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Olson: Carlson insurance post is a conflict

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Republican challenger John Carlson, as state president of a national insurance lobby, is in a conflict of interest with his pledge of not being beholden to special interests, says Democrat Sen. Mary Olson.

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Carlson was named state president this summer of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. He owns and operates an American Family Insurance agency in Bemidji.

Both Olson and Carlson are from Bemidji and are competing for the Senate 4 seat.

NAIFA is "the insurance industry's main advocacy organization -- I guess some people call that a lobbying organization for trying to influence legislation and regulation in a way that would favor the insurance industry," Olson said.

Carlson has made it a cornerstone of his campaign that he is accepting no more than $100 per individual from Senate 4, and no money from special interests or the Republican Party.

"It was so surprising when I heard about it," said Olson, seeking a second term. "I'll be addressing it multiple times, I'm sure, between now and the election and asking John Carlson to explain this issue, not just to me but to the voters."

Olson said she "was absolutely blown away by the fact that John would think he could hold that position at the same time as serving in the Legislature."

There's no law against doing so, she said, but said she saw little difference between that and the president of Education Minnesota serving as a legislator, or any other professional organization that lobbies the Legislature.

She said Carlson should have been upfront about it, and told voters of the potential conflict. "A lot of people would consider it a huge conflict of interest."

Insurance agents are legislators, and they bring their own experiences to the table, Olson said, "but to be president of an organization that has an affiliated PAC that spends millions of dollars, according to their website, trying to influence legislation."

On top of that, Carlson is campaigning that he represents no special interests," "That just astounds me," Olson said. "... and then to say with a straight face that you have no ties to any special interest groups outside the district and that you are only going to represent the interests of the people in the district when you have a statewide role with a national organization that lobbies legislatures as one of their primary objectives, I just find that amazing."

Carlson, however, does not see his presidency as a conflict of interest. And, if elected, he would resign the post at that time.

NAIFA has nothing to do with insurance companies, he said, rather it represents insurance agents. "It's our professional organization, much like the ABA or the bar is to lawyers or the AMA for doctors. What we do is advocate for ourselves as agents and for our clients."

Basically, it advocates for the tax preferential treatment for life insurance policies held by their clients, he said.

"We have a code of ethics,"Carlson said. "We try to avoid having people go out and sell products in an incorrect way. What we try to do with our products is create financial security for our clients. Our advocacy is how do we continue to create financial security for our clients."

But should he be elected, Carlson said stepping down as NAIFA president "would be the right thing to do.

"Right now, my year is basically done," he added. "We do road shows and ethics continuing education. I'm teaching those every Friday during October."

The next NAIFA election is in April.

"It's really curious that the only thing Mary can find ... is to try to make something out of nothing," Carlson said, adding that Olson is an attorney and connected to trial lawyers' groups.

Carlson said he would share poublicly the list of his donors by ZIP Code to show that his money is coming from individuals in the district.

"We have been very careful to run a very positive campaign, and we will continue to do that," Carlson said, "If she's that desperate that she has to reach and do that, let her go ahead."

NAIFA's mission statement is "financial security for the families and the businesses of those who die too soon, live too long, become disabled or suffer great financial loss," he said. "That's what we do, we provide financial security. ... I'm proud of that. I'm proud to be president of that organization."

Carlson said he hopes "to God people will see through how lame that is and that she's just not willing to look at the issues."

But Olson says she is, and called it a diversion that Carlson harps so much on his campaign contributions. "Not having ties to special interest groups has been his theme, more than talking about the issues, which is where the campaign should be."

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