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'Stick to the issues'

Rep. Ken Svedjan, R-Grand Forks, the 20-year legislative veteran and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who announced last month that he won't seek another term, has advice for candidates of either party who might like to take his pla...

Ken Svedjan
Ken Svedjan is retiring from the North Dakota House of Representatives this year after serving since 1991. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

Rep. Ken Svedjan, R-Grand Forks, the 20-year legislative veteran and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who announced last month that he won't seek another term, has advice for candidates of either party who might like to take his place:

"Stick to the issues."

What he decries as "creepage" toward negative campaigning wasn't a factor in his decision not to run again, he said. But he worries about its effects on local as well as national levels.

"I often tune out the national campaigns," he said. "I really don't like it: the dirty campaigning, smear tactics, half-truths.

"It's coming into our races, too, and that diverts us from real issues.


"It repels people and keeps them from running for office themselves. The debate over health care is a good example," said Svedjan, who spent more than three decades in the health care business. "How in the world are people supposed to sort all this out?

"Unfortunately, it's been demonstrated time and again that those kinds of campaigns are successful."

Svedjan is still peeved by the fuss Democrats made in 2006 over his state-funded travel -- 203 days worth in the previous biennium. His expense claims totaled more than the rest of the city's 12-member delegation combined.

Rep. Louise Potter, a Democrat who also represents District 17, raised the issue during the campaign.

"If you ... talk about someone not being present during the session, being absent a lot -- I don't know that I'd consider that dirty campaigning," she said. "I think the public has a right to know.

"But I would certainly agree with him about politics on the national scale," Potter said. "It just makes me sick to see the arguing and the animosity. We get nowhere with that, and it's not good for the public or for the United States."

Most of Svedjan's out-of-state trips involved work with the National Conference of State Legislatures, including two terms on its executive committee. He said he "tried to be open about it," filing all required expense reports, but "it did have an impact (on) the next election," as his vote total fell.

"Travel is costly. I'd never deny that," he said. "But I always had the support of legislative leaders, including minority leaders, and the work of that organization is immense and valuable."


The learning curve

Raised on a farm near Enderlin, N.D., Svedjan studied at Concordia College in Moorhead and at what now is Valley City, (N.D.) State University, where he earned a degree in business education in 1966. After a stint in the Army, he enrolled at UND and received another bachelor's degree in business administration on his way to a master's degree in counseling.

He began working as a health care administrator in Grand Forks and went to what then was United Hospital in 1977 as director of personnel, later starting the hospital's marketing department and what now is Altru Health Foundation. He retired in 2007.

In 1990, Svedjan was recruited by Republicans to seek the House seat vacated by Majority Leader Earl Strinden, who ran that year against U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D.

Now, Svedjan is the recruiter.

"It's never easy," he said. "It's a challenging job. I thought I was pretty well-grounded, pretty well-informed on the issues, when I ran the first time. But the learning curve went nearly straight up."

He said he never thought of himself as a politician. "I always approached the Legislature as work, as a job, a place where you faced challenges and looked for solutions, not a place for game-playing," he said.

He smiles at references to "the powerful Appropriations Committee" and the supposed clout wielded by its chairman, noting that in North Dakota -- unlike in Minnesota and other states -- committee chairmen cannot bottle up legislation by refusing to hold hearings.


"In North Dakota, all bills introduced must come to the floor," he said.

Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks, served with Svedjan on the Appropriations Committee.

"I thought he was more fiscally cautious than he needed to be (and) unreasonably afraid of disasters that might occur in the future," Glassheim said. "I think North Dakota would be better off if he had voted with me at least 10 percent more frequently.

"I admired Ken's intelligence, his ability to organize the committee's work (and) his fairness to the minority party. ... He also had a genial sense of humor lurking behind a seemingly austere front."

Passion for order

Svedjan is organized and orderly, a neatnik who embraces routine and champions process. Asked about regrets in his 20-year legislative career, he said he wishes he could have persuaded colleagues to adopt more formal performance and accountability standards.

One of his most satisfying achievements is, if important, similarly process dull: helping to build and secure a healthy budget reserve.

"We started at 5 percent" of the biennial budget, he said. "We have it up now to 10 percent, and we have set it up so one can't go in and spend the whole thing" at once.


Still, he worries about "budget sustainability" (another term not likely to make any Lexicon of Sexy Legislative Issues), even with the state's healthy budget surplus.

"The most difficult sessions are when you have a lot of money, because everyone lines up at the trough," he said. "Last session was very difficult for me."

But other thoughts factored into his decision not to run again.

"I have observed legislators who stayed around too long," he said. "Their effectiveness waned. I don't want to be one of those people.

"For a couple of years now, I've seen that there is life after work. Now, I'll see if there's life after politics."

His decision to end his legislative run played well with one key constituent: granddaughter Josie Walz, 8.

"Oh, good!" she said upon hearing the news. "Poppa won't have to be in Bismarck so much!"

Long 'separation'


At 68, Svedjan is fit and in good health, and he and his wife, Loretta, a retired teacher and reading specialist, say they want to make up for lost time -- figuring that the time they've spent apart because of his legislative activity would equal a five-year separation.

Family history would suggest a long retirement ahead. Loretta's mother is 100, and Ken's father, still living on the farm near Enderlin, will be 100 in a few months.

"He's been retired for 37 years," Svedjan said. "But he bought a new snowblower this year, and he dances a lot. He says it's good exercise. But when he talks to me about the good genes I've inherited, I tell him, 'Well, you never served in the Legislature.' "

The only sure thing about his retirement plans, Svedjan says -- with a wry smile -- is a lot of travel, pointedly adding: "I'll be paying for those trips myself."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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