Margaret Anderson Kelliher takes being a role model seriously. “I think it is really important for girls to have role models of both genders and all races,” said the 40-year-old speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives. And in her own case, “It’s important for girls to see a woman who can relate to them, and talk about what it’s like to be a girl,” she said, and added that that kind of talk helps girls expand their view of what is possible for them.
When Kelliher, one of the most powerful women in Minnesota politics, refers to herself as a “hockey mom” [both of her kids play], it’s not just because of the folksy appeal of the phrase. It’s part of her role modeling. “I also have the perspective of being the mom of a girl,” she said. Kelliher also has a son.
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Kelliher brought a new perspective and approach to the 2008 legislative session by bringing different constituencies together to iron out differences and get the job done. Her collaborative style of leadership was instrumental in completing the session successfully and on time with no special sessions convened.
When Kelliher was elected to the Minnesota Legislature in 1998, representing south Minneapolis’ district 60A, she was the 30-year-old mother of a toddler and a preschooler. Though she represented an urban district, she grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, an experience that has left its mark on her. Her brothers farm the family land her mother owns. Farming contributed to Kelliher’s early interest in politics.
“I was 16, 17 years old, wearing orange coveralls at a farm rally in [early] 1984,” she recalled. “I remember seeing tractors ringing the state Capitol and I became interested in politics, in who makes decisions, state and federal.”
That interest continued. Kelliher volunteered on DFL political campaigns and worked in several legislators’ offices out of college. Though she won her first try for public office, she hasn’t won every political contest. “My mom would tell you that I became interested in politics when I started a petition drive not to change a school bus route in fourth grade,” Kelliher said wryly, noting that she lost that one.
Kelliher sees a difference when women hold office. “We tend to look at prevention as one of the most important lenses to see policy through,” she said. That’s something she believes deeply, and has personal experience. Her daughter suffered a severe speech delay that required intensive extra help. Today, Franny is fine. But Kelliher knows that her daughter, who does not have a hearing loss, was one of the lucky ones. She sponsored successful legislation that requires hospitals to test newborns for hearing loss. “Early diagnosis and intervention is so important,” she said.
Prevention is on Kelliher’s mind as she faces a legislative session sure to be dominated by a record budget deficit and other symptoms of the economic recession. She is particularly concerned about education and health care. “It’s important we don’t decimate the health care system,” she said.
While she looks at future policy making as including sacrifice, Kelliher believes that realigning priorities includes ingenuity. “If we just look at the situation as a math problem, we miss a real opportunity,” Kelliher said. “Where do we want to invest so our state will be great in 10, 20 years? Looking at those choices in a thoughtful, serious way is just as important as balancing the budget. It’s important to keep focused on the future.”