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Low-key and low-profile Pollert takes over as House leader

December 16, 2018
In this Nov. 29, 2018 photo, Republican House Majority Leader Chet Pollert poses for a photograph at the state Capitol in Bismarck, N.D. He succeeds longtime Fargo Rep. Al Carlson, who lost his re-election bid last month. Pollert has spent two decades in the Legislature but is low-key and little-known outside political circles. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Al Carlson ruled North Dakota’s House for years, controlling the business of the chamber with a booming voice, a big stick and no fear of leaving bruises in his wake. With the Fargo lawmaker booted by voters, House Republicans’ new leader is nothing like him: Chet Pollert, a low-key and little-known representative from a tiny town in a sprawling rural district in east-central North Dakota.

“I’m not going to be raving and pounding my fists,” said Pollert, a 63-year-old Carrington businessman elected to the House in 1998. “I’m just not that way.”

One of Pollert’s challenges will be wrangling a House supermajority that involved in a long-simmering urban-rural tug-of-war and a growing faction of far-right lawmakers in the chamber’s ranks.

Pollert considers himself just right of moderate and said he will attempt to forge consensus among House Republicans and GOP Gov. Doug Burgum, which have been frosty at times, including a contentious veto fight from last session that reached the state Supreme Court.

And many are still smarting from Burgum’s campaign promise to “control runaway spending” by what he called the “good old boy” party establishment. Burgum last week submitted a suggested budget that was 5 percent higher than what lawmakers passed last session.

“I have talked to the governor and I see us getting along,” Pollert said. “I’m hoping we can all get along — the House, the Senate and the governor. But I don’t think we should get along 100 percent of the time because you can’t get a good product that way. Give and take is healthy.”

Burgum, in a statement, said he looks forward to working with Pollert.

“His experience as a business leader and as a legislator for nearly two decades will serve the House of Representatives and all North Dakotans well,” Burgum said.

Pollert, who owns a grain and fertilizer company, has spent most of his time in the Legislature on House Appropriations, as chairman of a subcommittee that reviews human services spending — an area that takes a full one-third of general fund spending. He has been the primary sponsor of just a few bills over the past 20 years, and instead focused on his role as chairman of the powerful committee.

Shelly Peterson, president of the North Dakota Long Term Care Association, has attended those committee meetings for years.

“He knows that budget inside and out and the struggles of balancing that budget while caring for the state’s most vulnerable citizens,” Peterson said. “If you can master the details of that budget, you can master anything.”

Former U.S. Rep. Rick Berg, the state GOP chairman and a former legislator, held the job Pollert is taking for one term.

“There are show horses and work horses in politics and Chet is a work horse,” Berg said. “Some of the most impactful legislators I have known are people from business who understand how business interacts with government.”

Berg said Pollert would bring a different management style than either he or Carlson. Berg said both “pushed the envelope on a lot of different issues and the outcomes may not have been clean and simple.”

Carlson, known for his blunt rhetorical style, said he didn’t consider himself a bully as House majority leader.

“Obviously, there is a lot of baggage that a majority leader picks up but I’m not the big mean guy some have made me out to be,” Carlson said.

Carlson said Pollert “really does have a good grasp of common sense.”

Bismarck GOP Rep. Rick Becker leads a group of ultraconservative House members — more than two dozen — that call themselves the Bastiat Caucus. He expected a lighter touch from Pollert than Carlson’s.

“We know Chet walks softly. We’ll see if he carries a big stick.”

Back home in Carrington, a farm and ranch town of about 2,000, locals are proud of Pollert, who is known for business deals that require only a handshake.

“We are very pleased,” said Kevin Wolsky, a farmer who lives near Pollert. “It’s an amazing story that one of the most powerful people in the Legislature comes from here. It shows what can happen in North Dakota when you are honest and work hard.”

“I know people out there are saying, ‘Chet who?’” Wolsky said. “I can tell you this: He’s a stand-up guy and he is what he is and he’s a great asset for North Dakota.”

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