At a pre-dawn negotiating session Sunday, just hours before state leaders would smile broadly and praise one another for an agreement that brought the legislative session to a successful close, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher engaged in one final confrontation with a formidable adversary -- fellow DFLer Larry Pogemiller, majority leader of the Senate.
The two Minneapolis legislators disagreed over making concessions to Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"It was tense," Pogemiller acknowledged. "There was shouting."
Matched all session against a popular governor and a tenacious Senate leader known for brinksmanship, Kelliher negotiated relentlessly rocky terrain for the past 3 1/2 months.
But she emerged from the session as a newly formidable force in state politics, capable of outmaneuvering Pawlenty at key moments while dragging more militant members of her own party toward compromise.
Kelliher and Pogemiller "have some pretty sharp differences of their own that I learned about," Pawlenty said Monday. "It's not always me against them. Sometimes it's them against them."
When the pinch came Sunday at 2 a.m., Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, was summoned by Kelliher as backup.
"It was so intense," Hausman said late Sunday night. "The back of my neck is just beginning to relax." Kelliher, she said, was a bit shaken, but resolved to ride it out and broker a compromise.
It was the compromise she knew was needed to avoid an 11th-hour meltdown.
"She had the staying power," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. "The deal we got clearly happened because of Margaret."
After a grueling session in her rookie year as speaker, when Republicans nearly ran her out of time to pass crucial bills, Kelliher entered her second year determined to control events.
A born-and-bred farm girl who grew up holding her own against half-ton cows and a set of older brothers, Kelliher had confidence.
"Sometimes I look at Senator Pogemiller and Governor Pawlenty like my brothers," she said in an interview just before negotiations hit their brutal peak. "My brothers used to underestimate me sometimes. I don't like being underestimated."
Gas tax power play
The first pivotal moment came early in the session, when Kelliher set out a seemingly unreachable goal: winning over enough Republican votes to push through Pawlenty's bête noir -- an override of his veto of a gas tax hike that would bust his no-tax-pledge wide open.
Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, smart-alecky strategist for the opposition, had pledged to uphold every Pawlenty veto, a tactic that last year gave his tiny caucus outsized influence.
But this year, Kelliher quietly launched a charm offensive on several of his most persuadable members, inviting them in for talks, taking several out to dinner, persuading them that they had the chance to do right by the state and their long-suffering rut-roaded districts.
The night before the crucial vote, Kelliher placed a late phone call to David Olson, head of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and won him over.
"She reached out to the business community and said, 'What would it take to get your support?'" Olson said. "That's not something we've had from Democrats before." By the next morning, the override was done, so fast that Olson didn't even have time to warn Republicans of his shift.
That override dramatically changed the dynamic of the session, putting political observers on notice that House speaker version 2008 was sharply upgraded -- faster, smoother, more adept at wielding the power available to the second-most powerful figure in state government.
Often Buddha-like in her calm, Kelliher seldom gets riled in public, but has shown a surprisingly firm hand this year with unruly members and unsuspecting opponents.
"I got spanked by her," recalled a rueful Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a walking firecracker known for his populist spunk and fiery temper. That time it cost him a chairmanship and any illusions he harbored about who was in charge.
But Kelliher has applied balm where necessary, setting aside politics to tend to the human side of the Capitol.
When a school bus crashed in Seifert's district in February, before the identity of the young victims was even known, Kelliher told a grateful Seifert -- who, like Kelliher, has young children -- that she'd arranged for a State Patrol jet to fly him home to the Marshall-Cottonwood area.
In the closing weeks of the session, after Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung had delivered a series of stinging rebukes to DFLers on Pawlenty's behalf, Kelliher still complied with a request to recommend McClung for a local business magazine's 40 Under 40 edition. He made the list and her remarks were included.
"I like her and respect her on a personal level," McClung said. "Whatever business is at hand, we've always been able to get along well."
Regaining the upper hand
Soon after February's transportation veto override, Pawlenty delivered a hard blow of his own, with a veto of the Central Corridor light-rail line that left DFLers howling.
Kelliher regrouped with her caucus leaders and came up with what would be another game-altering maneuver -- a proposal to redirect funds from Pawlenty's Q-Comp teacher pay-for-performance initiative and filter the money to school districts across the state, at a rate of $51 per pupil. Kelliher held the proposal, cooked up early in the session, in her back pocket until last week, when she moved the bill to floor debate.
Within moments, the phone at the speaker's podium rang. It was Pawlenty.
Could she hold debate on the bill and come back downstairs to negotiate? "He was calm and very firm," she said. "I was extremely calm and said I would, but that he wasn't going to run out the clock on us."
When talks faltered, Kelliher broke them off, went upstairs and passed the bill with a veto-proof majority that night.
Pawlenty vetoed the bill, but the threat of a second override brought a new seriousness to negotiations. In the end, Q-Comp survived, but so did the House's $51-per-pupil increase, allowing both sides to claim a victory.
"She's strong-willed and talented, with incredible political skills," said Pogemiller. His willingness to mix it up with her, he said, is proof of his respect for her abilities. "I fight hard for my positions and I expect the other side to do the same," he said. "She did."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288