At the time DFL Reps. Phyllis Kahn (Minneapolis) and Lyndon Carlson (Crystal) took office, Richard Nixon wasn’t just president; he was popular.
Carlson and Kahn won election to the Minnesota House in November 1972, the same night Nixon trounced his Democratic challenger, George McGovern, winning the popular vote by a margin of more than 17 million people. A bad night for liberals elsewhere was a fine start for the two Democrats, who were then both in their mid-30s.
At the time, neither had a plan for how long to stay in office. They still don’t. Last week, Kahn and Carlson jointly surpassed the record for longest service in the history of the Minnesota House of Representatives, with 15,532 days in office — and counting — as of Monday, July 13.
Despite their concurrent terms, the two DFL members have forged different paths and personalities. Carlson, a former teacher, has become a caucus leader on education and budgeting issues, and has earned a reputation for his polite manner in the Capitol. Kahn, once a scientific researcher, has specialized in environment, health and technology, and is not known to mince words.
Capitol Report spoke to Kahn and Carlson to get their perspectives on their time in office, and how things have changed since they first came to the Capitol more than 42 years ago.
Capitol Report: Why did you run for the state House in the first place?
Lyndon Carlson: Oh, golly, you’re turning the clock back a long time. I grew up in a household where we always talked about current affairs and politics, so I developed an interest in government at a young age. I remember one of my political science courses in college, we had a requirement that … we donate five or six hours to the political party, or the candidate of our choice.
I’ve been a lifelong Democrat, and the Democratic Party had an office on Front Street in Mankato. I went down there and put in my five hours — and, for most of that quarter, I went far beyond the five hours of volunteer time. In 1972 … my wife and I had just bought a home in Brooklyn Center. I picked up the paper one morning to find that the fellow that would have represented most of that area, with redistricting, decided to go for the state Senate, and that left an open seat for the state House. Literally, that afternoon, my wife and I sat at the kitchen table and wrote out a press release.
Phyllis Kahn: I was a research associate at the University of Minnesota, in genetics and cell biology, doing, if I can say immodestly, some very good work. And I could not get considered for a regular faculty appointment. This was just at the time you had the women’s movement, and the women’s political movement, taking hold. I was active in that, and I had gone to lobby at the Legislature in the ‘71 session. So, that was the combination of things that got me to run.
Watching the conversation now about legislative time, and salaries — I did believe the fallacy that the Legislature was a part-time job. So, I totally expected to be continuing in the research field. I ran the same year Allan Spear ran for the first time. I think if you’re a tenured associate professor of history — I don’t want to denigrate history — as opposed to trying to do forward-thinking work in molecular biology, it’s a lot easier combining that work with serving in the Legislature.
CR: Did you have an idea then of how long you would want to be in the House?
Carlson: No idea. In fact, when I was sworn in, in 1973, after the first three or four very controversial votes, I can remember looking around the House chamber and thinking, ‘Well, this was a nice experience.’ (Laughs.) But you move ahead, and things fall in place, and I ran for re-election and won.
Kahn: No. I’ve never thought about it, at any time! I’ve made the decision any time the year comes for elections, caucuses and filings.
CR: This is a job that, both in-session and out, as well as during campaigns, requires a lot of long hours. Are they things you had to sacrifice, either personally or professionally, to make room for legislative service?
Carlson: I’m in the metropolitan area, so I’m about 30 minutes from the Capitol. Legislators that live a greater distance from the Capitol have more travel time, and more time away from the family. Even on those days that are long hours, when our children were young … if I didn’t see them in the evening, I saw them in the morning. Something that’s very important in all of this is, my wife and I have been married for 46 years, and the vast majority of the time we’ve been married … I’ve been involved in elective office, and my wife, Carole, has been very supportive. That’s just been absolutely great.
Kahn: I did both [legislating and research] my first two years. My research was being funded, and my salary was being paid, by getting research grants. I didn’t even have time to rewrite the grant application. When people ask me, do I miss doing science anymore, the answer is, “No, I can’t sit still long enough for results.” One of the good things is, I’ve been on a lot of national science panels as a public policy person with a science background. So I haven’t totally had to leave the science, I’ve kept it up at that level.
CR: What are your thoughts on the idea of term limits for legislators?
Carlson: That’s something you don’t hear of as much anymore. I think it’s kind of an issue that’s run its course. In the case of a member of the Minnesota House, you run every two years. The way I sometimes put it is, you reapply every two years, and hopefully that hiring committee — your constituents, the voters — will rehire you. When this was talked about a lot in the 1990s, there was a study by House research … and, in the previous 10 years, there had been a 77 percent turnover. I think having some members that have been around, and have had some experience, is a good blend.
Kahn: It’s totally terrible. At various national meetings I go to, I’ve met legislators subject to term limits, and how limited they are because of this. And in the states where people have very short term limits, people get elected, and they start running for speaker [of the House] the day they’re elected! We have term limits [in Minnesota]. We have them every two years, and we call them elections.
CR: Is there a time you can think of when you came close to leaving the Legislature?
Carlson: No. Not even at redistricting time. (Laughs.) I truly haven’t thought of leaving the Legislature.
Kahn: I guess last election! I had the toughest race I’ve ever had. Have I thought about leaving it? No. But last election was the toughest election, and if we hadn’t worked as hard as we did … and spent the amount of money we spent, much more than I’ve ever spent, I probably wouldn’t have been re-elected.
CR: What’s your least favorite part of the job?
Carlson: Maybe at the height of the session, when we’re running those incredibly long hours. Those long and very late hours, when you get to the end of the session can be, quite frankly, exhausting. If there was something I would like to see corrected within the legislative session, it would be better time management so we could level that out.
Kahn: What I didn’t like, this year, what was worse this year than ever before, was the secrecy and lack of transparency. Everyone always knew that maybe the last piece of a deal gets done in a private office, or something like that. But usually, the issues have been totally vetted in public conference committee meetings. This year, none of that happened, and I thought it was just terrible for the public.
CR: What part of legislating has changed most since you took office?
Carlson: When I was first elected, you pretty much had to rely on the testimony of the state agencies or other individuals that might come in and testify before a committee. But if you wanted to have some research done, or needed information, you had to rely on the state agencies. What we now have, of course, is our independent research, which is, in my view, huge. There was also a “steno pool” when I was first elected, and now each of us has a legislative assistant that we share with other members. That’s something that’s huge to the service we can provide to our constituents, and to the state as a whole.
Kahn: This is very much to the detriment of the process, and the people involved. When I came in, there were many, many individual bills, that individual legislators would carry. Now, almost everything is pushed into an omnibus bill. Legislators now hardly get that experience of carrying a difficult bill. This tucking everything into an omnibus bill is really a mistake.
CR: Do you have, now, a plan on when you would like to retire?
Carlson: As we speak now, I’m planning to run for re-election. I’ve never set a particular number of terms for when I’d like to leave. I have not reached the point where I’m not able to contribute, even in the minority … I’ve been able to accomplish things. Right now, I feel I’m still able to contribute, and in a variety of significant ways. (Pause.) I’d much rather be in the majority! (Laughs.)
Kahn: I’ve already sent out a fundraising letter for my next campaign, so I certainly decided I’m going to run two years more. Particularly more reason for doing that is, the idea of what we were able to accomplish two years ago, and I’d love to end in the majority. And I’d love to partake of the last two years of Gov. [Mark] Dayton. As I said, I’ve never made decisions more than two years at a time, so I don’t see any reason to think beyond that.