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Berglin, key senator, underestimated at opponents' peril
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Berglin said she doesn't see any reason to eliminate anyone's health insurance this year. She's holding out to restore MinnesotaCare benefits that were cut two years ago, in what she said was one of her worst negotiating experiences in more than three decades at the Capitol. (MPR file photo)
During her first year of high school, Linda Berglin came down with a mysterious illness. While other teenagers were going to their first dances and getting their first summer jobs, Berglin would spend most of the next four years confined to her bed.

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) Linda Berglin kept up in school by getting teachers to bring assignments to her home. On good days, she might leave the house without a relapse. Going to the junior prom set her back two months.

It took years for doctors to identify her illness as Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disease of the nervous system, and Berglin was still battling it when she went to college. But it didn't keep her from finishing both high school and college on schedule.

"You have to have this state of mind where no matter what they tell you, no matter how hard it gets, you're going to manage to get there. You're going to do it," Berglin says now.

It's been a long time since Berglin dealt with that illness. But these days, the 60-year-old Minneapolis Democrat still has that old determination. Her refusal to get out of the way of Republicans' plan to eliminate state health coverage for some 30,000 adults is a key to the Legislature's special session, one that could ultimately lead to a partial shutdown of state government.

Widely regarded as the Senate's top authority on health care programs including MinnesotaCare, she was an original author of the legislation, Berglin has the power to sanction or scuttle a budget deal. Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, says he backs her demands to keep MinnesotaCare intact and even expand it.

"If she signs off on a target or a proposal, it makes it a lot easier for everyone else to go along with it. If she doesn't, then that becomes a sticking point," said Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno, a Republican who has faced Berglin across negotiating tables for the past five years.

Winning her approval this year has proven difficult. In the early 1990s, Berglin was one of the so-called "Gang of 7" who pushed through legislation creating MinnesotaCare, a health insurance plan for people who can't afford private insurance but make too much to qualify for other subsidized programs.

She counts MinnesotaCare among her biggest accomplishments and defends it with the same intensity she brought to bear against her illness earlier in life.

You have to have this state of mind where no matter what they tell you, no matter how hard it gets, you're going to manage to get there. You're going to do it.
- Sen. Linda Berglin

That single-minded focus grates on Republicans, who say Berglin doesn't seem to care whether state health spending continues to rise at a dizzying pace, 18 percent annually at current levels of spending. They argue that the state can't afford MinnesotaCare in its current form.

"She's willing to spend every penny made in Minnesota to make sure everyone's taken care of," said Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, who leads health care negotiations for the Republican-controlled House. "In an area that spends mega-billions of dollars, not facing the reality of having to bring the growth down is amazing to me."

For such a formidable negotiator, Berglin doesn't look the part. She looks more like a gray-haired aunt who would invite you for Sunday dinner and show you her latest quilts (in fact, she is a quilter). She sits quietly during hearings, sipping a can of Red Raspberry Diet Rite, while others drone on about health programs.

Then, like a crocodile, Berglin attacks, using her encyclopedic knowledge of health and welfare policy to swallow the opposition.

"I'm glad I'm not negotiating against her," said Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, the House minority's lead Democrat on health care. "She understands the budget, which is extremely complicated in health and human services, better than any legislator I know."

Berglin was an unlikely candidate to become such an authority.

She was a graphic designer when she was elected to the House in 1972. She sought a spot on a health and human services panel because U.S. Rep. Don Fraser, a Democrat from Minneapolis, told her it would be a good way to look out for the senior citizens in her district.

She found she liked the intellectual challenge of the complicated financial formulas and the web of state, federal and local policies. It was a way to help people, Berglin says now.

She knows firsthand what it's like to struggle. Berglin was divorced and spent five years juggling the responsibilities of being both a senator and a single mother to her daughter, Maria, before remarrying.

Berglin said she has watched family members battle mental illness, addictions and health problems. When her mother-in-law's health deteriorated in the 1990s, Berglin said she discovered the family had few alternatives to a nursing home, even though they would have liked to find home care. That prompted her to introduce and pass legislation that gave families more options to pay for home care services that keep relatives out of nursing homes.

Advocates say Berglin's real-life experience makes her stand out among her colleagues.

"I think if any of the legislators maybe had some type of personal experience of being a mother, raising a child by yourself, they would come to understand why she works on those issues and why they should, too," said Trishalla Bell, a Welfare Rights Committee activist who lives in Berglin's district.

Berglin said she doesn't see any reason to eliminate anyone's health insurance this year. She's holding out to restore MinnesotaCare benefits that were cut two years ago, in what she said was one of her worst negotiating experiences in more than three decades at the Capitol.

Berglin's caucus leaders gave in on those cuts in 2003 against her wishes because of pressure to finish a budget and go home. This year, Senate Democrats intend to hold out for health care, Johnson said. It's clear he defers to Berglin's expertise on the subject.

"It's been so easy for the governor just to look at MinnesotaCare as a slush fund for him to use to solve any problem, whatever comes along," Berglin said. "He's mainly put me in a position of being defensive."

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