BISMARCK – To most North Dakotans, he’s known as the man who led the last-ditch effort to save the University of North Dakota’s Fighting Sioux nickname.
For the past seven months, House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo has dominated headlines across the state with what he saw as a mission to let the people of North Dakota be heard.
From the January day he submitted the controversial bill to enshrine the nickname in state law to the unsuccessful attempt this month to convince the NCAA to let the school keep the name, Carlson has been front and center.
While he acknowledges he became “the poster child” for the issue, he said he doesn’t regret any of it and said there are many others who also believed in the cause.
“I think I voted for what a majority of North Dakotans wanted, and somebody had to be the sponsor, and somebody had to answer the press when they called,” he said. “Statewide, that didn’t hurt me at all.”
His opponents think otherwise. Democratic Party Chairman Mark Schneider called the effort a “dog and pony show” that will go down as “one of the biggest Republican debacles in the history of North Dakota.”
An unofficial Forum survey posted online this past week found the majority of respondents also disagree with Carlson’s push to keep the nickname.
Of about 3,100 respondents, 66 percent did not think it was appropriate for the state and Carlson to pursue a bill to keep the nickname. Nearly 71 percent didn’t think Carlson handled the issue appropriately, and 66 percent don’t think he’s an effective leader for the state. (Click on the graphic to enlarge.)
During the legislative session, lawmakers listened to several hours of testimony and were flooded with thousands of emails for and against the nickname bill. By March, 93 lawmakers and the governor had given their approval, leading to the Aug. 12 showdown with the NCAA.
So who is this Fargo conservative who isn’t afraid to spark some controversy?
Whether you like his politics or not, Carlson is one of the state’s most influential political leaders.
Carlson, 62, grew up in Gwinner and Mooreton, N.D. He went to high school in Wahpeton and attended the North Dakota State College of Science. He then attended North Dakota State University and spent six years teaching history and geography at Agassiz Middle School in Fargo.
He started working in real estate on the side and then quit teaching to pursue real estate full time. In 1980, he started his own construction business and has worked at that since.
As a history teacher, he believed in the democratic process and encouraged his students to get involved in government. His job and his decision to be home for his three children kept him from following his own advice until his youngest child was a junior in high school.
In 1992, Carlson saw an opportunity to enter politics as a Republican state lawmaker and credits his “very supportive wife” for standing beside him as he pursued his longtime interest.
As a businessman, Carlson felt the Legislature needed people who understood how the business community works.
“What creates jobs is the private sector, not government. I took that philosophy with me,” he said. “I went to Bismarck saying we need to create a better business-friendly environment for businesses to grow and prosper.”
During his early years in office, Carlson earned praise from The Forum’s editorial board for being “a solid, careful lawmaker” and for putting his business experience “to good use in his legislative work.”
He was caucus chairman of the House Republicans and served on the natural resources and industry, business and labor committees. He also developed a reputation as a fiscal conservative. In a 1997 floor speech, he chided his colleagues for spending too much money that session.
In a recent interview, Carlson said he gets frustrated when the “solution that everybody seems to follow is: if you give everybody more money, everything will be better.”
He said he’s more results-oriented and is an advocate of performance pay for teachers and public employees, incorporating a private-sector model into government.
Carlson has sparked controversy throughout the years with some of his proposals and comments (see sidebar). A 2000 Forum story remarked, “His political record is characterized by a fearless capacity for partisan battles.”
Carlson took heat in 2007 during a speech about a bill giving North Dakotans the right to shoot a burglar or carjacker.
“I’d tell you what would happen in my house. I would shoot that person, and I would shoot them enough times that I knew he wasn’t going to do any danger to me or my family,” Carlson said at the time. “He’d leak like a watering can when I was done with him.”
Letters to the editor came in after, with one calling him “the biggest buffoon I’ve ever observed at any level of government.”
Carlson said he was born with thick skin.
“I think it helps to have a fairly strong personality,” he said. “You get beat up on a daily basis. You have to be able to just walk through that.”
In 2000, he told The Forum one of the greatest compliments he ever got was when a college buddy introduced him to someone, saying, “With Al Carlson, what you see is what you get.”
After a few attempts in the 2000s, Carlson succeeded in securing the House majority leader post in 2008.
Schneider, chairman of the Democratic Party, said Carlson has “a huge amount of power and influence,” but he thinks Carlson “lacks the vision that a leader should have,” particularly when the state has a wealth of oil.
“He looks at this in a microscope instead of a macroscope,” Schneider said. “His first priority would be giving (tax) breaks to the oil companies.”
Instead, the state could be adding another oil refinery, guaranteeing affordable tuition for higher education and ensuring adequate funding for K-12 education for future generations, Schneider said.
“You don’t see any grand vision,” he said. “If we had a leader who had a grand vision, we have the wherewithal in the state to do it and to make a better day for future generations to come.”
He called Carlson’s proposal this past session to overhaul the state’s education system a “huge power grab” that would have put education under the majority party’s political thumb.
House Minority Leader Jerry Kelsh of Fullerton said he and Carlson get along on a personal basis and respect each other. But he thinks it was “foolishness” to pass the Fighting Sioux law and said the legislation wasted a lot of time, money and energy.
“I think it was political posturing for somebody that wanted to run for higher office. That’s my opinion,” Democrat Kelsh said.
He also doesn’t think the minority party is taken into consideration or kept up to speed on decisions with Carlson as majority leader.
Carlson doesn’t have an easy job as leader of a large caucus with different personalities and opinions, said Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan.
She thinks Carlson approaches his leadership post like his job as a contractor: putting in place a team of leaders he can count on, while still keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s going on.
She said Carlson is “very personable” and committed to his job. Although he sometimes may throw out an idea for the shock factor, he’s trying to get people to think outside the box and come up with solutions, she said.
“And I think that’s good. We need to have innovative and creative ideas,” Kelsch said. “They may go too far, but he’s one of those people who says, ‘OK. If I’ve gone too far, then bring me back. Help me get there. Let’s work on it together.’ ”
Carlson’s running mate, Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, said they have always stuck together with a motto of “common sense, business sense.” Carlson likes to look at the big picture and then work out the details from there, she said.
He’s been known to take the bull by the horns and run with it, but it’s important to step out boldly and to know what you believe in, Grande said.
Carlson “gets good grades” on improving tax policy, said Dustin Gawrylow, executive director of the North Dakota Taxpayers’ Association.
But the Fighting Sioux nickname took “up all of the oxygen in the room” this past session and consumed a lot of time that could have been spent on other issues, Gawrylow said.
The association supports Carlson’s efforts to challenge the status quo when it involves improving accountability and transparency, he said.
Carlson’s idea to overhaul the state’s education system was a “shot-in-the-dark type of deal,” but it was a step in the right direction and sent a message to higher education to get their act together, Gawrylow said.
“Certainly he’s in that crowd of folks that are willing to do something that the editorial boards don’t like,” he said.
Spearheading a state law that required UND to keep the Fighting Sioux nickname was one of those Carlson moves that not all newspaper editorial boards liked. The state had already lost a lawsuit against the NCAA, which deemed the nickname hostile and abusive and said the university would face sanctions if the name was not changed.
The school was in the process of transitioning away from the nickname when Carlson’s legislation halted those plans.
Schneider said Carlson put UND’s student athletes and world-class hockey program at risk by challenging the settlement terms. He also pointed to the state expense of going to Indianapolis “for a face-saving meeting with the NCAA to hear exactly what they knew they were going to hear.”
“If I sound negative on Al Carlson, it’s because he’s done it to himself,” Schneider said.
Kelsch defended Carlson and said it was worth the fight.
“We had constituents, whether they were our direct constituents or people that live in North Dakota and, most importantly, the Native Americans, who felt like the Board of Higher Education ignored what they had to say,” she said. “We gave them the opportunity to come in and speak. We gave them the opportunity to let their voices be heard.”
Carlson also still believes it was the right thing to do and said he feels for the Native Americans who support the nickname “because it’s a very prideful name for them.”
Carlson said he’s “principled enough to know” he won’t be the one to submit the bill to undo his law. He won’t discourage anyone else from submitting a bill to do so, though.
“I’m not here to obstruct the process or to hurt UND,” he said.
The Legislature is expected to move forward to change or repeal the nickname law during a special session in November.
Carlson doesn’t think the Fighting Sioux nickname will be his legacy as a legislator, adding, “This is not the mountain I’m going to die on.”
He thinks his work on taxes, workers’ compensation reform, improving hunting access and pro-business policies are his biggest achievements. He also sees more work to be done with the state’s infrastructure, workforce training and flood relief.
He’s considering a run for U.S. House, but won’t decide until a trip to Washington, D.C., in December. He wants to meet some congressmen and determine if the job would be right for him.
He said he’s continued to seek public office for the past 18 years because the job is never finished.
“The key to the whole legislative process is … never forgetting who you work for. You work for the people,” Carlson said. “Never forget who you work for, and make sure they have access.”