Party.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 06/21/2018 - 11:45 pm.

        Its relative

        She’s not really conservative at all. She’s just positioning herself as more conservative than her opponents.

  7. Submitted by ian wade on 06/20/2018 - 03:32 pm.

    Can she win over today’s DFL?


  8. Submitted by David Markle on 06/20/2018 - 07:24 pm.

    Running on image

    describes Omar’s campaign so far. I want to hear some substance from these three candidates, not unrealistic fantasies such as abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. I hope we hear enough from all of them so we can make the most sensible choice.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 06/21/2018 - 12:21 pm.

      Back Bencher Extraordinaire

      Who ever wins this seat will be a back bencher. The most significant vote they take in the first term would likely be for the leader of the Democratic House caucus, be it majority or minority. That’s probably about as substantive as it would get.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/21/2018 - 09:32 am.

    I hate to point this out…

    One thing it is to consider a candidates appeal to voters in a variety of ways. However when people point to Omar and claim she can’t represent “all” of her constituents, that’s actually a racist claim. Why would Kelliher be better suited to represent a broader demographic? Just because she’s a white woman from the suburbs? Why would Omar be less suited to represent the district than Ellison? I’ve been voting for Ellison in every election since he’s been on the ballot, I can’t imagine why I would assume that Kelliher would be a better representative for me than Omar. And I don’t know why a more conservative candidate than Ellison would be a better representative OR a better candidate?

    We keep seeing these spurious claims from conservative Democrats that the candidates who appeal to the most homogeneous block of voters are the best suited to represent a heterogeneous group of constituents… that’s actually an illogical assumption… and it may be a racist assumption since the homogeneous group conservatives appeal to is NOT one of color. And the centrist assumption that candidates who do well among homogeneous populations are more likely to “unify” us than those who do well with diverse populations is likewise illogical.

    I would just ask people to introspect a little about this.

    • Submitted by Mike martin on 06/25/2018 - 02:32 am.

      She lives in Minneapolis

      MKA lives in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Mpls.If yo read the article closely its clear that MKA lives in Mpls.

      Voters will have to examine whether Omar is anti Israel and/or anti Semitic

      In the wake of last month’s violence at the Israel-Gaza border, Omar blasted what she called “Israeli crimes” and called Israel’s response a massacre. Palestinians and their advocates tried to cast the violence as unprovoked, and coming amid peaceful protests. In fact, a senior Hamas official admits the Palestinian border protests were “not peaceful resistance” and another Hamas leader bragged that the overwhelming majority of casualties were part of the terrorist group.
      Omar has not commented on those facts or lamented the damage Hamas does to everyday life in Gaza in order to invest in future terrorist operations. Instead, she lets stand claims that Israel alone is to blame.

      In 2012 Omar called on Allan to awaken people to the evil doings of Israel.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/25/2018 - 08:31 am.

        Thanks for the correction… but

        Thanks for the correction regarding Kelliher’s residence.

        Sure voters may have to decide whether or not criticizing or condemning the Israeli government is anti Semitic. However I would suspect that most people make a distinction, similar to the one made regarding the Catholic church; we can condemn and criticize the Church’s actions regarding child abuse and other sundry issues without condemning or attacking Catholics or Catholicism itself. Myself, I’ve never believed that oppression is “Jewish” impulse although it has clearly been a policy of the Israeli leadership for decades.

        It’s never been clear to me how or why it could be that those of us who want Israelis to live in peace and security are being “anti-Israeli” just because we want the same thing for Palestinians, and logic dictates you cannot have one without the other?

        Zero Israelis injured… 60+ Palestinians killed: yes, clearly another example of vicious and violent Palestinian aggression.

        It may be that the days of reflexive and unconditional support for Israeli policy are a thing of the past. T Hopefully the collapse of that kind of support will make peaceful resolution possible.

        • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/26/2018 - 05:48 pm.

          What country are the Palestinians from?

          Certainly not Palestine as there is no such place. What they call themselves is not necessarily who they are nor do they all adhere to their “leaders” and the call for the destruction of Israel (I don’t think),

          As for the Catholics, I’m not so sure that everyone is as charitable as you as far as not condemning them or Catholicism.

          A Representative Omar would be doing exactly what the district seems to demand, everything anti-Trump and since he supports Israel (as a long time ally), she would be obligated to oppose him and look to help their opponents.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/27/2018 - 09:16 am.


            Sooooo you’re saying Palestinians don’t exist? Or are you saying that people like the Kurds and the Palestinians who have no “country” cannot be targets or victims of oppression or make any legitimate human rights or territorial claims? Do you know how Israel came into existence?

            I’m sure some people are more hostile to the Catholic Church (and Israel) than others, but that doesn’t preclude resolutions and progress.

            The Israeli Palestinian conflict predates Trump’s presidency by several decades, no one who is serious about a peace process is going to criticize Israel simply because Trump claims to “support” Israel. I’m sure Omar was critical of Israel Looooong before Trump got elected.

            This is serious issue, let’s try to be serious about it.

  10. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 06/22/2018 - 12:19 am.

    Rep. Ellison

    Has a track record of accomplishments since being elected, besides being one of the House’s most liberal members and almost the head of the Democratic National Committee. I’m sure that someone can list them, besides being the first African-American Muslim elected to Congress. It seems likely that the “first Somali immigrant” will wrest the CD5 for life job away from the rest of the pack. Hopefully, she will have better results than she did in the Minnesota Legislature and than Rep. Ellison had in the House of Representatives.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/24/2018 - 08:31 am.


      It’s never a good time for an a erstwhile liberal party to roll-back liberalism, but these days it’s almost treasonous to do so. The future success of Representatives like Ellison (and Omar should she win the primary) depends on the Democratic Party’s orientation and organization. Since the Clintonion neoliberals took over the Party in the 90s Democrats have tended to isolate and suppress liberals and progressives and their agendas. This isolation has obvious limited their effectiveness. Should the Party stop doing that, and get organized around a liberal agenda, folks like Omar and Ellison would have more impact and success.

  11. Submitted by Nora Okoneski on 07/18/2018 - 04:33 pm.

    Margaret Kelliher

    When Margaret Anderson Kelliher was running for governor, 2010, she was the endorsed Dem candidate but when AFSCME held their endorsing convention, my sister worked for City of Mpls & she reported back to me that they elected to choose Mark Dayton to endorse, for the simple reason that he has more $$$$ money.

    & I don’t like that !! Without that AFSCME endorsement for Dayton, I believe that she would have become our first woman governor… hmmmm~??

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