by Sarah Barchus
Murphy News Service
University of Minnesota
School of Journalism
& Mass Communication
From her educational background in psychology to her new role in politics, Rep. Marion O’Neill (R-Buffalo) has had her head in the game ever since she took office in 2012. But even the quickest studies run into obstacles when they find themselves in the minority party.
“It’s incredibly challenging to be a freshman deep in the minority in all three bodies: the House, the Senate and the Governor’s office,” the District 29B representative said. “Your only power is one vote, so it’s very difficult to have influence.”
It only took one vote of confidence to convince O’Neill to take a swing at state politics.
She said that she and her husband were dining with Sen. Bruce Anderson, currently a District 29 senator, after his first wife passed away in 2006.
At the time Anderson was considering retiring from his role as a representative and asked O’Neill if she had ever considered running for office.
That inquiry sparked her interest, and through shadowing Anderson and working for the Senate in different capacities, politics became O’Neill’s passion.
About five years after that first conversation, O’Neill hit the campaign trail. “I live in a conservative district, so you think it would be easy,” she said. “It wasn’t.”
O’Neill said that during the campaign she would work a full day at the Senate and then go door knocking at night. Her diligent home visits ultimately led her to the House.
O’Neill said she tries to be very vocal in committee. She said that Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul) once told her, ‘“Your job is to tear apart my bills.” O’Neill said she doesn’t take it quite that far, but she asks the hard questions.
“I look at everything with a critical eye,” she said. “I try to bring things to light that the other side might not have seen.”
O’Neill draws on her background to examine bills from multiple angles.
Besides earning her master’s in psychology, O’Neill also has done nonprofit accounting, worked for a CPA, and runs a tiling business with her husband while raising her two children, ages 19 and 16.
“My really diverse background really helps here in the Legislature,” she said. “I can really pull from my experiences and education.”
O’Neill uses her skills to contribute to four committees: Housing Finance and Policy, Judiciary Finance and Policy, Transportation Finance, and Labor, Workplace and Regulated Industries. Most recently, O’Neill relied on her knowledge of psychology to offer insight in a judiciary committee session evaluating Minnesota’s sex offender treatment.
As a small business owner, O’Neill has taken a keen interest in the minimum wage bill currently under debate in conference committee. Strongly opposed to raising the minimum wage, O’Neill said she has talked to many small business owners who are apprehensive about the bill’s effects. She said a Domino’s Pizza shop owner said that if the bill passes, he will have to raise prices, and fears that he may eventually have to close his doors.
O’Neill said that as a mother, she is concerned that kids searching for part-time jobs at places like fast food restaurants won’t be able to find them.
“If employers can’t raise prices, they adapt by laying off and cutting hours,” she said.
She added that the House version of the bill is indexed to inflation, which means that as wages rise, prices will increase, which will in turn necessitate raising wages higher.
Increasing minimum wage “starts an inflation engine that we can’t turn off,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill doesn’t see the minimum wage bill paying off, and she said she is extremely troubled by a move to unionize both licensed and unlicensed daycare owners that receive subsidies through the Child Care Assistance Program.
“It sucks funds from poor families that need daycare,” O’Neill said. “There is everything to be lost and nothing to be gained.”
O’Neill made her own appeal about three weeks ago when she proposed an amendment to appropriate $49 million in the Transportation Finance Omnibus bill from a lower priority project to the Trunk Highway Fund, used to fix roads and bridges.
“The amendment only failed by one vote,” O’Neill said. Despite typically feeling marginalized by the majority, she said, “I felt vindicated that so many agreed.” Although O’Neill said this was her largest accomplishment so far, she is also the chief author of a bill to push forward improvements to I-94 from Rogers into Wright County.
O’Neill serves on the Transportation Finance committee with Rep. Mary Liz Holberg (R-Lakeville), whom O’Neill views as a role model.
“She’s an absolute statesman concerned about the citizens of Minnesota. She has great insight and wisdom that comes from an incredible historical background,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill also has strong support back home.
She said her parents instilled strong family, Judeo-Christian and fiscal values in her that have helped her develop the work ethic needed to successfully represent her community at the Legislature.
She said that her large extended family and her husband, her number one supporter, are great sources of encouragement.
O’Neill passes on this encouragement to school groups when they visit the Capital.
“I encourage them to run [for office] in some capacity because giving back and serving others is the honorable thing to do.”
Standing on the House floor, looking at her assigned seat in the front row, O’Neill reflected on her privilege.
“It’s an honor to work here,” O’Neill said. “It’s incredibly valuable to hear what [my constituents] say and to represent them well.”
She said she hopes to continue to represent her district next term.