WASHINGTON – On the second Friday of the federal government shutdown, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior called the front desk at the D.C. offices of Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum. He wanted to talk to her about national parks.
Later that day, McCollum connected with Secretary David Bernhardt by cellphone. “I told him we need to shut the parks down,” said McCollum, newly seated as chairwoman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that OKs $35 billion in annual government spending for parks and other national lands, the Environmental Protection Agency, Smithsonian museums and natural resources programs.
Two days later, McCollum learned in a call from a journalist that Interior would keep the national parks operating and pay for it with entrance fees.
“He didn’t tell me they were looking at those fees,” McCollum said, noting that money is supposed to be spent on upkeep of the parks. “They’re going to short maintenance to pretend everything is fine in the parks, and people know it’s not. It’s not safe for the rangers, it’s not safe for the visitors.”
McCollum’s high-ranking post in the House’s new Democratic majority found her quickly mixing it up with the Trump administration. And it positions her to lead the push against the continued repeal or undermining of environmental regulations.
“Our most important role is going to be putting a spotlight on stuff they’re trying to roll back,” McCollum said.
The 12 women and men who chair House Appropriations subcommittees — they’re called “Cardinals” around Capitol Hill — have long been seen as among the most powerful members of Congress.
“The power of the purse is Congress’ most significant power,” said Rick Healy, former lead Democratic staffer on the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. “To me it’s a no-brainer that she’s now Minnesota’s most powerful member of Congress.”
In 2000, after former Rep. Bruce Vento was diagnosed with the mesothelioma that soon killed him, he contacted then state Rep. McCollum to encourage her to run for the St. Paul-area seat.
“I think her race in 2000 was emblematic of Betty — she ran against two pretty powerful men, won the endorsement and then won a really competitive primary where she was considered the underdog,” said Ken Martin, chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Since then, she has coasted to re-election every two years in the Democratic-leaning district.
A South St. Paul native, McCollum, 61, grew up with a dad who was a Catholic Democrat and a mom who was a Lutheran Republican. Politics was a frequent household discussion, but she said her parents always kept it respectful. At 18, McCollum decided to attend her first precinct caucus but wasn’t sure which party to choose.
“My father was caucusing to end the [Vietnam] war so I caucused with the DFL to do that,” she recalled.
It would be years before McCollum entered politics herself. First she attended college, got married and had kids, and embarked on a sales career with Sears. Now divorced, McCollum has two adult children and two grandchildren. She has a home in St. Paul and an apartment in D.C.
In the mid-1980s, McCollum, then living in North St. Paul, engaged in city politics after her daughter fractured her skull on a public park playground. She soon ran for City Council and lost, but was elected two years later. In 1992, she ran successfully for the Minnesota Legislature.
It was McCollum’s work on environmental issues at the State Capitol that led to collaboration with Vento. And during her first congressional bid, McCollum formed a relationship with an important member of Congress.
“Nancy [Pelosi] and Bruce were very close friends,” McCollum said. “And Nancy just started calling me, you know, introducing herself.”
The first time they met, McCollum said, Pelosi served tea and cookies. The future speaker offered political guidance. McCollum accepted.
“Speaker Pelosi is a truly charming, friendly person, but in terms of people she really takes in her confidence, they’re not a lot,” said Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who served alongside McCollum in Congress the last 12 years. “It’s a small group, and Betty is one of those people. And Betty is not someone who breaks her neck to ingratiate herself with anyone. I think Nancy just genuinely likes her.”
After Democrats won the House majority last fall, McCollum was a member of Pelosi’s team that locked down her return to the speakership over open dissent from some Democratic caucus members.
“As the new Cardinal of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, Congresswoman McCollum will be a strong voice for environmental protections and bold, forward-thinking investments to address the climate crisis,” Pelosi said in a statement to the Star Tribune.
Liberal voting record
In Minnesota, McCollum helped spot homegrown political talent like Gov. Tim Walz. He said McCollum was the first elected official to connect him to important donors and other party support when he ran for Congress.
“When I needed to get something done in Congress, she was that person,” Walz said. “Knowing which levers you pull to get things done. I wanted a reputation for being effective and I followed her model.”
McCollum’s voting record befits a liberal Democrat. But she has cultivated relationships with Republicans, and counts a handful as friends.
“There’s an old saying here — there’s Republicans, there’s Democrats and there’s appropriators,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican. “I work closely with Betty. We’re friends. We speak often.”
Rep. Tom Cole is an Oklahoma Republican who has often collaborated with McCollum, especially on legislation affecting American Indian communities. McCollum and Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, have co-chaired the House Native American Caucus, but she left the post after two American Indian Democratic women were elected in 2018.
“I would call her, certainly, a liberal legislator,” Cole said, citing their diverging views on climate change and environmental regulations, abortion and gun control. “But with a very old-school style in the best sense of the word.”
Holding the Interior-Environment gavel will put McCollum at the front line of battles between House Democrats and the Trump administration over clean air and water standards, toxic waste cleanup, climate change, domestic oil drilling and coal and metals mining, the makeup of the endangered species list, and other environmental hot-button issues.
McCollum pulls no punches when talking about Trump: “I feel embarrassed by this president and that’s a hard thing for me to have to say about our president.”
‘I’m in the room’
McCollum, never the most high-profile in Minnesota’s Congressional delegation, said she was intentional about building seniority and influence. She has no plans to leave soon.
“I’m in the room. And I’m happy being in the room,” McCollum said. She is now the second-ranked Democrat on the Subcommittee on Defense, which approves about half of federal spending.
“Once you’re a Cardinal, you’re always going to be a Cardinal,” Cole said. “She could do something like Defense. Her positioning will increase over time.”
By the end of last week, national parks remained open, and McCollum had not heard back from Bernhardt. In an e-mail, an Interior Department spokeswoman said the agency is “unquestionably within our legal authority.”
“What about all the federal employees that didn’t get a check?” McCollum said. “Maybe the president should pay them.”