Through the years, Linda Berglin may have taken on the look of an aunt who gives you a peck on the cheek at family reunions, but if you got in her way, you discovered that she legislated like a linebacker — and one who kept coming at you with the stamina of a marathon runner. That was the composite portrait that emerged as Berglin was feted for her 38-year career in the Minnesota Legislature last Thursday night at a reception hall at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in her old Senate district in south Minneapolis.
In this era of often nasty hyperpartisanship, it was striking how many Republicans helped fill the hall — well beyond its seating capacity — and their anecdotes from the podium provided some of the tribute’s more humorous moments. Former Republican Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson, who joined Berglin as part of the Gang of Seven to pass the landmark Minnesota Care legislation in 1992, told a rambling tale of reading a book to a group of preschoolers while dressed in a cow costume. Suddenly a little boy strode up to the front of the room, demanded Benson get down on all fours and declared, according to Benson, “I’m going to milk you.” After noting that he was mortified by the boy’s brash, can-do sense of command, Benson cruised into the punch line: “And that story describes my relationship with Sen. Berglin.”
Julie Rosen, the current chairwoman of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, recalled, with just slight exaggeration, the intimidating impact Berglin had on her and the other rookie members of the Republican caucus in 2002. “We’d say to each other, ‘You be on the Health and Human Services Committee,’ ‘No, you be on the Health and Human Services Committee.’ Then it was, ‘You go talk to Sen. Berglin,’ ‘No, you go talk to Sen. Berglin.’” Acknowledging Berglin as a mentor, Rosen went on to relate how a collegial friendship developed after Berglin showed her around her district and the two discovered they had much in common.
The intimidation wasn’t limited to the opposite side of the aisle, however. Jeff Hayden, who recently won a special election for Berglin’s Senate seat and served as emcee for the tribute, recalled that during his freshman term in the Minnesota House, while serving on the House Health and Human Services Committee, he kept hearing the DFL chairman of the committee, Tom Huntley, say, “She isn’t going to like that,” on a variety of bills. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute; isn’t the governor a man?’” Hayden said. “Then I realized he was talking about Sen. Berglin. I learned early on that even in the House, we were negotiating with Linda first and then with the governor.”
“I was the leader of the Senate in name only,” said longtime majority leader and past gubernatorial candidate Roger Moe. “When it came to the budget, Linda Berglin was the leader of the Senate. I can’t tell you the number of times we’d be talking about the budget and Sen. Berglin would say, ‘Well, here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to go to HHS [at the federal level] and get a waiver.’”
After admitting he didn’t know exactly how Berglin was able to use her knowledge of the health care bureaucracy to execute this budget-saving cost-shift so many times, Moe said, to growing laughter, that on a few occasions he thought he had a good idea for saving money, only to be told by Berglin that it wasn’t possible. “And I’d say, ‘Well how about if we get a waiver for that?’ And Linda would say, ‘You can’t get a waiver for that.’”
Another former Senate majority leader, Larry Pogemiller, who retired from the Legislature just a few weeks after Berglin, emphasized the breadth of Berglin’s knowledge, saying she was “the impact senator on housing policy” and, along with Doug Johnson, “one of the two key players in the Senate on taxes” before she became renowned for her health care legislation. “She is one of the top five state senators of the past 50 years,” Pogemiller claimed.
Current Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk focused on Berglin’s early biography, how she was born in Oakland and moved to Minnesota at the age of 8 and how, during her first year of high school, she contracted a rare disease of the nervous system that kept her bedridden for the next four years and delayed her graduation.
Not coincidentally, Bakk also flashed back to 2005 and the first government shutdown in Minnesota’s legislative history. He remembered that then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty “was hoping we were going to cut about 40,000 people off of Minnesota Care. And everybody who followed the action at the Capitol knew that it was Sen. Berglin who was standing up and saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. We are going to take it to a special session and we are going to take it to a government shutdown if we have to, but we are not going to throw these working men and women off of health insurance.’”
At the conclusion of his remarks, Bakk invited all the former and current state senators on hand — more than 20 people in all — to come up and help present Berglin with a plaque commemorating her Senate tenure.
Eventually it was time for the guest of honor to say a few words, earning her the loudest of a number of standing ovations during the course of the evening. After thanking the members of her constituency for employing her and the members of her church for sustaining her, she paid tribute to two Republicans, former Gov. Arne Carlson and former Sen. Benson, for their role in getting Minnesota Care passed.
Then Berglin responded directly to everyone who had taken the podium to sing her praises. The tenor ranged from backhanded compliments (she thanked Pogemiller for “trusting me to do something you did not understand”) to personal, heartfelt reminisces (she recalled that when she and Benson had a brief falling-out, her response was, “Whatever I did, I’m sorry for it, and I left him a half-dozen phone messages saying that”).
About Bakk, she said pointedly, “He was the one who said I had to be in the room during budget negotiations. He made sure I was in the room.” It was a thinly veiled jab at Gov. Mark Dayton, who refused to have her back during the 2011 session when the Republicans did not want her involved in the conference committee on the health and human services bill. Dayton, who was listed to speak first, instead sent an emissary to read a proclamation declaring it Linda Berglin Day in Minnesota.
Berglin closed with the mixture of flint, empathy and defiant indefatigability that marked her storied tenure in the Legislature. Citing Bakk’s comments about her teenage illness, she said while going to night school to finish her high school degree, she encountered a variety of people struggling toward the same goal. “We should never forget that hard times can happen to anybody. It isn’t always because they did something wrong,” she said. Turning to Hayden, she told him she had a legacy of standing up and protecting the most unfortunate among us that she expected him to continue.
Then she turned to the future. “I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about what I have done,” she said. “I wake up thinking about what I am going to do that day.” Of her new job with Hennepin County, she said, “We are building a model of health care delivery that blends health care and human services and home services for people who are very poor and very sick and who are oftentimes are using the health care system way more than they need to.
“So I am very lucky to be moving from health care in the Legislature to health care on the ground in Hennepin County to help build a model that will be replicated in other parts of this state and throughout the nation. That is where the next round of health care reform is taking place, and I am so very lucky to be a part of it.”