Lawmaker in the middle of marijuana debate navigates tough terrain

  • Article by: PATRICK CONDON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2014 - 8:56 AM

Rep. Carly Melin walks fine line between legalization supporters and law enforcement.

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Carly Melin, the young state representative at the center of a high-profile push to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota, likens her lawmaking style to a treasured T-shirt that belonged to her late grandmother and political inspiration.

“It said, ‘I’m not opinionated, I’m just always right,’ ” said Melin, a 28-year-old lawyer from Hibbing. “Sometimes, unfortunately, I get that mentality as well, and I probably inherited it from her.”

This session, Melin’s pursuit of her ideals on medical marijuana policy is bumping up against the issue’s tricky legal and political terrain. Gov. Mark Dayton, a fellow DFLer, has been a tough sell on medical marijuana, forcing Melin to offer a compromise that one-time allies in the cause saw as a betrayal.

Melin has only been in the House since 2011 but quickly established herself as a Capitol player. Even as she deals with the impending birth of her first child at the end of June, Melin has juggled the medical marijuana bill with other high-profile tasks, including leading the House on a high-profile bill to level the state’s economic playing field for women.

Dayton wound up signing that bill, the Women’s Economic Security Act, on Mother’s Day.

The first woman elected to represent Minnesota’s politically important Iron Range in the Legislature since the 1980s, Melin has generated buzz as a rising star for Democrats. Colleagues see her on a fast track that could culminate in House leadership or higher office.

But first, Melin must try to bring the explosive medical marijuana proposal to the ­finish line in the session’s closing days.

“It sometimes is good to be paid attention to, but there are drawbacks. Folks will be gunning for you too, and all of a sudden you’re under the microscope,” said Tony Sertich, a former House majority leader — also from Hibbing — and a political mentor to Melin.

“It takes a lot more out of you personally than you realize going into it,” Sertich said, “But that’s the way folks learn to be a good legislator.”

Sertich gave Melin her first Capitol job, as a legislative intern when she was still a law student at Hamline University.

When Dayton appointed Sertich to lead the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board in early 2011, Melin beat a field of four other Democrats to succeed him.

Politics run strongly through the Melin family tree. Her great-grandfather was a Beltrami County commissioner who made family history the day he met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. One grandmother was a school board member in the 1950s, the other a DFL activist. Melin’s mother, a recently retired social worker in Hibbing, has long been active in politics as a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the more powerful unions in the state.

“There was certainly a family interest in it, which she probably absorbed, but it was never a plan for her,” Nancy Melin said of her daughter.

As an undergraduate at Bemidji State University, Melin first pursued a social work career before gravitating to law school. Melin got involved in campus Democratic groups at Bemidji State and Hamline, and started to see the possibilities of a political career.

“She said she wasn’t interested in trying to interpret bad law,” Nancy Melin said. “She wanted to be instrumental in changing laws that needed to be changed. She got on her own path, and there she is.”

An experienced hunter with a flat northern Minnesota twang to her voice, Melin has an older brother who is a police officer in Eveleth. Her father, Mike, a retired police officer and law enforcement instructor, calls her “my country girl.”

Medical marijuana

Melin got involved in the medical marijuana issue after she was contacted by Angie Weaver, a Hibbing mother whose daughter Amelia has a rare form of epilepsy that causes rampant seizures.

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  • On her way to meet with Sen. Sandra Pappas office, Rep. Carly Melin paused to talk with Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Ken Peterson.

  • Rep. Carly Melin, a prime mover behind the medical marijuana bill at the Legislature, talked with Sen. Sandra Pappas recently about the Women’s Economic Security Act bill that Melin authored.

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