WASHINGTON – The contest between DFLers hoping to replace U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison has opened a debate over how much and what kind of experience matters in a politically volatile era in which many party activists are looking most of all for a fighter against the Trump administration.
Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a former state House speaker, was once among the state’s most powerful Democrats, battling former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty on health care, transportation and his efforts to cut state budgets. State Rep. Ilhan Omar is still a newcomer to state politics, but her status as a onetime refugee and the first Somali-American member of the Minnesota Legislature quickly made her a national political celebrity.
Also running in the Aug. 14 DFL primary is state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, an 11-year legislative veteran who was also a trailblazer as the first Latina woman to serve in the Senate but who never rose to the kind of legislative prominence that Kelliher achieved.
Even Kelliher’s supporters acknowledged that she lacks the kind of symbolic significance represented by Omar and Torres Ray. The three women, all of whom live in Minneapolis, are angling to be the next member of Congress from the Fifth Congressional District, which encompasses Minneapolis and a handful of nearby suburbs. The district has long voted heavily Democratic, meaning whichever candidate wins in August is likely headed to Washington next January. Omar won the DFL endorsement in June.
“I think the challenge for Margaret is the other DFL candidates could be very powerful statements to make against the Trump Republican Party and his administration at this point in time,” said former DFL state Rep. Ryan Winkler, who is backing Kelliher. Still, he added, “I think she would be a highly effective, battle-hardened soldier fighting against the despicable acts of this administration and the president’s party.”
Kelliher, who grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, served a dozen years in the Legislature, stepping down in 2010. She’s now CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association. Supporters say her hefty legislative record makes her perfect for Congress.
“Margaret has the unique capability of being somebody who’s a fighter and who can also get results — that was the hallmark of her time when she was in the Legislature, going up against the Pawlenty administration who wanted to take away health care and who wanted to slash the budget,” said former DFL state Rep. Tony Sertich, who served as House majority leader during that time.
One of her most notable accomplishments: working with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and a half-dozen GOP lawmakers to orchestrate a legislative override when Pawlenty in 2008 vetoed a $6 billion transportation bill that included a gas tax.
During the Great Recession, Kelliher led the DFL’s fight against Pawlenty’s steep budget cuts. DFLers wanted to raise taxes to help close the massive budget deficit and offset spending reductions. People involved in a program that Pawlenty cut filed a lawsuit against the governor that contested his authority to make unilateral spending reductions, and the House filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs.
“It is rare for a legislative body to join in suing a governor over anything, and that separation of powers is actually one of the reasons I am running right now, because I think Congress has lost its way on this issue,” Kelliher said.
Omar’s story of growing up in a refugee camp and her voice on immigration issues have earned her a national profile since she was elected to the House in 2016, after she defeated 44-year DFL incumbent Phyllis Kahn in a primary. That outcome was echoed last Tuesday in New York City, where a 28-year-old political novice named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley. Omar had endorsed Ocasio-Cortez.
When she ran, Omar argued that she could better represent a district that was younger and more racially diverse as a 30-something working mom with student debt. As she drew more national media attention, Omar said, “it was important to use that influence to move a narrative, to move the conversation, to move the needle a little further along for our progressive values.”
First-term legislators in the minority party have limited chances to rack up dramatic accomplishments. But in her time in St. Paul, Omar said, she worked to secure funding for her legislative district: $400,000 for a Somali museum and the arts, another $400,000 to redesign and renovate the Brian Coyle Community Center in Cedar-Riverside, $170 million from the public works bonding bill. Omar said she also expanded child-care funding and other support for college students who are parents, along with an expansion of summer programs for underprivileged children.
State Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, recalled working with her on legislation to respond to the measles outbreak that occurred primarily among unvaccinated children in the Somali-American community. Although her effort wasn’t successful, Freiberg said, the GOP majority brought forth a bill that addressed the same issues to increase education and prevent another outbreak.
“I feel like that wouldn’t have happened if not for her advocacy on that issue,” said Freiberg, who endorsed Omar.
Several lawmakers also said Omar had been an important voice in speaking out against Trump’s travel ban.
Torres Ray, who is of Colombian descent, is also highlighting her lengthy elected record. She cites efforts to protect homeowners from foreclosure, changes to state law regarding policies regarding Minnesotans of limited English proficiency as they access state services, and her work on distributing state funds for parks and trails and on protections for forest lands in northern Minnesota.
“I have been tested over the years in political circumstances that require that I deliver, and I have delivered in some of the most difficult circumstances. And I intend to do that in Washington,” Torres Ray said. She said she’s also made a priority of recruiting women of color to run for office in Minnesota.
Former DFL state Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller is backing Torres Ray in the primary — even though he led the Senate at the same time Kelliher was leading the House. Pogemiller declined an interview request, but he praises Torres Ray in a statement posted on her website.
“I found Patricia extremely knowledgeable, hardworking, and effective,” Pogemiller said. “She is humble and understated, never seeking the limelight for herself, but rather getting work done and building coalitions while often given credit to others.”
The primary will test what kind of value Fifth District DFLers put in political résumés. State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, who’s backing Omar, said he believes that it’s getting tougher for candidates to persuade voters based on political experience alone.
“Just look what we saw in New York on Tuesday,” he said, referring to the surprise win by Ocasio-Cortez. “I think people are saying, ‘Everything’s so screwed up, forget it ... we’re voting for the person who resonates with us.’ That incumbency edge, that experience edge, is disappearing.”