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Staying true to herself

Samantha Bengs / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Photo courtesy of Rep. Barb Haley2 / 2

One month before being sworn in as the District 21A state representative, Barb Haley wrote herself a letter.

Written during an orientation session in St. Paul, the letter remained sealed until end of the 2017 legislative session. The freshmen legislator opened the letter on May 26.

"It came to pass," Haley said, while rereading the handwritten note.

Among her goals, Haley wrote she wanted to be part of a bipartisan session that got things done, move important legislation for the district and build relationships with other lawmakers.

"I wanted to come away from my first year respected and as someone that people would look at and say 'She is going to work well here,'" Haley said.

Former Rep. Tim Kelly said that's just the kind of thing he's heard — from fellow House members and lobbyists.

"From all the colleagues I have spoke with, they were very clear: She's better than the last representative," Kelly said with a laugh.

They felt she listened first, learned and then engaged.

"That's the way I always viewed Barb," Kelly said, adding that's why he approached her four years ago to start thinking about running for the seat.

In fact, he thanks her for making it easy for him to stand down after four terms.

In Haley's first session, she was the chief author of 21 bills.

"The fact that this district elected me for this job gives me an incredible sense of loyalty," she said. "I wanted to get things accomplished."

Several of Haley's bills granted funding for Red Wing needs, including a highway-rail grade separation project, port development assistance program, River Town Renaissance funding and settling negotiations regarding Highway 61 reconstruction funding.

Haley knew the process of a bill becoming law, but said the dichotomy of a bill's lifespan surprised her slightly.

"It's easy in the front — drafting a bill — but very difficult to pass," she said.

"I have a renewed appreciation and perspective of the full trail to pass a bill into law."

Often times, Haley said, the final bill will look very different from the initial language by the end of the legislative process.

"Sometimes things are put into legislation as a negotiating tool or put in to draw out a conversation in a hearing."

Calls, emails, visits

At her St. Paul office, communication from the nearly 40,000 constituents in District 21A has never been sparse. Between calls, emails and office visits, Haley said hearing from people is critical to her job.

"It does make a difference when you call me or email me. I hear your concerns. I am trying to represent the whole district, wherever folks are on the political spectrum," she said. "We may disagree on policy approaches or solutions, but my commitment to you is that I will listen and we will have a conversation."

Haley said she now feels more strongly than ever about constituent engagement.

"There will always be competing interests at the Capitol and at any level of government," Haley said. "If you don't advocate for your interests — your inaction is an action in itself, like you are throwing up your hands."

Especially when speaking with students, Haley said she pushes the importance of action, hoping to encourage lifelong habits.

"You have got to stay engaged. I have seen how the process works and I know how hard it was to fight for principles that I believe in."

"Not a politician"

While penning her pre-session letter, Haley also made some personal goals. She told herself she did not want to miss any events of daughter Maria's junior year at Red Wing High School, maintain her health to effectively work at the high pace required and, most importantly, Haley said, remain true to herself.

"It was fun to open this up and see that I had keep these commitments for myself — I worked really hard to do so," she said.

While on the campaign trail, Haley said people would often say, "If elected, don't become a politician" to her.

From the campaign to the Capitol, the sentiment has stuck with Haley — who does not view herself as a politician. In fact, she makes a conscience decision to call herself a legislator.

"I am representing people," Haley said. "I didn't come from the world of politics. I'm not a politician, I aim to be a good legislator."

In the around-the-clock intensity of the job, as Haley described it, she learned how to find the right help to stay true to herself.

"Your day goes from milk trucks to Social Security to income taxes to health care to higher education," Haley said. "You need to be a mile wide and an inch deep and then you have to know who to go to and find the experts to trust."

Haley enjoys being a student, and learned who to turn to for in-depth answers.

"A big part of being a good legislator is knowing those avenues and knowing the questions to ask if you don't think you're getting all the information."

With a myriad of legislative topics coming in front of her, Haley said she likes to keep to a routine.

"Any time I look at legislation, I ask the author: What is the concern of someone who is opposed to your bill?" Haley said. "I like to understand each side. Is this good for my district, is it good for the state, does it make sense to me?"

Over the course of the five-month session, Haley said she grew thicker skin and learned not to take things personally. Her family also learned new things and adjusted to her hectic and sometimes erratic schedule.

"There were a lot of late nights," Haley said. " I couldn't have done this without the support of my husband."

The Red Wing native said she has always been proud of the region, but now to her pride feels boundless.

"The bluffs, the river, the manufacturing, the quality of life right here in this corridor — we have an incredible region," Haley said.

Looking back on her first legislative session, Haley said the experience was incredible.

"It was worth it for my growth and learning and worth it for our district," she said. "We've accomplished good things."

What's ahead

Looking forward to the 2018 session, Haley said she has already hit the ground running with ideas and research. She is hoping to build some coalitions around education and health care ideas to bolster the work she started in the 2017 session.

Several of her bills benefitting education and workforce included a partnership coalition bill to support coordinated education partnerships to form networks of support services in neighborhoods experiencing poverty, which will benefit the work of Red Wing's Every Hand Joined, which she once helped lead

She also authored a bill to provide post-secondary scholarships in high demand fields including advanced manufacturing, agriculture, health care services and information technology. Two of Haley's health care bills accomplished streamlining licensing requirements for advanced practice registered nurses, allowing out-of-state nurses to practice in the state without repeating licensing standards and requiring home health service electronic systems to document homecare services to help combat billing fraud, a growing concern, Haley said.

"It means a lot — the trust that you have placed in me," Haley said of district voters. "It is a big responsibility and such a privilege to be working very hard every day."