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

Anderson Kelliher was Speaker of the Minnesota House for four years but dropped off the political map after falling short in her 2010 bid for governor.

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

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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”