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Controversial state senator to help nominate Higher Education candidate

Controversial state senator to help nominate Higher Education candidate

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State Sen. Oley Larsen, who has drawn criticism for controversial Facebook posts, will participate in the nominating process for a seat on North Dakota's State Board of Higher Education.

As the Senate's interim president pro tempore, Larsen, R-Minot, is one of five members of the board's candidate nominating committee to make appointment recommendations to Gov. Doug Burgum. Applications are due by March 3 for the remaining 2½ years of the seat left vacant by Dan Traynor, who resigned Jan. 3 to assume a federal judgeship.

North Dakota's Senate majority and minority leaders have talked about Larsen's participation on the nominating committee, and raised concerns about it. Both have reiterated their stance that he resign as president pro tempore. State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, who chairs the nominating committee, isn't directly commenting on Larsen's participation.

Larsen said the Senate leaders haven't expressed any concerns to him about his participation on the nominating committee, of which he said he "will do what ever is required of me."

Larsen, first elected in 2010, created controversy in October with two Facebook posts alleging U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., is a terrorist. Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, called on him to resign as interim president pro tempore and to apologize for his comments.

Senate Democrats echoed Wardner. Omar called Larsen's posts "pure propaganda designed to stir up hate and violence coming from a GOP state rep."

Larsen afterward issued a statement, saying he would better vet information online, but he made it clear he wasn't apologizing to Omar.

As interim president pro tempore, Larsen would preside over the Senate in the absence of the lieutenant governor during a special legislative session. He has said he won't resign and has questioned the newsworthiness of what he called "a click and a post." He is a former teacher who runs an insurance agency.

North Dakota Sen. Oley Larsen remains unapologetic about Rep. Omar posts

Wardner and Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, spoke last week about Larsen's role on the nominating committee. Heckaman said the discussion was to look at whether Larsen "represents the best interests in the state of North Dakota sitting on that selection committee."

"As far as judging individuals, I'm more concerned about the comments he makes about individuals and the lack of respect that he shows," she told the Tribune. "Will that trickle down into the work that he does on this selection committee?"

Only the full Senate can strip Larsen of his title. Wardner said Monday there are no plans to convene the Senate for a special session. He noted that Larsen is only one of five committee members who will make recommendations to Burgum.

North Dakota's constitution established the nominating committee as comprising the superintendent of public instruction, Supreme Court chief justice, House speaker, Senate president pro tempore and president of North Dakota United, the state teachers union. The governor in conjunction makes appointments to the State Board of Higher Education, subject to Senate confirmation. 

Larsen "is not the only one making the selection," said Wardner, who confirmed that his call for Larsen to resign and apologize "of course" still stands.

When asked if he had any reservations about Larsen's participation and ability to judge Higher Ed candidates, Wardner said "I don't think he should be able to."

However, "We don't feel that it's worth the time and resources to bring the Senate back into session, unless we happen to have something else come up," he said.

Baesler did not address a question about Larsen's controversial posts in a statement to the Tribune.

“The membership of the Board of Higher Education nominating committee is spelled out in the North Dakota Constitution," she said. "The president pro tempore of the state Senate is one of the five members. The North Dakota Senate unanimously elected Senator Oley Larsen to that position on April 18, 2019."

As president pro tempore, Larsen also sits on the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee, a powerful 10-member panel of Republican and Democratic-NPL leaders.

Applicants sought for North Dakota Board of Higher Education seat

There will be other appointments to the eight-member Higher Education board later this year. Member Don Morton will leave the board after serving two terms. The board's student member, Kaleb Dschaak of the University of North Dakota, will finish his one-year term in July. 

The board oversees the North Dakota University System, which includes six four-year universities and five two-year colleges. 

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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