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One-time conservative gadfly Mary Liz Holberg now pivotal player in budget showdown

Briana Bierschbach//May 11, 2011//

One-time conservative gadfly Mary Liz Holberg now pivotal player in budget showdown

Briana Bierschbach//May 11, 2011//

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Peter Bartz-Gallagher)
Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, once a vocal - and contrarian - member of the most conservative contingent of House Republicans, has become a key figure in this year

It was a big day for the Legislature’s newly elected Republican majorities.

Just weeks after the party swept both chambers in last fall’s historic election, then-House Speaker-elect Kurt Zellers and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch took the podium at a press conference to announce the first-ever full slate of Republican committee chairs. Only one legislator – Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, the incoming chairwoman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee – joined the two leaders in front of the press to speak.

The 12-year Capitol veteran acknowledged the daunting task ahead in the coming session, with legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton staring down a then-$6.2 billion budget deficit. She would head the committee charged with pushing out the Republicans’ touted all-cuts budget.

“I’m completely convinced, without a doubt, that we are going to be able to do it,” Holberg said confidently. “I lovingly refer to the Ways and Means Committee as the ‘ways-to-be-mean committee,’ so that may be an indication of where we go on some levels.”

Holberg has never been one to tread lightly at the Legislature. Since her election in 1998, the Lakeville representative has been a firebrand conservative at the Capitol, both fiscally and socially. She has pushed for deep cuts to the state budget and championed a host of controversial issues, including a revamp of state police data laws, the Woman’s Right to Know Act (one of the most significant changes to Minnesota’s abortion laws since the practice was legalized more than 30 years ago) and a failed attempt to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in the state. She has received perfect ratings from conservative groups like Minnesota Majority, and has been known to run with the chamber’s most vocal right-wingers, including Mark Buesgens, Tom Hackbarth and failed gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer.

Her hard-line conservatism hasn’t always meshed well with the other members of her caucus, and she has been an instigator in some intra-caucus tiffs, sources say. After the controversial 2008 override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto – in which six Republicans joined most Democrats to pass the proposal – Holberg and a handful of others believed the GOP leadership didn’t deal harshly enough with the defectors. The discontented conservative faction stopped attending caucus meetings and would openly speak against moves by then-caucus Minority Leader Marty Seifert on the House floor. “They would propose amendments on the floor that were intended to belittle caucus leadership’s authority,” a former House GOP operative said. “They were the wild cards. You couldn’t predict what they would do.”

When it was announced that she would be appointed to head the House’s most powerful budgetary committee, Capitol regulars pondered how the one-time fiscal bomb-thrower would craft a leadership-approved budget – a job that was likely to include defending expenditures Holberg would have been attacking if left to her own devices.

But by most accounts, Holberg is considered one of the most adept chairs in the new GOP majorities. “She understands the nuances of the budget very, very well,” GOP lobbyist Todd Hill said. “That’s going to be critical for both the House and Senate when we get to the end with the governor. She’s been around here a long time, she has negotiated bills, and she has been involved in those discussions.”

She has also tempered her sharp views and played a critical role in crafting the Republicans’ $34 billion budget, even as her old conservative allies were breaking ranks in the caucus and criticizing the proposal for spending too much.

“If she hadn’t been put up on Ways and Means, she would be right up there with people like Mark Buesgens trying to cut education funding and complaining that the GOP isn’t going far enough,” said a GOP lobbyist who preferred to remain anonymous. “She’s had to be the good soldier, and Zellers and [House Majority Leader Matt] Dean are lucky to have her on their team. She’s been around a long time. She knows that budget like few do around here.” (Despite numerous requests, Holberg did not agree to be interviewed for this story.)

“She doesn’t beat about the bush, and she does not suffer fools gladly,” former DFL Speaker of the House-turned-lobbyist Bob Vanasek said. “There’s not going to be a lot of flash and all of that in her committee and work. My guess is that she will prefer to operate behind the scenes. Her strength is that she doesn’t lose focus and she knows where she wants to be at the end of the day.”

‘A principled person’

Holberg was elected to the Minnesota House in the politically schizophrenic 1998 election, which put Republicans in control of the House, left DFLers in charge of the Senate and put Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura in the governor’s office. The staunchly conservative Christian small-business owner, who studied education at St. Cloud State University, easily won over DFLer Elizabeth Sindt in her suburban Lakeville district.

Within just a few years at the Capitol, Holberg was named to an assistant majority leader position in her chamber and signed on to the controversial Defense of Marriage Act, which sought a constitutional amendment to solidify a ban on gay marriage that already existed in statute. Holberg and then-state Sen. Michele Bachmann teamed up on the amendment, which ultimately failed.

That same session, however, Holberg successfully passed the Woman’s Right to Know Act. Among other things, the law requires physicians to provide women with certain information and photos of the procedure at least 24 hours before an abortion. Passing the bill, a difficult process with a DFL-led Senate, also gave Holberg a chance to refine her political savvy.

While debating a Senate bill on the House floor to repeal a 70-year-old ban on staging circuses around the time of the State Fair, Republicans subtly added an amendment to repeal a 29-year-old law regarding abortion reporting. After a brief explanation from Seifert, the amendment’s sponsor, the change was approved on a voice vote. Then Holberg stood and quickly offered her lengthy 24-hour bill (which had already passed as a stand-alone bill by the House) as an additional amendment. When DFLers objected that it wasn’t related to the bill at hand, she pointed out that it was now that Seifert’s amendment was included. Holberg knew if the bill was sent back to the Senate with the amendment attached, it would force an up or down vote. The move prompted an hour of parliamentary confusion on the floor. The bill was ultimately stalled for at least two days, but Holberg and the GOP had upstaged the DFL minority through parliamentary creativity.

A strange phone call that same year also threw Holberg into the world of privacy issues at the Capitol. Holberg received a call at her home one night from a privacy advocate who had typed her name into a secret statewide police database. The person then described six encounters Holberg had with the police, including a complaint she had made about some children in her yard and her report of a suspected drunken driver.

The call shook Holberg, and she subsequently made it her crusade to limit public access to the database – called the Multiple Jurisdiction Network Organization – which was developed by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. Her fight garnered national media attention as well as scorn from the state’s police establishment, but it passed through both chambers and became law. From there, Holberg moved on to other privacy issues and became one of the Legislature’s foremost experts on the state’s data privacy laws. Her work in the area has resulted in a spate of successful legislation, including a bill to stop cellphone companies from selling telephone numbers to directories like the White Pages and a law that allows parents to refuse some at-birth blood tests for disease or to have the records destroyed.

“She really became the privacy champion,” citizen lobbyist Rich Neumeister said. “It’s an area few legislators sign up to work on.” While differing widely with Holberg on some issues, Neumeister said he has enjoyed working with the Lakeville legislator. “She is a principled person,” he said. “You know where she stands, and she’s not going to play games with you.”

During the 2005-06 session, Holberg was awarded the gavel in the GOP House’s Transportation Finance Committee, where she proved to be a fierce opponent of light rail and transit projects like the Hiawatha and the Northstar commuter rail lines. Holberg instead advocated for more money for road repairs and a bus rapid transit line on Interstate 35W. She criticized Pawlenty for flip-flopping on his support of the Northstar line, and this session she included a provision in the transportation bill (when it was rolling through Ways and Means) that would have taken $69 million in funds from the Metropolitan Council.

“She has very strong opinions about transportation policy,” said Tim Worke, a lobbyist with the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. “They are very deep-seated, but she backs up those opinions with a command of the facts. Some people in that world mistake it and maybe think she’s not being open with them or fair, but I just don’t think that’s true.”

‘Problematic’ independence

Holberg’s strong opinions about transportation put her in a unique position at the start of the 2008 session. Legislators had been pushing for years to increase the state’s gas tax, but all such attempts were met with a swift veto by Pawlenty and other governors who swore not to raise taxes. The DFL-controlled Legislature was sure to pass the bill again and attempt a veto override, but Holberg was confident they would fail.

In a February 2008 Pioneer Press article, Holberg said Democrats would be hard-pressed to find the numbers in the House GOP caucus to break a veto. She noted that the vast majority of Republican lawmakers were loyal to Pawlenty and did not want to anger the anti-tax Republican activists they relied on to work on their campaigns.

But the override happened, made possible by six Republican House members going rogue and joining Democrats on the override vote. Holberg, along with fellow caucus conservatives like Buesgens and Emmer, were infuriated by those who broke ranks. She and the other arch-conservatives had visited the offices of many – if not all – of the GOP members who voted for the gas tax.

While Emmer, a leader among conservatives in his caucus, made more explicit threats to the Republican defectors, other punishments were dealt in smaller ways, mostly by Holberg. As a longtime member of leadership in the House GOP caucus, Holberg was in charge of managerial tasks such as setting up the seating arrangements on the House floor.  Two of the so-called “Override Sixers” – Ron Erhardt and Neil Peterson – were placed in what are commonly considered the worst seats in the chamber. That was Holberg’s way of teaching them a lesson.

“She and I were not on the same wavelength,” Peterson said of his former House caucus member. Peterson often referred to Holberg and the group as the “third floor caucus,” because all of them had offices on third floor of the State Office Building. “She’s tough. She can really be nasty. I know we didn’t agree on some things, but she dealt with things in her own, specific way.”

The dissatisfaction of Holberg and other conservatives ran deeper than just the six who helped override the veto. She stopped attending caucus meetings, upset with the way Seifert and other leaders, like Rep. Denny McNamara, dealt with those who broke from the caucus. By their assessment, sources say, the punishments meted out by the leadership failed to go far enough.

By many accounts, Holberg was also part of a movement within her own district to oust fellow Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo from the Legislature in 2006. According to a 2006 City Pages article, Holberg and other Republicans were rumored to have drafted flight attendant Chaz Johnson to unseat Garofalo, who felt his support of Northstar commuter rail, Pawlenty’s racino proposal in 2005 and a transportation bill that included a 10-cent per gallon tax had made him a target. Garofalo ultimately prevailed in the election and now sits as the chairman of the House Education Finance Committee.

“Our disputes in 2006 were about misunderstandings more than anything else,” Garofalo says now. “I think Holberg has been very successful at pivoting from being a member of the minority to being a member of the majority. In my role as committee chair, Holberg is one of the first people I go to for advice or insights. Outside of the speaker and the majority leader, it would be difficult to find a more influential member of the House. She is strong, at times tough, but always fair.”

In a 2006 article in the Star Tribune, Holberg acknowledged her hard-line views sometimes alienated others. “I would fall in that camp of conservatives who think Pawlenty and [then-GOP House Speaker Steve] Sviggum have given away too much,” she told the paper at the time. “I know that some find my independence to be problematic.”

‘Fostering a process’

Holberg hearkened back to the administration of Ventura during the November press conference to announce committee chairs. “One of the terms [Ventura] would use was ‘necessary versus nice.’  I think we have to go back to that model. What is a necessary role of the government? And maybe some of the niceties don’t survive,” she told reporters.

The talk surprised few who were familiar with Holberg’s mode of operation at the Capitol. What did surprise some was the $34 billion budget she and the leadership ultimately pushed out after a rosier-than-anticipated February forecast. It exceeded what many Republican candidates had said they would spend on the campaign trail, and some wondered why a fiscal hard-liner like Holberg had her name on it.

For one Republican legislator, who wished to remain anonymous, Holberg likely had a tough decision to make when confronted with the chief spot on Ways and Means. “She is principled, yes, but she is also smart, and I think she knew that in order to have her hands in the process as much as possible and craft the kind of budget she wanted, she would have to play nice a bit more,” the legislator said. “I’m sure the choice wasn’t easy, but she made it.”

The legislator drew comparisons to her ally Buesgens, who was reluctant to take a gavel in the GOP’s new majority. When he did receive the State Government Finance chairmanship after a series of unusual occurrences, he quickly relinquished the responsibility at the first sign of discontent from other members. The member said: “He kept away from the committee chair spots, so he has the freedom to call out Zellers on the floor and say we are not cutting enough. She gave that up, in a way.”

Now, Holberg has had the opportunity to put her fingers in all the budget pots. “I think that she’s a very savvy veteran legislator,” said Vanasek, who worked with Holberg on transportation issues. “And she is a good strategic thinker. By that, I mean she knows where she wants to end up at the end of the day or the end of the session. I think the way she is probably going to go about the budget is thinking first about where she wants to end up.

“That will mean her involvement in all of the moving parts,” Vanasek said. “She’s not one of those committee chairs that leadership is going to have to babysit. She’s going to be one they go to for advice.”

Hill, a lobbyist with Hill Capitol Strategies, said it was wise of the GOP leadership to take advantage of Holberg’s conservative credentials and her connections at the Capitol. “She has the ability to work with all sides of the political spectrum, not only in the Republican caucus, but also DFLers,” he said. “She has tried to work in a very fair manner this session.”

In the news conference announcing committee chairs, Holberg said input from everyone is what is going to solve the deficit. “While certainly I have my own ideas, it’s going to be up to the process and everybody putting their ideas on the table,” she said. “My model of leadership is not dictatorial; it’s one of fostering a process.”

DFL Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis said Holberg has earned respect from members of both sides of the aisle, even though she and the Democrats disagree on almost everything. “She brings kind of a direct, no-nonsense style to the committee and her work,” he said, “and I think that directness is really appreciated on both sides of the aisle. I think that is rare.”

Even those who have felt the sharp pang of Holberg’s disapproval still praise her work as committee chairwoman. Erhardt, one of the six Republicans who helped Democrats override Pawlenty’s veto, described Holberg as “a force to be reckoned with. She is a smart lady. She will be tough and stand by her guns, but they need someone over there to do that. It’s a serious situation over there.”

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