Few Minnesota lawmakers have more at stake in the legislative session's final few days than state Sen. Karin Housley, who is working to fatten a relatively thin legislative resume in preparation for a U.S. Senate campaign this fall against Sen. Tina Smith.
The east metro Republican radiates kinetic energy, bounding from campaign events and fundraising calls to state Senate hearings and tense negotiations on some of the most high-profile issues of the current session, like eldercare abuse and sexual harassment law.
"For someone with a slight bit of [attention deficit disorder], it's OK, it keeps you going. There's no time to get bored," Housley said in a recent interview at her St. Paul campaign office.
For all the rushing around the past three months at the State Capitol, Housley's marquee issue of eldercare abuse is still in limbo, while an attempt to help accusers in sexual harassment cases is all but dead with just hours left in the session.
State Senate friends say she's a valued colleague, beloved by staff and with the goodwill to navigate the political labyrinth.
"She's very collegial, which means when she needs votes, there are people who will work with her and help her," said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. "She realized she had passion for caring for the elderly because of her experience for caring for her mom and dad, and now she's becoming a leader in figuring how to bring people together."
But critics say her inability to drag these issues across the finish line show an overly compliant nature in the face of pressure on all sides, especially from moneyed interest groups: "It sure seems apparent the industry lobbyists have open door access that we've never had, as the consumers," said Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, which is pushing for tougher laws to protect seniors.
Housley replied that she's met frequently with consumer advocates for a year.
If she falls short on these issues or in her U.S. Senate campaign, it won't be for lack of effort. Housley described an average day: After a campaign breakfast, she heads to the Capitol for committee hearings and floor sessions and meetings with staff about the latest developments. At lunch, she runs out to her car to make fundraising calls because she's not allowed to in her office. In the afternoon, she might be negotiating with administration officials and industry lobbyists. Somewhere in there, she studies a briefing book on federal issues. When her colleagues head to happy hours and dinner, she makes more fundraising calls until it's so late that calling would be rude — at which point she hand writes thank you notes to those who have already donated.
"And there's a little bit of family time, as much as I can," said Housley, a 54-year-old mother of four and grandmother of two whose own mom suffers from Alzheimer's disease.
Housley said she was trained for all this by managing the chaos of the family life of a professional athlete and coach for decades. Every few years, her husband — National Hockey League coach and former player Phil Housley — would be off to a new team in a strange new city, which meant a new doctor and dentist for the kids, new schools, a new church and new friends. Once they moved back to Minnesota, Karin Housley didn't stop, developing a real estate business and even writing a book of financial advice before her first state Senate run in 2012.
And the coiled energy is always searching for a new task, like the time she painted her Capitol office and had a giant photo of the Capitol rotunda done up as wallpaper, much to the chagrin of the sergeant-at-arms.
Her life was upended when her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Her father took over care, but it was crushing him.
"We said, 'Dad, you can't do it anymore. It's killing you,' " Housley recalled.
The day Housley's mom went into a specialized memory facility, her father collapsed and died a short time later.
"It broke his heart. It killed him," she said.
When Republicans took the Senate majority, Housley took over as chairwoman of the Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee and began hearing horror stories about eldercare abuse. Almost by accident, in early 2017, she learned that the Department of Health only investigated 3.3 percent of mistreatment allegations.
Housley recalled her response: "Back up, y'all. What did you say?"
Thus began her effort to reduce the abuse in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, which included assaults, rapes, drug theft and neglect. This would require a new regulatory regime and more investigators to examine complaints, a prospect threatening to the powerful nursing home industry.
Housley sees herself bridging the wide chasm between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal, which reflects the wishes of consumers whose relatives have been harmed; and fellow Republicans in the House, who are trying to protect endangered nursing homes, particularly in rural Minnesota.
"I agree, hold [the nursing facilities] accountable, but let's not overregulate and fine them to the point where there's no place for us to stay," she said.
On the other hand, "The facilities had their bill, which didn't have a lot of meat to it, and that's what the House carried," she said.
Housley's own bill seeks compromise while retaining features she sees as most important for protecting seniors. She would allow residents to put a camera in their room; deter retaliation against anyone who makes a complaint; and clamp down on deceptive marketing, among other changes.
Housley said her attempts to mediate on the issue embody her overall approach in life: "I have my minor in psychology, major in communications, so always reading the people you're working with and figuring out what their motivations are and knowing which communications style you should use to work with them to get things done."
For all her evident sophistication, Housley can be guileless. She said a colleague recently told her, "You're so normal." It's a lawmaking style that would be tested anew in Washington, where political intrigue is a kind of art form.
Just minutes before she was set to present her eldercare bill to the Senate Finance Committee a few weeks ago, the executive branch completed its cost estimate, known around the Capitol as a "fiscal note." It was a budget-busting $18 million, forcing her to delay the hearing even as the clock ticked down on the legislative session. Asked if she thought someone in the bureaucracy was playing politics, Housley brushed it off.
On another front, Housley is Senate author of a bipartisan House bill to make it easier to sue for sexual harassment. It would end a requirement that the harassment be "severe and pervasive," a legal hurdle that has made litigation nearly impossible even in cases of obvious harassment, advocates say.
But when business lobbyists and local governments objected, Housley retreated, and the bill appears to be dead. Housley said it needed more vetting and will get it before next year's session.
Win or lose, no matter what happens in the final hours of the legislative session or in the fall campaign, Housley will bounce on: "Sleep when you die. There's so much in life, like, it's just so exciting. There's so many things to do and so many people to meet and so much that you can learn that I don't want to miss any of it. I don't want to miss anything.