Mark Olson faces lonely session at Capitolby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
A month into the legislative session, state Rep. Mark Olson is adapting to his status as a lone wolf. House Republicans decided late last year to suspend Olson from their caucus after he was charged with domestic assault. The case against him is still pending in court, but Olson says he's used to being on his own at the Capitol.
St. Paul, Minn. — Several state lawmakers speculated that Mark Olson would keep a low profile after being charged with two counts of misdemeanor domestic assault in November. The complaint says Olson pushed his wife to the ground three times after an argument.
But Olson's demeanor hasn't changed much on the House floor. Olson is best known for taking a strict line on defending the Constitution, and speaking about it at length. He was true to form again last week.
The House was debating a measure that would set environmental standards for the Great Lakes. Olson was concerned that the bill weakened some of Minnesota's constitutional rights and would give greater authority to international entities.
Despite reassurances that the bill didn't weaken the Constitution, Olson spoke on.
"This is a very, very troubling piece of legislation and if we need to be here all day to deal with it, because it hasn't gone to so many committees then that's what we need to do," he said.
The debate lasted three hours. Olson was unsuccessful in his arguments to defeat the bill. It passed by a vote of 97-to-35.
Olson has always gone his own way during his time in the Legislature. But now that Republicans have said he can't caucus with them he's really on his own.
"Do I agree with the action they took? No, no I don't," he said. "But is it working out for the good and is it actually working out to my benefit? Absolutely. God knows more than I do. This is working out real well."
Olson says he doesn't believe a lot has changed since he's been kicked out of the caucus. If anything, he says he has more freedom now. His office is still adorned with patriotic symbols and an American flag. The main difference is a sign outside his door declaring him an "Independent" Republican.
Olson agreed to an interview, but would not comment about the alleged incident involving his wife. He would only say that he will not resign if he's found guilty.
"I believe I must persist and the response I'm getting from my folks back home is consistent with that. By a wide range, by far, the message I get from folks back home is 'Hang in there. Stick to it and we're still with you. And we understand that people make mistakes.' Like never before in my life, I feel a spirit of forgiveness," he said.
The practical impact of being voted out of the caucus means that Olson has fewer services at his disposal. For example, he doesn't have access to caucus research and doesn't have as many staff members to help him. Olson says he never really used those services. He'll also lose the automatic support of his Republican colleagues for legislation he offers and that could be a bigger problem.
Former House Speaker Steve Sviggum, who has known Olson since 1992, calls him "strong willed on certain issues." As speaker between 1999 and 2006, Sviggum was forced to preside over a House chamber that watched as Olson would rise over and over again and voice his objections to a certain issue.
"I've certainly found him to be very dedicated and committed to causes to the point of being stubborn," Sviggum said.
Olson's longest floor speeches came during the vote for the Northstar commuter rail line, which he opposed. The 2005 budget, which he thought was negotiated by three people and anything that he thinks encroaches on personal liberties.
But Sviggum also calls Olson "the conscience of the Legislature" because he cares that the process is fair and every member is respected. Sviggum says many lawmakers would be adrift without a caucus, but he doesn't think it will bother Olson.
"He certainly has not been a pawn to any caucus or any specific philosophy and probably Mark has been able to make this transition of being in neither caucus better than any other member would have been," according to Sviggum.
Sviggum was the first legislator to call for Olson to resign if he's found guilty. He says Olson told him he's innocent. During his interview with MPR, Olson said he's gotten a lot of support from the public.
"I appreciate people's patience and understanding," he said. "There are also people who are upset that this has happened and I understand that too. I am grateful. I am privileged to serve. It's tragic for us as a family. It's tragic for us here in the Legislature and I appreciate and appeal to people for patience as we work this through."
Olson's next hearing is in Sherburne County Court on Friday. Even if he's cleared of the charges in court, his problems may not be over. He could face discipline from the House if another member files an ethics complaint against him.
- All Things Considered, 02/06/2007, 5:22 p.m.