Berglin to leave Minnesota Senate

  • Article by: WARREN WOLFE and BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: July 25, 2011 - 9:30 PM

Over 38 years, Linda Berglin helped develop many of the state's safety net programs. The DFLer said she felt "underutilized" of late.

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Linda Berglin

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DFL State Sen. Linda Berglin called it quits Monday, rubbed raw by the political winds that blew her party out of power and began breaking up programs that she created and nurtured over decades to help low-income people.

After 38 years in the House and the Senate, Berglin was the most knowledgeable legislator on health and human service issues, a chief architect of MinnesotaCare for low-income working people, General Assistance Medical Care for the destitute and other safety net programs.

"During the last six months, I have felt that my talents and skills have been underutilized," said Berglin, 66, a legislator with a soft voice but a spine of steel as she steered debate over legislation until Republicans took control of the Legislature with last fall's elections.

"As I see so much of what I have worked on over the years being chipped away or repealed entirely, I worry that our state is moving away from the community spirit that has made us such a great place," she said.

She will step down Aug. 15. Last week, she started a new job -- her first outside the Legislature since she was a fund-raiser for a community group in the 1970s -- as health policy manager for Hennepin County, including helping implement federal health care law changes.

Gov. Mark Dayton will call a special election to fill her seat. Rep. Jeff Hayden, a DFLer representing part of her district, has announced he will run. Dayton also must call a special election to fill the seat of DFL Sen. Linda Scheid of Brooklyn Park, who died in June.

'Kind of the queen'

Advocates and fellow legislators praised Berglin's encyclopedic command of laws and programs to help the poor and disadvantaged, as well as her sometimes single-handed coming up with solutions to save programs.

"She did that over and over," said Michael Scandrett, a health care consultant and executive director of the Minnesota Safety Net Coalition. "She saved the state millions of dollars by making sure programs worked to prevent problems down the road by providing proper care now."

But as chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee until Republicans took control this year, she ruffled plenty of feathers along the way.

"Well, I think I was fair. But sometimes people come up with screwy versions of the facts or don't really understand how programs work," she said in an interview in her new office in the Hennepin County Government Center.

The poor and struggling who testified before her committee were treated with respect, but those who provided care, state bureaucrats and even fellow legislators at times were lectured or cut off by an impatient and sometimes imperious Berglin.

"She is kind of the queen, and everybody else is not," an exasperated Patti Cullen, CEO of Care Providers of Minnesota nursing home association, muttered during a legislative debate two years ago.

On Monday, Cullen said, "I'll tell you, Sen. Berglin was fair but tough. We often didn't agree, but she expected you to know your facts and to come up with some alternatives.

"With her gone, we're losing that institutional memory that was stored up in her [Sen. Berglin's] brain and in her files," she said. "There's nobody else in the Legislature right now who can fill that role."

Ignored by both sides

But Berglin felt ignored this year by the Republican majority and by Dayton. Neither sought her help in crafting budget proposals -- before or during the legislative session, or during the government shutdown. When she tried to enter a meeting of negotiators last week, she was told by Dayton's office to leave because Republicans wanted her out of the room.

"Welcome to the minority," Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said Monday. "When I was in the minority, I didn't get many calls from the other side, either."

Berglin has been "a tenacious senator who I think well represents the people in her district," said Abeler, who now heads the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee. "I don't always agree with her -- what's best for her district may not be best for Biwabik or Anoka, but I respect her honesty, intelligence and hard work."

Berglin has focused much of her legislative career pushing for increased access to affordable health care, child care, mental health reforms and community-based services to help frail elderly and disabled people stay in their homes.

She was a chief architect of state programs bringing medical care to low-income working people and the destitute. She authored laws setting up social services to help aged and disabled people remain out of institutional care.

Berglin was a major force in 2007 legislation to refocus Minnesota health care programs from paying for services to paying for results, a change just unfolding. She also fought to move people with mental illness out of state hospitals and into expanded community services.

"There's more I was ready to do, but in this political environment, I'm not sure how effective I could be," she said.

"I think I can be of more use helping Hennepin County implement good health policies than get the state to develop good policies."

wolfe@startribune.com • 612-673-7253; baird.helgeson • 651-222-1288

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