When Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic returned to the Capitol after cancer surgery and chemotherapy, one of her colleagues complimented the bright new strands in her hair.
As she told the story in her first in-depth interview since session ended, Dziedzic smiled, shook her head and asked rhetorically, "When would I have had time to get highlights?" That wasn't her hair; she's been wearing a wig since she lost her locks during treatment.
Dziedzic was elected majority leader in November and learned she likely had ovarian cancer a month later. In mid-March, she had surgery. She started chemotherapy in April and returned to the Senate in May.
Working with a mere one-vote edge over Republicans, Dziedzic ran the Senate for a few days from her hospital bed post-surgery, with an IV pumping drugs into her body during chemo and from her mom's house in northeast Minneapolis to avoid the stairs in her own home nearby.
She captained her caucus through a session that included seismic shifts to the left on taxes, education, abortion, criminal justice, marijuana and voting rights.
Reflecting on the dizzying debut, Dziedzic was cheery, relaxed and eager to deflect credit for a personal effort that colleagues have called nothing less than heroic.
"I just listened to what the doctor said and just focused," she said. "I didn't think I had an option to do anything else but to just stay focused. So that's what I did."
She juggled doctors' demands with high-level state policy discussions and the stream of colleagues and constituents who sought her attention. "There were some times when I said, 'Yeah, I can't do that,' " Dziedzic said. "Then there were other times where the doctor said, 'But this is the day that works for me,' and I said, 'OK.' "
The Minnesota House has been in DFL control since 2019 under the leadership of Speaker Melissa Hortman. But Democrats had not run the Senate since 2016, and Dziedzic was new to an elected caucus leadership role with 14 freshman senators experiencing their first session.
"She took every call. She was always available," said freshman Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul. "I've talked to her at 11 o'clock at night."
Another freshman, Sen. Judy Seeberger, DFL-Afton, called Dziedzic "the glue that held us together."
And freshman Sen. Heather Gustafson, DFL-Vadnais Heights, said, "She's not trying to create a brand for herself or use this as a jumping-off point."
Dziedzic attributed the caucus cohesion to a partisan will, constant communication and revisers who worked miracles in the final days redrafting hundreds of pages of legislation on deadline.
"It wasn't just me having conversations with other members," she said. "It was truly a team effort of other members getting to know other members and why this particular issue was important to them."
On March 13, Dziedzic had a five-hour surgery that involved a hysterectomy, splenectomy and appendectomy. When the public announcement about her ovarian cancer came via news release the following day, her colleagues heard the news at the same time as everyone else.
Gustafson recalled that she held off on texting the majority leader until a staff member encouraged her to reach out to Dziedzic because "the last thing she wants is to sit there on the sidelines and not be doing her job."
Dziedzic's surgery came amid some of the most consequential discussions of the session with Hortman and Gov. Tim Walz's staff over the size of the various budget bills.
"She was in negotiations with us up until the day before her surgery," said Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. Senate President Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, and Finance Chairman John Marty, DFL-Roseville, took over the in-person work.
"She was still negotiating from the hospital bed, and from her bed at home," Hortman said. "When we were exchanging the final offers back and forth — well, all the offers — she was looking at all of them and approving them."
Dziedzic said she would switch off the camera when the nurse came into the room. "The nurse was like, 'What are you doing?' I'm like, 'I'm working, sorry,' " she said.
On the night after her first round of chemotherapy, the Senate floor session went until 2:15 a.m. Dziedzic said she was awake for all of it. She said that she hasn't been ill or overly tired from the drug sessions yet; she has three remaining.
She watched the floor sessions on TV or livestream and said she would frequently text staff and colleagues, prompting senators to step up and answer questions if they were failing to do so. "Micromanaging the floor from watching TV," she said.
Occasionally, her mom, nephew and sisters would join in the late-night sessions. "They kind of got into it at a certain point," she said.
Dziedzic said she slept when she could, pacing herself and pushing through. Exercise amounted to laps around the kitchen table. Riding in a car with her nephew as chauffeur was tricky because of the jolts of abdominal pain from hitting potholes.
She eased back into in-person work at the Capitol by attending closed-door DFL caucus meetings then heading home for the floor sessions that stretched for hours.
One of her bigger regrets, she said, is that she didn't get to know members from both parties as well as she would like, something she hopes to work on. "I feel bad because we got here and we're six weeks into it and I'm like, 'OK, I've got to go,' " she said.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, however, credited Dziedzic with applying pressure to House DFLers at the right moment, leading to the critical end-of-session deal to channel money to infrastructure and nursing homes. "That really helped it to kind of thaw out the negotiation with the House side," he said.
Dziedzic surprised everyone when she returned to the Senate floor with no fanfare on May 2, just 20 days before the session was to end. She looked thinner than before treatment and said she's working to regain the weight with ice cream.
She's got another short-term goal; Dziedzic said she wants to have the stability and strength to walk in the Celebrate Northeast Parade on June 20 in her district — with a car as a back-up option.