Senator Olson reflects on 30 years in office

By Jared Huizenga
Contributing Editor

After nine terms spanning 30 years in the Minnesota State Senate, one might have assumed when filing opened in May for November’s election, Gen Olson might have had second thoughts over her decision to retire.

But that’s why it’s best not to make assumptions.

"Oh goodness no," Olson joked when asked if she ever got the itch to throw her name in the hat one more time for the Senate District 33 seat.

"Since I announced that I wouldn’t be running this year two years ago, I was comfortable with it," she said. "I never had any second thoughts about [retiring] … it was the right timing and the right decision."

Olson, a Republican from Minnetrista, was originally elected to the senate in 1982. She was re-elected in 1986, 1990, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2006 and 2010. Around the time of the 2010 caucuses, Olson announced that if elected to her ninth term in 2010, she would not seek re-election in 2012.

"That would make it 30 years and that’s pretty good," Olson said at the time.

Another factor that played into her decision to seek that final term was the fact that it was a two-year seat, following the 2010 census – the first term after each census is two years, allowing for time to redraw district lines.

"Because it’s a two-year term and because of the situation the state is in, I don’t think it’d be fair to throw someone new into that situation," she said.

And although her final legislative session now in the rearview mirror, Olson doesn’t view herself as retired quite yet.

"My term doesn’t end until the end of the year," she said. "I’m almost busier now than when we’re in session.

"People have been asking me how retirement is … I haven’t tasted any of it yet."

So far she has accepted an offer to serve on one board and she also spoke at the National Charter Schools Conference, which was held June 19-22 in Minneapolis.

That involvement should surprise nobody, given Olson’s background as educator and a champion for educational issues.

She spoke proudly of Minnesota serving as a trailblazer when it comes to alternative learning programs.

"Forty-one states now have charter school programs that serve over 2 million students," she said. "And that’s a program that got its start in Minnesota."

Additionally, Minnesota was the first state to offer the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program for high school students and she was the chief author on a bill that allowed parents to home school their children.

"I’ve always been a supporter of programs that benefit students and parents," she said. "I think it’s good that they have choices and options."

Even after her time in office is officially over, Olson plans to continue focusing efforts on education, namely an early literacy program that aims to have all children literate by the time they exit third grade.

"If a child is literate by the end of third grade, they can get the most out of the rest of their education," she said.

While her commitment to education will likely be what she’s most remembered for in her own district, there’s one project in particular that Olson said she’s "probably most know for."

For many years, Interstate 394 near Penn Avenue was synonymous for being bottlenecked. Olson proposed legislation opening a third lane to help alleviate the congestion. She added that she plans to continue talking with MnDOT about other transportation problems.

Another area Olson said she’s proud of is the work she did involving land sales.

"There was a scrap of land in Wayzata … a zigzag piece about 25-feet wide by 150-feet long," she said. "And the state turned it over to the DNR."

That little zigzag property was actually an old filling station, which proved to be a critical piece of the Wayzata Bay Center Redevelopment project.

"Initially, the DNR wanted $400,000 for that land," Olson said. "And I said absolutely not."

Needing the land for the realignment of Superior Boulevard, the city continued discussions about the property. Eventually, the price dropped to $200,000. Still unsatisfied with the number, Olson said she continued proposing bills with a lower purchase price, with an ultimate goal of no money transferring hands.

That didn’t happen, but the city was eventually able to purchase the land for a whopping $1.

"Persistence pays off," she laughed. "[Wayzata Mayor] Ken [Willcox] and I still chuckle at that."

While she downplayed the overall importance of that parcel of land, it was an integral part of a project that will transform the downtown area of one of the most recognizable cities in the district.

"Senator Olson has been a tireless supporter of Lake Minnetonka and its surrounding communities over her many years of service," Willcox said. "For Wayzata, she has authored legislation that enabled critical local projects to proceed.

"She has also been our champion in breaking loose critical city issues hung up in state bureaucracy."

Because of her longevity, Olson was also able to find the right allies and connections so that when she didn’t have the answers to an issue, she could find someone who did.

A few years back when the railroad was being rerouted around Long Lake, there was a severe shortage of ballast rock, which could have caused serious delays for the project.

"Long Lake called in a panic because they were being told there weren’t enough cars available to get the ballast rock that was needed to complete the project," she said.

Not having any direct contacts to tap, Olson enlisted some of her colleagues … the next day 75 cars of ballast arrived.

While holding onto her conservative beliefs, Olson was able to represent her constituents on both sides of the aisle and was willing to listen to arguments, complaints and concerns from all sides on issues in the state and district – something that is becoming less frequent in a time of partisan and party-line politics.

As she noted on that night in 2010 when she announced she wouldn’t seek re-election in 2012, while directing DFL caucus-goers across the street to their correct destination: "I’m their senator, whether they’re Republican or Democrat. I represent them and I think it’s important that they at least know who I am."

"We have all been the beneficiaries of Senator Olson’s intellect, dedication, and leadership," Willcox said. "Her ability to represent all of her constituents fairly and with grace has been a rare quality. We are extremely grateful for her many contributions to our city and state."