Two days after winning the April 12 special election for the state Senate seat being vacated by Ellen Anderson, Mary Jo McGuire had already appeared at a rally, met with constituents and sat in on a hearing of one of her two committees assigned so far, Energy, Utilities and Telecommunication. Anderson resigned the seat in March to become chair of the state Public Utilities Commission, precipitating a special election. McGuire bested two challengers in a March 29 primary and went on to win the election with 80 percent of the vote.
It was an unusually fast start to a Senate career, but McGuire’s experience in the Minnesota House of Representatives gives her an edge at learning the ropes.
McGuire, 54, grew up in Falcon Heights and still lives there. She served in the House from 1989 to 2002, when redistricting combined her district with Alice Hausman’s and McGuire decided to step aside.
She has served as both a minority- and a majority-party member, and now she finds herself back in the minority as Republicans wrested leadership from the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party in the last election.
There’s a change in tone from the Republican majority she once worked with in the House and the current atmosphere in the Senate, McGuire said. She gave public transportation as an example of the shift: “It’s not ‘How much money will we spend on transit—it’s, ‘Will we have any transit?”
As a minority-party member, she understands that her role will be to try to improve a bill that she disagrees with, or just vote against it (and, with a governor of her own party in office, hope for a veto).
Her second committee as of press time was Local Government and Elections, where she expects to debate voter identification and local government aid, among other issues.
The Republicans, she said, are “trying to make voting harder. That will be a huge battle.”
Close to home, McGuire is concerned about tight budgets and loss of government aid. Her home city of Falcon Heights has the highest proportion of public land in the state because of the University of Minnesota and the Fairgrounds; St. Paul is close behind with its combination of state offices and college campuses. “These cities that host buildings of public good, we should help in some way,” she said.
She supports the sharing of services among municipalities, such as the public safety contracts between St. Anthony Village, Falcon Heights and Lauderdale, and acknowledges that loss of local government aid will “push” cities to collaborate.
While she fits herself into her new Senate role, she’s handing off responsibilities at Project Citizen, where she’s been working for nearly a decade. The group brings students from across the state to the Capitol to present policy proposals that they’ve developed.
“Kids pick issues that they care about,” she said, such as recycling in school cafeterias or combating racism in the schools.
This year’s Project Citizen will culminate May 11 at the Capitol.
The group lost its federal support when Congress banned “earmark” funding of special projects in members’ home districts, McGuire said. For the short term, at least, Minnesota’s program will get help from the Legacy sales tax fund.
Civic education, a passion of hers, will be affected by social studies standards now being updated by the state education department, which will need Legislative approval, McGuire said. She’ll watch not only for specific content, but also for the distribution of hours of instruction among the many fields under the “social studies” tent, she said.
One of McGuire’s favorite leisure activities is playing hockey with the Golden Seahorses, a loosely organized group of lawmakers and their associates, male and female, that she co-founded with Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis. (Gov. Tim Pawlenty has played with the group.)
The seahorse is a treasured feminist symbol, McGuire said, “because male seahorses carry the babies.”
Her hockey experience has heightened her interest in finding ways to reduce concussions in youth sports, she said.
McGuire also enjoys camping and said she has a Minnesota State Parks “passport” and is visiting as many as she can. She can be spotted early in the morning with her walking buddy, circling Como Lake, and she does triathlons, “slowly.”
The Legislature’s schedule should allow her to keep her commitment to teaching a class called “Leadership in the Public Forum” at St. Catherine University this summer, McGuire said. It’s another activity that she described as “supplementary and complementary” to her new job as the senator from District 66.
Anne Holzman lives in St. Anthony Park and is a frequent contributor to the Park Bugle.