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Recognizing Brataas' life of political service

By Heather J. Carlson

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN

With a special event organized in her honor less than a week away, former Rochester Sen. Nancy Brataas joked that she worried whether anyone would show up.

"I’ve been out of office so long, I wondered if anyone remembered me," she said.

Not a problem.

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More than 200 people have already signed up to attend the event on Thursday honoring Brataas’ long political career. Several political heavyweights are slated to offer their tributes to Brataas, including former Gov. Al Quie, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, former Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson and former Rochester Mayor Chuck Hazama. Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President John Wade will serve as emcee with local Belau Report host Jane Belau and KTTC anchor Tom Overlie providing the music.

Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, organized the event in Brataas’ honor. While it is a fundraiser for the Republican Party, he said the event is about honoring Brataas for all the work she has done for Rochester over the years.

"It’s to recognize a life of accomplishment and say thank you to Nancy for really all she has done, not only for the community but also she was the one who broke the barriers in terms of women in elected office in this state," Senjem said.

Brataas was the second woman every elected to the Minnesota Senate behind Laura Emelia Johnson Naplin, who won a special election in 1927 after her husband died in office. Brataas broke a 41-year-old drought of women serving in the Senate.

No intention of going into politics

Chatting in her Pill Hill home on a weekday morning, Brataas said she was a "normal cookie-baking housewife" in the 1950s with no intention of getting into politics. But then one day a friend convinced her to go to a Minnesota Republican Workshop meeting. It was at that meeting that she was first asked to help organize the Olmsted County Republican workshop.

"It came as a great shock to me," she said.

Known for her organization and attention to detail, Brataas soon set to work helping build the party. She single-handedly developed a list of all the Republicans in the county — a tough task given that the existing records were outdated and three-quarters of the people on the old lists had died. She soon rose in the party, taking over as chair of the Rochester party in 1957 and eventually chairing the state party from 1963 to 1969.

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In the early 1970s, she established her own consulting firm, Nancy Brataas and Associates. She traveled around the country helping out with Republican candidates’ campaigns, eventually spearheading the telephone campaign for Richard Nixon. She had been content to be a behind-the-scenes player until her husband urged her to run for the Minnesota Senate seat being vacated by Harold Krieger. But with no women in the Senate, plenty of people were skeptical about her running. So she began calling local officials to gauge whether she would have support.

Not sure a woman could win

"Everybody thought I was a nice lady, but didn’t know if a woman could win," Brataas said.

That is when her husband Mark "Jerry" Brataas offered her this advice — "Quit calling and start running."

She did. Brataas won election in 1975 and went on to serve 17 years in the Senate.

Howard "Chub" Stewart was among the Rochesterites who urged Brataas to run for the Senate. Stewart, who worked as a lobbyist for IBM, said he can remember much concern about a woman being on the Senate floor and not wearing a tie as required by the Senate rules. But he said she soon established herself as one of "the most effective legislators and the hardest working and the most politically perceptive lawmakers."

When it comes to Brataas’ legacy, Senjem said much of the credit for Rochester getting a University of Minnesota campus should go to her. Brataas had been pushing 46 years ago to bring a campus to the city.

"Everything we did in 2005 to move that forward as an idea came from Brataas’ early involvement," he said.

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Brataas also played a key role in helping get passed a local sales tax to pay for the city’s massive flood control project.

In recent years, Brataas has slowed down somewhat. She was treated for lung cancer in 1999 and had part of her right lung removed. She also has emphysema and has to be hooked up to an oxygen tank. As a result, she is planning to sell her longtime home in Rochester’s Pill Hill, with its legendary, sprawling garden.

During her career, she won friends on both sides of the political aisle. Former DFL Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe had hoped to come to the event to honor Brataas but had a last-minute conflict. Moe said he consider Brataas to be "a dear friend."

"When she dug her teeth into something, she was relentless, but at the same time she knew when to cut the deal. And she and I cut lots of deals," Moe said. "I have just the highest regard for her."

The event honor former Sen. Nancy Brataas will be Thursday in Heritage Hall at The Kahler Grand Hotel in Rochester. It starts at 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception. The dinner and program starts at 6 p.m. The cost is $100 per person. To register, call 651-487-0088 or go to www.senatevictoryfund.com. Deadline to register is Monday.

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