Mark Olson: GOP Pariah

Mark Olson has reconciled with his wife, but not with Republican Party leaders

In November 2006, a week after easily winning reelection to his eighth term as the state representative for his southern Sherburne County district, Republican Mark Olson got into an argument with his wife in the driveway of their exurban abode.

As they bickered, he grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her to the ground. Heidi Olson's bruises would be visible for days.

After spending the next two nights in jail, a disheveled Olson emerged from the courthouse clutching a Bible, his soft blue eyes brimming with tears.

"I have failed terribly in my family affairs," he said. "I'm grateful for my wife's strength to speak up. First of all, I need God's forgiveness and I need my wife's forgiveness and my family's. Then I need the public's forgiveness and all other officials I've done harm to."

Some politicians respond to career-shattering scandal by soberly assessing their options and throwing in the towel. Others possess a greater degree of self-delusion and hang on until there's nothing left to hang on to. Then there's Mark Olson.

A couple of weeks after the incident, with an embarrassing trial looming, Olson's Republican colleagues in the House huddled together and suspended him from their caucus.

"Legislators are role models for the public and need to be held to high ethical standards," explained House Minority Leader Marty Seifert.

The following day, Gov. Tim Pawlenty chimed in. If convicted, the governor said, "it's just not appropriate for him to be serving in the Legislature."

A pariah in his own party, the stoic Olson ignored calls both public and private imploring him to quit his office.

His trial, postponed for months by his lawyer, did little to help the lawmaker's cause. Through bitter tears, Heidi Olson testified that her husband had assaulted her three different times before she finally called the cops. In one particularly traumatic instance, he literally threw the book at her, hurling the Bible like a missile.

When Olson took the stand, he deflected the blame onto his wife. She was the one who hit him with Bibles, he claimed. Once, she'd stabbed a wooden dresser he'd given her as a wedding gift. She'd left him fearful for his life.

In the end, the jury acquitted Olson of beating his wife, but found him guilty of misdemeanor domestic assault for causing her fear of bodily harm. He was sentenced to two years' probation.

In the wake of the verdict, Olson absorbed a new round of recriminations. An editorial in the St. Cloud Times lampooned him as a "denial machine." The House Republican Caucus made his suspension permanent and expelled him from their ranks. And yet Olson—who managed to author only a single obscure piece of successful legislation in the two legislative sessions since the scandal broke—refused to stand down.

Any hopes Olson had to defend his seat, however, died when former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer announced she'd be challenging him in the Republican primary. In May, she wrested the party endorsement from him.

For a moment, it seemed we wouldn't have Olson to kick around anymore.

But last month Governor Pawlenty filled a vacancy on the Public Utilities Commission with Betsy Wergin, the state senator for Olson's district. Seeing an opening, Olson filed papers to replace her.

Until last week, his candidacy seemed to be little more than the sagging punch line of a bad joke. But then he managed to get a big enough crew together to pull off what many had thought impossible: He won the Republican party's endorsement.

Reached on his cell phone on August 13, Olson was defiant when asked how he hoped to win over voters beyond the 92 local loyalists who supported him for the endorsement.

"First of all, I don't think anything has to be overcome," he said. "Serving for the last two years has demonstrated that nothing that's happened hinders my ability to represent my constituents."

In fact, Olson thinks that in some ways, being accused of beating his wife has actually made him a better legislator.

"Another way of looking at it, [the trial] has enhanced my ability to serve because I've seen a lot of things in the court system that nobody could ever understand without going through it," Olson argues.

Specifically, Olson says, he now has firsthand insight into how our adversarial legal system "destroys families."

"We have cases where it isn't really a serious issue between the couple, and the couple could be getting back together instead of being kept apart for a year or two," he said. "We're throwing marriages out."

Olson and his wife have since reconciled—a rare instance, he says, of a couple overcoming the system. Through continued public service, he says, he could help spare others the pain he's endured.

His view isn't shared by party leaders.

On August 14, state Senate Republicans announced that Olson wouldn't be welcome in their caucus if he wins. Soon after, Sen. Norm Coleman put in his two cents, calling Olson's candidacy "simply unacceptable and unsupportable."

Coleman called on local Republicans to rally around Alison Krueger, the Kiffmeyer ally and political neophyte whom Olson beat for the endorsement. Though Krueger signed a pledge to abide by the endorsement, she notes that her name will still appear on the primary ballot on September 9.

"If people don't like what the grassroots did, the primary is the place that decides the candidate," she says.

For his part, Olson is comfortable leaving it up to the people. After all, he's moving forward with a clean slate.

"I was acquitted of the main charge," he says. "The verdict I ended up with was a split verdict. And it was a very questionable verdict." 

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