Some of Barb Haley's friends were skeptical when she decided to go into politics four years ago.
After more than a decade in management for a multinational conglomerate, some in Haley's inner circle thought she would find political sausage-making too tedious. She'd follow a career predicated on getting things done by joining the Minnesota House, where the default setting is gridlock.
"I love leading teams, helping people succeed, designing a budget and setting goals for the year," Haley said of her time in the private sector. "In politics, you don't always control your own destiny."
But three elections later, the Red Wing Republican is taking on new leadership roles in the minority House Republican caucus — and emerging as the face of their push against DFL Gov. Tim Walz's use of executive emergency powers. It's a management crisis of a different kind, Haley says, one that has devastated some state business sectors with what she called a one-size-fits-all approach to fight COVID-19.
In her new role, Haley has been out front in criticizing the governor's sweeping executive actions to shutter bars, restaurants and other businesses to slow the spread of the virus. But her proclivity for results has also put her at the negotiating table with Democrats, and she'll be in the mix with pandemic politics again at the forefront when a new legislative session starts next week.
Haley was part of a team that helped move a COVID-19 relief package through a divided Legislature earlier this month, a deal some of her own caucus members zealously opposed.
"My focus has always been on the policy rather than the politics," Haley said. "I'm a person that begins with the end in mind and tries to break through the roadblocks to get there."
That style served Haley well in her nearly 15 years working in telecommunications, much of that with AT&T in various management and training roles for the Midwest region. She left that job while her two children were young and moved back to her hometown of Red Wing, where it didn't take long for her to start consulting for several nonprofits.
She got more involved in her children's education, going to robotics competitions with her son. There she met business leaders trying to figure out how to connect those students to manufacturing jobs. Haley eventually initiated a local partnership between schools and manufacturers.
Politics didn't enter the picture until she was walking out of church one morning and a childhood friend, Tim Kelly, pulled her aside. The Republican legislator was leaving the Capitol after four terms, and wanted her to run for his seat.
The goal-oriented Haley remembered mentioning politics as an interest to a college mentor at age 22. "I hadn't checked that box yet," she said.
Even now at the Capitol, Haley takes a management approach to her work. "She gets excited reading bills and pulling them apart to make better policy," said Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia.
In November, after many failed attempts by Republicans to undo Walz's emergency powers, Haley brought forward a bill that would allow the governor to continue his emergency powers but give the Legislature the power to modify or end each individual executive order after 30 days. Under current law, Walz's powers continue unchanged unless both chambers of the Legislature vote to end them.
Democrats in control of the House voted her bill down, arguing it would only give Republicans a chance to hamper the governor's ability to quickly respond to the pandemic. But Haley insists she saw a possible compromise position in the simmering debate over the governor's power, one that would give legislators some power in a situation where they feel helpless to respond to the needs of their constituents.
"In smaller towns, the frustration is that you can't go to the neighborhood cafe that at any one time has no more than 10 people in it, but you can go to Walmart? We've asked the governor repeatedly, what are the markers for when the emergency ends?" Haley said. "There's a management face to this emergency, and it needs to involve the whole Legislature."
House Democrats have a tighter majority coming into the 2021 legislative session, and some of their members supported Haley's proposal on emergency powers. She hopes that puts pressure on those discussions to continue.
But Haley doesn't take the virus lightly. She's had extended family members who've ended up in the ICU after testing positive for COVID-19. She's done radio spots in her community encouraging people to mask up.
Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, led on the recent COVID-19 relief package and said Haley was among a group of House Republicans who were critical in helping move their GOP counterparts in the Senate toward a deal that included direct funding for businesses and an extension of unemployment benefits for workers.
"She asked really pointed questions, and when she gets on to something, she does her homework and she fights for it," said Mahoney. "She understood that you can't have a successful business without having successful employees."
That's a far cry from the approach of some Republicans, who voted against the bill and have opted for a more hard-lined tack in responding to Walz's executive orders. Rep.-elect Erik Mortenson, R-Shakopee, made headlines in November when he invited Walz and Attorney Keith Ellison to his home for Thanksgiving in violation of executive orders limiting private social gatherings.
Haley is stepping into a new leadership role in January as the House Republican caucus whip, meaning she'll have to wrangle votes among members who might have a different view of how to deal with Democrats during the ongoing crisis. That will involve a lot of the communication and goal setting she practiced in the private sector.
There are days when her friends were right and the political process is too arduous for her taste, Haley admitted.
"There are definitely days where you're pulling your hair out wondering, 'why am I doing this?' " she said. "But I will always try to bring unlikely powers together and try to bring solutions forward. That's just how my brain works."
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042