FARGO – Pam Gulleson has had a diverse career, but she hasn’t really strayed far from her rural roots in southeastern North Dakota.
Her next endeavor could change that, while giving her a stronger voice on the public policy issues she’s dealt with for years.
The mother of three sons has been spent time as a nutritionist, a farmer, a rancher, a legislator, an educator, a political director and a policy adviser – among other roles.
At 53, Gulleson now wants to take her skills from the country to the nation’s capital, pledging to be rural America’s advocate if elected to the U.S. House next fall.
“Out here on the prairie, we are close to the men and women who get up every morning and go to work to build a better life for their families,” Gulleson said. “I am one of them, and I’m ready to be their voice in Washington.”
The former Democratic state legislator and longtime aide to retired Sen. Byron Dorgan had been rumored as a potential 2012 candidate for some time, and she confirmed her interest to supporters on Wednesday.
Speaking in Fargo on Friday for her initial campaign tour, Gulleson highlighted the various issues that drove her into the race – emphasizing job creation and deficit reduction, above all.
“I feel like Congress is such a mess and they have really no interest in solving problems and in working together,” she told The Forum after her speech. “They’re only interest is in partisan politics and the next election.”
The Oakes, N.D., native said she never aimed for a career in public service; life just happened to take her down that path.
The effects of the farm crisis in the late 1980s prompted Gulleson’s first bid for elected office.
She and her husband, Bill, manage the family farm near Rutland – a town of about 130 people, 30 miles west of Hankinson near the South Dakota border.
In the late ’80s though, the markets bottomed out for both grain and cattle – threatening the Gullesons’ farming operations.
The family raises corn, beans and alfalfa and operates a cattle feedlot.
“We struggled to pay the bills and keep the farm together,” Gulleson remembered. “It was a very, very difficult time in rural America, and it really did prompt me to think about running for office and trying to be a part of the solution in my own small way.”
In 1992, Gulleson was elected to the first of eight terms representing District 26 in the North Dakota Legislature.
During her 16-year stint, she sat on various committees and served as the Democrats’ assistant floor leader for three sessions.
When the Legislature wasn’t meeting, Gulleson worked as a licensed nutritionist for Sargent and Ransom counties.
She spearheaded their preventative health programs while also taking those lessons to the local schools in both counties.
By 1998, Gulleson took over distance education at the North Dakota State College of Science, helping establish the college’s Technology Training Center in north Fargo.
Three years later, she moved on to yet another challenge, joining Dorgan’s staff in his North Dakota field offices and declining to seek another term as a state legislator.
For nearly a decade, Gulleson worked side-by-side with the veteran lawmaker, assisting with constituent concerns and policy issues.
“I learned a lot from Byron,” she said. “He really attended to his constituents – that’s what had always struck me.”
After Dorgan’s retirement last year, Gulleson joined the North Dakota Farmers Union, where she continues to work on farm policy.
At the urging of Democratic peers, Gulleson said she’d been considering either of the 2012 congressional races for a while.
But it was Congress’ actions in early August that clinched her decision to seek the House, she said.
“The more I looked at Congress itself and what’s happening there, the more I was just dismayed and appalled and really troubled,” she said. “We watched the complete inability of Congress to do what’s right for America.”
While many expected Gulleson to vie for retiring Sen. Kent Conrad’s seat, she said she wants to seek the House instead because “that’s where we need to start.”
“We really need to change both the tone and, I think, redirect where Congress is, and start focusing back on America and the people,” she said.
His campaign for that office leaves North Dakota’s lone House seat up for grabs, which has attracted many interested prospects in both parties.
Republican Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk is the only other declared candidate, but others might also declare in the weeks to come.
With Conrad’s retirement, though, the seniority of the state’s delegation on Capitol Hill will essentially start over from scratch.
Berg and fellow Republican Sen. John Hoeven were both elected last year to their respective seats.
To combat the youthful influence, Gulleson vowed to “introduce bills immediately,” if she wins the seat.
“When you’re elected to these jobs, I think you come in with some solutions right away,” she said. “That’s how you build your clout in congress is by engaging immediately.”
Gulleson said she wants to see more job creation through incentives for small businesses. She also calls for tax reform, including the potential for tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.
“Instead of lamenting all that’s wrong, let’s build on that which is right,” Gulleson told about 50 supporters gathered Friday. “Instead of drawing lines in the sand, let’s work together to find common ground and real solutions.”