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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published May 05 2012

Minnesota legislative retirees different but proud of work

ST. PAUL – Keith Langseth has spent half of his nearly 75 years as a Minnesota legislator. Mark Murdock has been in the House less than four years.

Langseth is a Democrat. Murdock is a Republican. Langseth is a dairy farmer. Murdock is a longtime hardware store owner.

Langseth has wanted to be in politics since he was a kid. For Murdock, the desire came much later.

Despite differences, the two Minnesota legislators who are among more than two dozen retiring this year well illustrate the attitude of many lawmakers. Both talk about being involved in democracy and say they are in awe every time they enter the Capitol building.

“I am just as in awe as I was to begin with,” said Langseth, who has spent 36 of the past 38 years in the Legislature. “I never have gotten over it.”

The Democratic senator from Glyndon stays in a 14th-floor apartment across Interstate 94 from the Capitol. When he looks out the window and sees the domed building clad in Georgian marble, he said that he thinks: “I actually work there.”

The story for Murdock is not much different, other than that he has been around the Capitol only a fraction of the time of Langseth.

Looking around the ornate House chamber, Murdock said he will most remember his two terms in the House because of “how this place is and what it stands for. This is our democracy, our freedom.”

Politics goes deep in Langseth’s soul. When he was 10, he listened to the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and was hooked for life.

Langseth’s real political involvement started during the Vietnam War. He did not engage in sit-ins or other protests but decided the best way to voice opposition to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s war policy came within the party system.

“We made some real big mistakes there,” said Langseth, now the oldest and longest-serving state senator.

In 1974, amid the Watergate scandal fallout, he beat incumbent state Republican Rep. Arlan Stangeland. He lost re-election by 11 votes in 1978, then upset incumbent Sen. Doug Sillers in 1980.

People know Langseth best for his work on flood-prevention measures. While earlier in his career he was heavily involved in higher education discussions, since the 1997 Red River flood, Langseth has fought for funding to prevent future floods and repair damage from regularly occurring floods.

He extended his legislative career two more years than planned just to finish up that work.

During many of Republican Tim Pawlenty’s years as governor, Langseth often was his most outspoken critic. He frequently accused Pawlenty of having an attitude of “my way or the highway.”

That sounds similar now when he talks about the new group of conservative Republicans who control the House and Senate, putting him in the political minority for the first time.

“With this newer group, they will not compromise – it would go against principles,” he said.

Langseth considers himself a “pragmatist,” not a liberal like many of

his Democratic-Farmer-Laborite colleagues.

Democrats and Republicans do not get to know each other as well now as when Langseth entered politics.

“There is so little socialization,” he said about today’s Legislature, a change he blamed on strict rules that limit lawmakers’ abilities to attend social functions. “I think people liked each other better then.”

Some things have not changed. Langseth remains a dairy farmer, and nearly everyone knows it.

Glancing down at his cowboy boots, a rarity among Minnesota legislators, he said: “I haven’t bought a pair of dress shoes in 40 years.”

A large extended family is important to Langseth, but a grandson’s comment especially touched the senator.

His grandson, Jake Fuglie, was visiting the Capitol when he was 10.

“On the way up the steps he said, ‘I’m glad you’re my grandpa,’ ” Langseth said, tears in his eyes.

Fuglie died in a late 2010 farm accident.

If Langseth had any thoughts of running for office again, they disappeared this spring when his wife suffered a serious medical problem. She is better, but it made the senator “realize my days are numbered.”

The 60-year-old Murdock, who does not sound like he will miss the Legislature so much, also wants to spend more time with family. That was a driving force in his decision to retire.

When he decided to run for the state House, Murdock sold his Ace Hardware store to his son and daughter-in-law. Now, with three grandchildren younger than 3 in Perham and a 95-year-old mother in Owatonna, the Republican representative is going home to Ottertail to help with family.

“I am needed at home,” he said. “Family comes first.”

Murdock has been a quiet legislator, seldom talking on the House floor. He took to heart a fellow legislator’s advice: “Lay back, watch, listen and learn.”

He and Langseth agreed that the real work comes in committee meetings.

“I like working in committee to make sure the bills are right,” Murdock said.

While Langseth indicated he has trouble trusting some Republicans, Murdock sounded similar when talking about Democrats.

“We agree with them, and they vote against the bills,” Murdock said.

Murdock said that since he joined the Legislature, he has become more conservative after seeing government waste.

Murdock, whose only office before going to the Legislature was on the church parish council, said he learned that “common sense goes a long ways here,” but some colleagues do not have it.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.