KISCADEN PROFILE For Kiscaden, pursuit of middle ground becomes a rocky road
BOX; Sen. Sheila Kiscaden
Career highlights: 14-year senator; chair of the state government budget division; progress on the University of Minnesota-Rochester, including authorization for a branch campus and new funding source; funding for medical genomics research between Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.
What's next: "Often in life, wonderful chapters of your life end and something else begins. You leave one stage of life with appreciation for what it was and a little sadness that that chapter is over. So far for me, the next chapter has always been there."
By Matthew Stolle
Sen. Sheila Kiscaden of Rochester recalls her legislative baptism of fire. It was 1993, and the Legislature was embroiled in a debate that was drawing people by the hundreds to the Capitol each day.
The debate was about whether to extend human rights protection to gays and lesbians in the area of housing and employment. And it "was unlike anything I've experienced since," Kiscaden recalled.
Kiscaden, a first-year senator from Rochester –; a Republican at the time –; would play a central role in that debate. She served on the judiciary committee and cast one of the votes in support of the bill, advancing it to the Senate floor, where it narrowly passed.
But it was a stand that didn't come without consequences. It did not win her points with area Republicans. Some constituents were mad, too. Kiscaden recalls receiving a call from an irate person "who was just reaming me out for that vote."
"It was so awful and so unpleasant. And I hung up the phone, and I started walking upstairs, and this little voice came to me, and it said, 'well, you wanted to work on social justice issues,'" she said.
It would be an independent streak, however, that would make for a stormy relationship with her adopted Republican Party.
Eventually, the party would choose not to endorse her; she would be unceremoniously kicked out of the Republican Senate caucus; and after a brief stint with the Independence Party, she would switch to the Democratic Party as the running mate of gubernatorial candidate and multimillionaire businessman Kelly Doran. It was a political gamble that would backfire spectacularly when Doran, citing the strain on his family, pulled out of the race.
Kiscaden expresses no regrets for her political choices, particularly her decision to hitch her political wagon to Doran's.
"I think he was the best damn candidate, and I think it's too bad for Minnesota, a huge loss for the state. I really feel that we would have changed politics in Minnesota," she says.
Doran's decision had the effect of ending Kiscaden's legislative career prematurely. The 14-year senator had been planning to run for one more four-year term before she accepted Doran's invitation to be his No. 2 DFLer, and now, Rochester school board member Ann Lynch is running for her seat.
So is Kiscaden through with politics? Few are willing to say that the final chapter has been written. Kiscaden's name has been bandied about as a possible state health commissioner. Some people, she says, are talking to her about running for statewide office, even Congress, in the next four years.
But Kiscaden seems ambivalent. She says she has had a "really, really good career." But she turned 60 this year, and "there's something about turning 60 that makes you say, 'okay, how many good years do I have left and what do I want to do with them.'" There's a spiritual component to Kiscaden's political thinking, and Kiscaden says she has no idea what's coming.
"I'm just closing this chapter," she says.
One of the ironies of Kiscaden's career is that for a person who has sought so strenuously for a political middle ground, it has not spared her from being a political lightning rod. Kiscaden attributes that to a polarizing political system that has made moderates unwelcome in the Republican party. Some agree.
"I don't think she's changed," said Roger Moe, former DFL Senate Majority Leader. "I think what happened was the caucus changed. There was a time when the (GOP ) caucus was made up of people like her. Pretty soon, she's all but standing almost all alone."
GOP Sen. Dennis Frederickson of New Ulm is Kiscaden's seatmate on the Senate floor. He describes Kiscaden as a voracious consumer of information. Pointing to a set of statute books under his desk, Frederickson said both he and Kiscaden read the bills, pull up amendments and share information with each other.
"She has the unusual capacity to speak on the floor of the Senate and actually persuade other members of the Senate on an issue," Frederickson said.
Highs and lows
In looking back over her multifaceted 14-year career, Kiscaden said her greatest satisfaction comes from her overall body of work, but certain things stand out. Her role in expanding the University of Minnesota-Rochester is one high point. Those efforts were met with success when the Legislature authorized a branch campus in 1999. Now, with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's backing, the branch has an independent source of funding.
And the biogenomics research project between Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota has the potential to be an economic boost for the area.
One of her abiding regrets is that she has been unable to persuade the governor and the Legislature on the need to come together on health care reform.
"We need to do health care reform that focuses on quality and cost and accessibility for everybody," she said.
A role in history
When asked about her career, Kiscaden invariably thinks back to a moment four years ago when the Senate was saying good-bye to Moe, who retired then as Majority Leader after a 32-year career.
Moe, who was visibly choked up, took note of former state Sen. Nancy Brataas of Rochester on the Senate floor, remarking that she had been the first woman elected to that body. Moe added that since her election, he had served with 43 women.
Kiscaden said that the moment crystallized for her what a "rare privilege" serving in the state Senate had been for her.
"I sat there and thought, 'this is amazing, because I really am among probably the first 40 women elected to the Minnesota Senate. Isn't that a piece of history?' So, there was a sense of history with all of those people around," Kiscaden said.