By Rilyn Eischens // Murphy News Service
Connie Bernardy knows plenty about water quality and pollution. Her parents moved from rural Minnesota to Columbia Heights to seek better jobs and education. In their new lives, they worked in factories with contaminated water.
A generation later, Bernardy’s family hasn’t left the area. They live in New Brighton in a home next to a contaminated site. It’s one of many in the area, she said.
The difference is that Bernardy now is a DFL representative from New Brighton who is in a position to change how the state protects and restores the environment.
Bernardy understands concerns about the region’s water safety and pollution as a lifelong area resident. At the Capitol, she has made such issues a priority.
“This is very personal to me, and I think it is for a lot of people in our district,” she said.
Since she was elected in 2001, she has sponsored legislation to restore polluted wetlands and clean up hazardous waste sites in her district. She has also created a citizen advisory board to inform residents about the quality of her district’s drinking water.
This type of community activism has characterized Bernardy’s career. In 1985, after graduating from college, she worked as a financial administrator for Honeywell, but her interest in advocacy sent her down another path after a few years.
“Growing up in the community, the values that people have instilled in me about caring for others, teamwork and hard work have [stayed] with me throughout my life,” Bernardy said.
After working at Honeywell, Bernardy was part of a mayors’ commission on raising drug-free children before a school district budget crisis motivated her to run for office. It was 1999, and the school district Bernardy’s children were enrolled in was about to make program cuts because of budget issues.
Bernardy worked with politicians, parents and teachers to get increased funding for the district to prevent that from happening.
When the representative in her district retired, Bernardy thought her experience as an advocate, a lifelong community resident and a defender of strong education funding would make her a good candidate. She decided to run for office. She was first elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2000, winning just over 51 percent of the vote.
Bernardy loves being a legislator, she said, especially when she can help residents of her district. Often, they are individual issues that people can’t resolve on their own, rather than big policy decisions that make headlines – like problems with dishonest salespeople and fraud, she said.
“A lot of people get taken advantage of by people that aren’t being above board,” she said. “It can be really harmful.”
She also gets to continue her work for quality education, as part of the Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee.
Outside of the Legislature, Bernardy works for Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, focusing on projects concerning transportation, health and environmental issues. She has held that position for eight years.
“It’s a really good fit because I learn a lot from my job that helps in the work that I do [at the Legislature],” she said.
Bernardy works with data and research in the Parks and Recreation Department specific to her community that give her a specialized understanding of her district.
“It’s good for me to know how our community is unique compared to other communities,” she said.
During this legislative session, Bernardy hopes to make policy improvements in a few key areas: education, environment and family policy.
She has authored legislation to modify school board practices, clean up abandoned hazardous waste sites and protect children from harmful chemicals in products.
“I think that’s a big theme this year . . . really working for the quality of life of people,” she said.
Bernardy has found that collaboration is an essential part of accomplishing anything in the Legislature. She said she is known for bringing people together.
“I have been surprised how well I’ve been able to work with Democrats and Republicans,” she said. “I pride myself in being able to work with everyone in trying to get things done.”
Bipartisan work is something Bernardy does well, said Rep. John Petersburg, R-Owatonna. Petersburg is the Vice Chair of the Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, which Bernardy serves on.
“I find that she’s very interested in making government more efficient and more effective, and I really appreciate that about her,” Petersburg said.
Petersburg added that he thinks Bernardy is a “fairly reasonable person,” even as a legislator of the opposite party.
Bernardy is part of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a group focused on encouraging cooperation within state legislatures. She is one of about 30 trained facilitators who travel throughout the country to encourage legislators to work together.
“A lot of the people that go to Washington [D.C.] come from state legislatures, so I’m a strong believer that we really need to function well at the state level,” she said. “It’s important that we build the kind of culture and system in which we can actually do that.”
Up for reelection in November, Bernardy is running for a seat in the Senate instead of the House. She hopes to replace Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, who is retiring after this session.
Goodwin asked Bernardy to run for her seat when she planned on retiring a few years ago. She decided to put off retirement but still wanted Bernardy to succeed her.
“It would be an honor to be able to follow her,” Bernardy said. “Now I need to earn the support of everyone to do that.”
Marci Anderson, vice chair of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board, has known Bernardy since they attended Spring Lake Park High School together. She endorsed Bernardy in this year’s Senate election because of what she described as her levelheaded approach to conflict and responsiveness to her community.
“She strikes me as just a real problem solver, and not necessarily a career politician,” Anderson said. “That’s what … we need more of, is real problem solvers because we have real problems to solve in our community.”
Bernardy has also received endorsements from several Minnesota politicians, including U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S Rep. Keith Ellison.
The bigger geographic district would allow Bernardy to represent more people, she said, but there are other benefits to serving in the Senate.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to make a bigger difference [in the Senate],” Bernardy said. The DFL is more often the majority party in that chamber, she added, which can help accomplish the party’s goals.
But no matter which chamber she’s in, Bernardy said she will keep her main focus on local issues important to her constituents, as she always has.
“My plans are to … keep on being a part of the community like I’ve been all my life,” she said. “I can’t wait for the future and this journey.”
Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton
Family: Married, two children
Education: M.B.A., University of St. Thomas
Occupation: Active Living Ramsey Communities Director
Committees: Higher Education Policy and Finance, Rules and Legislative Administration, Transportation Policy and Finance
Rilyn Eischens is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication