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North Dakota House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, stands outside of his new office at the state Capitol in Bismarck Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Former ND House majority leaders say the job can be 'difficult,' 'miserable' and akin to 'herding cats.' Chet Pollert is ready to get started.

BISMARCK — Longtime North Dakota state lawmaker Bob Martinson, once the top Republican in the state House, recently offered a precise summary of the job he once held.

“It’s a very difficult, and sometimes a miserable job,” he said.

The position of House majority leader, one of the most powerful in the state Capitol, now belongs to Carrington state Rep. Chet Pollert, a veteran lawmaker with an agricultural background who is known for a calm, straightforward personality.

Pollert settled into his post last week, days after its longtime occupant, Fargo state Rep. Al Carlson, was defeated during the Nov. 6 midterm election. He took the reins less than two months before the start of the 2019 legislative session and said in a recent interview that he was preparing for the bright spotlight that his new job will bring.

“I’ll get used to it,” Pollert said. “Time will tell.”

Pollert hasn’t attracted a bevy of media attention in his first two decades in office. Much of his recent work chairing a division of the House’s budget-writing committee has involved sifting through the complicated finances of the Department of Human Services, the state’s largest agency.

The committee’s work on that budget alone can last more than a month during an 80-day legislative session, Pollert said. DHS has a total budget of $3.9 billion, including federal funds, during this two-year budget cycle.

“In this business, there are showhorses and workhorses, and Chet’s a workhorse,” said state Republican Party Chairman Rick Berg, a former congressman who was the state House majority leader for three sessions in the 2000s.

Berg described the majority leader job as the “CEO of the House Republicans" that has a major role in determining policy priorities and working with the Senate and the governor’s office to pass laws.

The majority leader is also responsible for selecting lawmakers to serve in the coveted roles of committee chairman and vice chairman. That will come during the three-day organizational session in early December.

But in another way, Berg said, the job is like “herding cats.” Pollert said he’ll be tasked with building consensus among 79 House Republicans whose ideologies range from moderate to “ultra conservative.” He also plans to boost communication with caucus members.

“Mainly, you’re trying to keep everything in order, which is a big job when you have a diverse caucus,” Martinson said.

Republicans hold a supermajority in both the state House and Senate.

Gov. Doug Burgum welcomed Pollert’s election as majority leader and signaled his desire to work together on budget and policy initiatives. The first-term Republican is scheduled to present his highly anticipated two-year budget proposal in early December, representing the first budget the businessman-turned-politician has crafted from scratch since taking office.

But former Gov. Ed Schafer said a semi-adversarial relationship between the governor and majority leader can be healthy for the policymaking process, though it could mean the majority leader gets “squashed” between competing forces.

“It might be nice to have the title … but it’s a tough job,” Schafer said.

Martinson predicted Pollert will do well, citing his “calm demeanor” and knowledge of the Legislature. Another former House majority leader, Republican Wes Belter, echoed that vote of confidence.

“Chet has an absolute solid foundation under him,” he said. “He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to crumble under political pressure.”

The owner of a fertilizer and commercial feed business in New Rockford, Pollert was first elected to the Legislature in 1998. He said his time in agriculture, including running a unit train loading station in the area, helped him develop relationships in the east-central North Dakota community.

“As I am here, I think I treated my customers fairly. And when I ran for a first time, they elected me,” Pollert said.

But Pollert’s presence in the leader’s office was only made possible by Carlson’s midterm election defeat earlier this month. Long targeted by Democrats and grumbled about among some in his own party, Carlson’s absence is expected to be felt in the Capitol hallways.

Democratic state Rep. Pam Anderson, whom Fargo voters re-elected to represent Carlson’s legislative district, is hoping for a better working relationship between the two parties under a new, less “derisive” Republican leader.

“I’m hoping for more civility,” she said.

Carlson said this week he didn’t have any regrets about his decade-long tenure as majority leader, which overlapped with a steep rise and subsequent fall in state revenues associated with the state’s oil activity.

“We always balanced the budget, we didn’t over-regulate our citizens, we lowered their tax burden,” he said, adding that the state has been left in “a great position for the future.”

Berg lauded Carlson and said being the majority leader can mean taking heat for unpopular decisions.

“There’s one sure way in politics not to make anyone upset with you, and that is to do nothing,” he said. “Al and many others have challenged the status quo … and it’s always going to create opposition.”

Carlson said it’s too early to say whether he’ll run for public office again.

“I have no idea what the future will bring, but it will be something,” he said. “I’m not very good at sitting on the sidelines.”

Past North Dakota Republican House majority leaders:

Al Carlson 2009-2018

Rick Berg 2003-2008

Wes Belter 2001-2002

John Dorso 1995-2000

Bob Martinson 1993-1994

(Source: North Dakota Legislative Council)

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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