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Keith Carlson joined the Minnesota Inter-County Association 19 years ago, after two decades as a fiscal analyst for the Senate Tax Committee. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Keith Carlson joined the Minnesota Inter-County Association 19 years ago, after two decades as a fiscal analyst for the Senate Tax Committee. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Breaking the Ice: ‘Juggling act’ works for county group lobbyist

Name: Keith Carlson

Title: Executive director, Minnesota Inter-County Association

Education: B.A. political science, Hamline University

Keith Carlson, executive director of the Minnesota Inter-County Association (MICA), focuses on tax policy but says getting things done at the Legislature often involves a “juggling act.”

That means working with other government association lobbyists to work out proposals while persuading legislative leaders, committee chairs and local delegations of their benefits. That approach, Carlson said, helped secure a $25.5 million increase in County Program Aid beginning next year.

“We held together the coalition as long as we got the money and nobody lost,” Carlson said.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit MICA, based in St. Paul, represents 14 counties — Benton, Blue Earth, Carver, Crow Wing, Dakota, Olmsted, Otter Tail, Rice, Scott, Sherburne, St. Louis, Stearns, Washington and Winona — that account for “a major portion of Minnesota’s population and economy,” according to its website.

Carlson joined MICA 19 years ago, after two decades as a fiscal analyst for the Senate Tax Committee. He traces his longtime interest in public policy to the turbulent 1960s.

“I grew up during the Kennedy era, the New Frontier, Peace Corps and the Civil Rights Movement, which were all somewhat inspirational,” Carlson said.

Q. What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A. I enjoy discussing the policy. To some extent the politics but I’m not quite as engaged in what’s happening politically independent of the policy at the Legislature.

Q. Who was the first presidential candidate you voted for and why?

A. I believe it was Jimmy Carter. I came from a household that was Democratic. In many cases I do support Democratic candidates. I have voted Republican based on the individual.

Q. What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A. I happen to be reading National Security Adviser [H.R.] McMasters’ book on the policy deliberations over the course of the Vietnam War, “Dereliction of Duty.”

Q. What is a pet peeve of yours?

A. I don’t like the vilification of individuals when they’re trying to accomplish something that’s legitimate.

Q. What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A. I’m a silent sports kind of guy. So I’m on my bike or sometimes kayaking, canoeing or cross-country ski skating.

Q. If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A. I grew up in St. Louis Park and Edina. Minnehaha Creek, given my enjoyment of outdoor activities is probably someplace that I would take somebody to. The old swimming hole and abandoned gravel quarry is now a city park that they don’t allow swimming at anymore.

It was a great place. There was a rope swing. You could jump in.

Q. How has an event or person inspired you?

A. In terms of a person I’d certainly acknowledge Joel Michael, the House Research analyst to the tax committee. His breadth of knowledge, his work ethic, is just extraordinary. I’ve always admired him for that.

Q. What would be one way to end partisan polarization?

A. I’m not sure there’s anything that succeeds. To some extent I’d say Minnesota hasn’t suffered that to the extent that it occurs at the national level. You do have the unique conflict between Gov. Dayton and the two majority caucuses but that’s a conflict limited to those two entities and the current occupants. I’m not sure that’s going to continue.

Q. Is there someone at the Capitol who you think does a lot of work without getting a lot of credit?

A. [First Assistant Secretary of the Senate] Colleen J. Pacheco Barry and the rest of the staff at the front desk of both the Senate and the House. The hours they put in, their ability to keep things running well during the multi-hour sessions is just extraordinary. You’ve got to respect them. She’s been the top long-term career staff person at the front desk. Most of the lobbyists, if they want to know what’s going on or need some help in crafting an amendment or with technicalities, she’s kind of the go-to, and everybody knows how hard she works.

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