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February 2009
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Alumnae politicians credit their St. Kate's education with giving them the gumption, the empathy and the skills to run for office.


(From left) State Representative Erin Murphy MAOL'05, U.S. Representative Betty McCollum '87 and Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Langkilde Kautz '82.

SOME YEARS AGO, St. Kate's produced a popular bumper sticker and billboard. "A woman president?" it read. "We've had 10 of them!" Tongue-in-cheek at the time, the notion of a woman being elected president of the United States seems more possible than ever. Although it didn't happen in the recent election, many political observers say a door swung wide open with the strong candidacy of U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and the vice presidential run of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

THAT DOOR, however, has been edging open for years, and St. Kate's has helped push some women through it.

Many College of St. Catherine graduates are among women elected to serve their communities — as city council and county board members, judges, mayors, state legislators and, in the last eight years, U.S. Congresswomen. They're part of a booming trend.

Minnesota women now hold almost 35 percent of the state's legislative seats, according to the Office on the Economic Status of Women. That puts the percentage of women in the Minnesota Legislature at fifth-highest in the nation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In 2008, women held 37.6 percent of school board seats and 28.1 percent of city council seats, all better numbers than the national picture, according to the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund.

The three alumnae profiled here won re-election last November to serve in some of Minnesota's highest-visibility jobs in politics. They say they take St. Kate's values of social justice, community service and spirituality with them.

U.S. Representative

Betty McCollum '87

Betty McCollum grew up in a family whose talk around the kitchen table in South St. Paul included the Cold War, Communism and Vietnam. Those conversations drew her in, she remembers. "My mother was a Republican and my father a Democrat."

Politics seeped into McCollum's career plan after 25 years in retail sales and management. It all began when her young daughter was injured on a slide in a park in North St. Paul, where she raised her two children. McCollum appeared at a city council meeting to make a point: "Safety needs to be moved up higher on the priority list," she told the mayor. He said the city had it under control and she could go, McCollum recalls.

Borrowing a tactic she learned in sales training, she put a positive spin on what seemed like a setback. "I told him, 'Thanks for putting safety first.'" The meeting, by happenstance, was one of the first televised council meetings. She and the mayor eventually became friends, and he appointed her to the city's citizen parks and recreation committee.

In 1987, on her second try, McCollum won election to the North St. Paul City Council, the start of a continuing winning streak. In 1993 she won a seat in the Minnesota House, where she served seven years and was chosen assistant leader three times by DFL colleagues. McCollum set her sights higher again, and in 2000 voters in Minnesota's Fourth District elected her to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her win distinguished her as the second woman in Minnesota's history elected to a seat in Congress. After winning handily in last November's election, she began her fifth term in January.

"I've traveled the world," she says, including visits to the Iraq war zone. "I've gone to Darfur to try to help the people." She has backed universal healthcare, affordable, quality higher education, improving women's status and health in developing countries and a comprehensive response to the global AIDS epidemic. She is staunchly opposed to the Iraq War.

What she loves about her job: "Every day, there's something to learn, something that makes me grow. Everything from how oil leases are handled by the federal government on federal land to meeting a mother, her young daughter and her midwife from Malawi, a landlocked country in Africa. Every day is a gift."

On the status of women in politics: McCollum recalls a North St. Paul resident in the 1980s asking, "Who will take care of your children when you go to a city council meeting?" She marvels now at the leaps of women, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright and Sarah Palin. Still, Palin's candidacy brought similar questions about her ability to hold public office and properly tend her five children. "Fathers should be asked the same question," McCollum says.

About her years at St. Kate's: It was the mid-1980s. She was in her 30s and on campus two years to complete a degree in political science. "I went back as a fulltime day student," she says, and was impressed by "the diversity of age and experience and valuing what everyone brings to the discussion."

Most important learning she took from St. Kate's: "At the end of life, you need to be at peace with what you've done, what you didn't do and the fact you tried to be the best you could be. That doesn't mean perfection but satisfaction with what you faced and learned when you had successes."

State Representative

Erin Murphy, MAOL'05

Erin Murphy's venture into politics began early. As an eighth-grader, she was dropping campaign literature around her Wisconsin hometown to promote a state senate candidate. "He was my friend's dad," she explains. Politics was a popular topic in her childhood home, where photos of John F. Kennedy hung on the wall. "I grew up knowing that politics is where we make decisions in America."

Thirty-plus years later, she was promoting herself as the candidate. Reelected in November with 78 percent of the vote, she recently began her second term in the Minnesota House. The DFLer represents District 64A, encompassing the Mac-Groveland, Merriam Park and Summit Hill neighborhoods, where she lives with her husband and 17-year-old twin daughters.

Murphy moved with her family to St. Paul in 1988 with "the thought of getting involved in politics," she says. A nurse who spent much of her early career in operating rooms, she set about blending her two aspirations. She completed a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership at St. Kate's. Her graduate project focused on political arguments for universal healthcare.

She took posts with the Minnesota attorney general's office and the Department of Children, Families and Learning. She did health-related research for the Minnesota Senate. "I had a conceptual understanding of an issue, healthcare, and a capacity to learn about others," she says. And healthcare had emerged as a red-hot topic.

Her office in a building across the lawn from the Capitol reveals a more personal side of Erin Murphy. She has added a couch upholstered in a whimsical floral fabric and a lamp that wears a straw hat as a shade. "I love to laugh," she concedes.

A successful bill she sponsored extends use of non-public bathrooms in business establishments to people with Crohn's disease and colitis — a bill inspired by children she knows. Another in which she played a role defines healthcare homes and aims to improve healthcare delivery and begin payment reform. Vetoed by the governor, then revamped to become law, "the health-reform legislation taught me to be a legislator," Murphy says.

How nursing informs her work as a legislator: "You can't wait to solve a problem when you're taking care of patients. Nursing teaches you to prioritize and to communicate complex information when they're ready to learn."

Other lessons gleaned from nursing: "I saw people struggling. I learned about people's hopes and aspirations. You can't help but walk away with empathy."

On how Clinton's and Palin's candidacies helped women: "We made so much headway this year. We went from 'Can a woman be elected president?' to 'When?'" Women were scrutinized on appearance, she adds. "But they will also be rightly scrutinized for their preparation and ability."

Most valued lessons from St. Kate's: "Reconnecting with my strong belief in social justice and gaining the tools to articulate what that means. The experience was pretty formative in my desire to run for office and in remembering to stay true to who I am."

Burnsville Mayor

Elizabeth Langkilde Kautz '82

Gleaming from her lapel, a small golden starfish and a dove jointly symbolize the life mission Elizabeth Kautz defined in her 20s: making a difference through peace and love. She has applied that mission over the past 14 years not just in her personal life but in managing a bustling Twin Cities suburb.

Born to an American-Samoan mother and a father with New Zealand and Danish heritage, she lived in Samoa until she was 8, then various places before settling in the Twin Cities at age 18. Married and a mother of two sons, she owned a business for 10 years in Burnsville providing mental-health services and employee assistance.

Along the way, Kautz imagined changes that would enhance the city. "I didn't see anyone re-envisioning it," she recalls. During a discussion on the topic, someone challenged her: "Instead of talking about it, why don't you do something?" So she did.

After two years on the city council, she won election as mayor in 1994. She got right to her goal. "We pulled together the stakeholders and asked them what they would like the city to be 10, 20, 30 years from now. They were all asking, 'Where is the heart of Burnsville?' We trained people to lead focus groups to gather input and ideas. Then we took all of their wisdom and put it all over City Hall."

Key initiatives include developing Burnsville's "Heart of the City," an area of businesses, residential options and walkways where townspeople can shop, eat, live and gather in a sprawling city of 62,000 people that once had no hub or core.

Running her nonpartisan campaign, Kautz won re-election in November to a record-setting sixth term as Burnsville mayor in a tight race colored by controversy over the project in the midst of an economic downturn. "Burnsville is not exempt from what is happening to our country's economy," she says.

On the national front, she has been elected second vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a post that will move her to president in 2010. She is one of only five women in the conference's 76-year history chosen for the office.

How she "does it all": "I take time for me. I'm up at 5 or 5:30 to meditate. At the end of the day, I exercise. It helps me to shift and debrief." At work, she takes pride in being well organized and planning well, and in "being fully present" when she meets with people.

What to watch for in Burnsville: A city initiative in partnership with schools, a hospital and the YMCA aims to make Burnsville the healthiest city in the country while reducing the cost of healthcare. Another project focuses on reworking the community's riverfront. "My work is not done," she says.

On staying true to her mission: "Our life is making a difference one person at a time. I choose to do it through peace and love." Along with daily meditation, frequent mini-retreats help her "to make sure I remain connected with my spirit and humanity."

On the role of faith in her life: "In my early years it was important to me to be grounded in my spirituality and my faith." That is just as true now. Her sons attended St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Savage. Kautz is active in Mary Mother of the Church in Burnsville. Her degree from St. Kate's is in theology. "Spirituality is the core of my journey. People don't expect it from a politician."

A former reporter and feature writer for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Kay Harvey now writes about women and politics, among other issues, for Minnpost.com.



Six-term Republican legislator was part of women's rise in politics.

BARB ZWACH SYKORA '63 was born into a family immersed in politics. Her father, John Zwach, a school administrator, served in the Minnesota Legislature for more than 30 years and was Senate majority leader. Sykora watched her dad, and learned.

At age 25, having taught elementary school, Sykora delved into politics. "I loved knowing what was going on," she says. Over the next 20 years — while raising four children and directing a church choir — she held almost every office in the Minnesota Republican Party, including chair and co-chair. She also worked on political campaigns and recruited candidates.

Convincing women to run for public office was much more difficult than today. "Some women would ask, 'Why would I do that?' " For Sykora, the motivation was public service. She took the leap in 1986 and became a candidate herself, aiming for a seat in Congress. She lost her race against Democrat Gerald Sikorski, a then-popular incumbent in the U.S. House. "I was devastated," she recalls.

Eight years later she was on the ballot again. A Deephaven resident, she won her district's seat in the Minnesota House.Women held about 20 percent of House seats at the time, she says. She later was chosen to head the House Education Committee, which determines billions of dollars of allocations to schools across the state. "I thrive on a challenge," Sykora says, a gleam in her eye.

She had a front-row seat as women gradually made gains in politics, at home and elsewhere. Sykora was making history herself. But after six elections and 12 years in the House, Sykora opted not to run again. She wanted to spend more time with her children living elsewhere and devote time to her community in different ways.

As a member of the Minnesota Ballpark Authority and chair of its public arts committee, she is commissioning artists for the new facility taking shape in downtown Minneapolis. She serves on four other boards, including Risen Christ School, of which she is especially proud. The 15-year-old private Catholic school serves children of low-income families in Minneapolis' Powderhorn neighborhood.

Most valuable lesson she took from St. Kate's: Though valedictorian of her high-school class in rural Milroy, Minnesota, Sykora doubted she could successfully compete with girls from big-city schools. St. Kate's fueled her confidence. "I learned I could probably do whatever I decided to do."

On women's gains in statewide politics: "More and more women are chairing committees. Some have become majority leaders and minority leaders."

On the recent presidential election: "I think gender barriers have been broken in a lot of ways, along with race." She believes Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin appealed to different segments of women, but both are qualified to be president, she contends. Palin "had done a lot," Sykora says of her sister Republican. "And she was a quick study."

Her advice for young women interested in politics: "Know yourself, your principles, your values. It's easy to say, 'Yes, I'll support that.' You have to know what you believe in. Get involved in your community, church, school board, a state board or community affairs.Work within your political party. That's how you meet people and build a base. Always remember you run to serve the people, not the other way around."

— Kay Harvey