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Kelliher is DFL choice for Minnesota governor

Pioneer Photo/Don Davis

House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher talks to reNEW Minnesota late Saturday. reNEW is a group of convention delegates pushing for change in the state. Kelliher later won the endorsement after Minneapolis R.T. Rybak conceded shortly after 11 p.m. The new DFL endorsed officers are to fly around Minnesota on Monday.

DULUTH -- House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher earned Democratic-Farmer-Laborite support late Saturday night in her effort to become governor.

She still faces formidable opponents from within her own party in an Aug. 10 primary election, but at the State DFL Convention late Saturday she edged Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

The mayor conceded at 11:10 p.m. after nearly 1,400 delegates cast five ballots at the convention in the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.

All other candidates had dropped out of the race by 10 p.m., and neither Kelliher nor Rybak had the required 60 percent of the DFL state convention's delegates. The sixth ballot proved that Kelliher was going to win.

Kelliher told the delegates that she would make history, becoming the first woman carrying a major-party governor's banner

She also thanked all of her opponents and said she looks forward to winning the Aug. 10 primary election.

A running mate will be approved on May 23 by the state party central committee.

State Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia and state Sen. John Marty of Roseville dropped out of the race and suggested that the nearly 1,400 delegates back Kelliher.

"I'm going to vote for Margaret," Rukavina declared.

Kelliher pledged to sign a universal health bill into law within two years, winning Marty's backing.

State Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis left the race at 10:03 p.m., thanking his family and supporters but not making a pick in the then-two-person race.

Kelliher remained in a tight race with Rybak for four ballots, then began to pull away as she gained backing from those quitting the race.

Pre-convention favorites Kelliher and Rybak led early on as delegates struggled through a slow process of picking their favored candidate from what began as the most-crowded governor field in memory.

Kelliher had 47 percent of the vote on the fifth ballot, with Rybak second with 32 percent.

Thissen's 20.1 percent was barely enough for him to survive to a sixth ballot, but he conceded instead.

Sixty percent was needed to endorse a candidate.

In a touch of drama, when Rukavina announced he would leave the race, he put a Kelliher pin on his jacket.

Rukavina said he was like the "little engine that could."

"I just about got to the top," the state representative from Virginia said.

Speculation around the convention immediately put Rukavina as Kelliher's running mate, but there was no immediate comment from the speaker's campaign.

Rep. Tom Anzelc of Balsam Township on the Iron Range said the Kelliher campaign has talked to him for a month, but not during the convention.

Earlier in the evening, Marty dropped out with just 10 percent.

Delegates packing the DECC listened to speeches from six major and two minor candidates Saturday morning, then sat through an hour-long question-and-answer session with the candidates before starting the lengthy balloting process early in the afternoon.

Candidates needed a certain percentage of support, which went up on each ballot, to remain in contention. The five top candidates pledged to abide by the convention's endorsement and not challenge the winner in the Aug. 10 primary election, although Susan Gaertner, Matt Entenza and Mark Dayton already said they would be in the primary to face the endorsed Democrat.

Kelliher, the state House speaker from Minneapolis, and others and others sounded like they are running against GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who announced last summer he will not seek a third term.

"In the last eight years we have seen a governor whose right-wing ideology has been put ahead of people's lives ..." Kelliher said. "We must and can do better."

The speaker said she told Pawlenty that she would pass a transportation funding package over his veto, and she did.

"I stare down the Republican right and come down with wins," she said.

Kelliher said she is ready to get to work after two terms as speaker. "There is no time to waste."

Rybak opened the candidates' speeches promoting his experience as being the only real executive background in the race.

The Minneapolis mayor reached out to rural Minnesotans.

"It was the farms and the prairies that made Minneapolis the milling capital of the world," Rybak said, and mining built Duluth.

"We are connected as Minnesotans," he added.

Joining most other candidates, Rybak brought up Pawlenty's years in office.

"These last eight years have shown us what can happen when we are divided," he said.

Thissen said Pawlenty "has closed the door on too many of us."

"Our leaders have decided for us that mediocrity is the best we can do," Thissen said.

Government is not the enemy, he said. "We have to break out of this trap that says the only job of government is to balance the budget."

The convention was abnormally quiet except when Rukavina fired up the nearly 1,400 delegates.

Rukavina delivered easily the most energetic speech of the day.

Even those supporting other candidates said Rukavina livened up the convention.

"I thought Rukavina was passionate," said Mary Kvebak, a first-time delegate from Detroit Lakes who liked both Thissen and Kelliher.

Fellow Iron Ranger Tony Sertich, the House majority leader from Chisholm, said Rukavina "hit it out of the ballpark."

"He had to give the speech of his life, and he did," Sertich said.

Rukavina rehearsed his speech for a week, but did not win over everyone.

Long-time state Sen. Jim Vickerman of Tracy said he likes Rukavina, but delegates "don't want someone so wild."

Vickerman's candidate, Kelliher, was much more reserved as she read her speech.

"She didn't come across as I thought she would," Vickerman said, calling her speech "a little mild."

However, he added, not everyone can give a good speech and he is looking for someone who can go the governor's job well.

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.