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Lance Carson: A quiet legislative leader

District 20 Rep. Lance Carson, R-Mitchell, listens to Rep. Ed McLaughlin, R-Rapid City, during the 2008 legislative session in Pierre. (Daily Republic file photo)

Lance Carson stepped into South Dakota's Capitol building for the first time as a legislator in 2007.

It's still a vivid memory, Carson said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic, and one marked by a feeling of being completely overwhelmed.

"I walked in the back door and I thought, 'What the heck did I get myself into?'" Carson said. "There was so much I didn't know."

Carson, a Republican, had just been elected to serve in the South Dakota House of Representatives as a representative of District 20, which is currently made up of Davison, Aurora and Jerauld counties.

Carson's nerves faded quickly, but he didn't. He was successfully re-elected three times and is now reaching his term limit of four consecutive two-year terms. The deadline for Democrats and Republicans to file petitions to get on the ballot for the June 3 primary elections came and went this week, and Carson could do nothing but watch as others filed for his seat in the House. Carson could have ran for a seat in the state Senate, but chose not to do so.

"Serving in the Legislature was one of the most fun things I've done in my life," he said. "You meet a tremendous amount of people from all walks of life, all with their own concerns."

If a legislator serves the term limit, they become eligible for re-election after two years. There is no limit to the number of non-consecutive terms legislators may serve.

Carson said he doesn't have any plans to run for office again -- at least for the moment. Still, a comeback isn't out of the question.

"If everything works out and my health is in good shape, I would probably take another shot at the House," he said.

Tona Rozum, who has served alongside Carson in District 20's other House seat since 2011, said Carson's experience and expertise will be missed once he is term-limited out of the House later this year.

"Frankly, I hope to see him back in two years because I think the knowledge and history he has is critical," Rozum said.

Mike Vehle also served alongside Carson, first for two years as District 20's other representative in the House and then for many more years as District 20's state senator.

"A lot of times, Lance didn't have a whole lot to say," Vehle said. "But Lance knew what to say and when to say it."

From Nunda to Mitchell

Carson, 68, is the second youngest of eight children and grew up on a farm near Nunda, a small town between Brookings and Madison. The first year Carson attended school, it was in a one-room schoolhouse. Carson later graduated from Rutland High School and went on to earn a degree from Southern State Teachers College in Springfield -- a school that became the University of South Dakota at Springfield until it was closed by legislature in 1984. The campus has since been converted to Mike Durfee State Prison.

From 1968 to 1969, Carson served in the Vietnam War. When he returned home he bought a gas station and automotive repair shop in Brookings, determined to go into business for himself.

"Automobiles have always been my passion," he said. "It was just second nature that's what I was going to do."

Carson married his wife, Donna, in 1976 and the couple moved to Mitchell in 1979, where Carson opened Lance's Interstate Amoco, another gas station and automotive repair shop.

A few years later, Carson's life took a daunting, unexpected turn.

It was a spring day in 1985. Carson -- then in his late 30s -- ran more than three miles that morning, showered, then went to work.

"I didn't feel good, but it wasn't bad enough not to do things," he said, recalling the day.

As he continued with his day, nagged by an ill feeling, a car came to his shop that had been in a fire and Carson got weak in the knees.

"I got to thinking that maybe something was wrong," he said.

Later that day, a thunderstorm sent cars off the interstate east of Mitchell. Carson spent hours involved in the cleanup.

"I came home not feeling good at all," he said.

Carson and his wife, concerned with his condition, went to the hospital. Carson would eventually have open heart surgery after suffering a heart attack. A few days later, a stroke left him unable to speak or move the left side of his body.

Carson was told by a doctor that he would never work again.

"My reaction was, 'I don't think he knows what the h--- he's talking about,' " Carson said. "I never thought at any time that it was going to set me back from what I wanted to do."

The recovery process took months, but Carson returned to work that fall.

"I never let it get me down," Carson said "I think mental attitude counts for a lot."

He continued in his line of work until retiring in 2004 -- two years after another open heart surgery.

'Never a lifelong dream'

It was late in the afternoon and Carson, then a candidate for the state House, was walking through neighborhoods with a small group of people, picking up campaign signs. He was approached by a man and his young daughter.

"He said, 'My daughter would like to have one of your signs,' " Carson said. "I gave the sign to her and she asked me to sign it. I think that was probably the highlight of my campaign."

It wasn't long after that when, in November 2006, Carson was elected from District 20 to his first term in the state House, receiving more votes than any other candidate in the race. Carson had made one previously unsuccessful run for office.

Carson said he never envisioned himself seeking a political office, but was encouraged by others to run.

"It was never a lifelong dream," he said.

When he first arrived in Pierre as a legislator, Carson hoped to confront South Dakota's emerging methamphetamine problem. He was involved in legislation that led to the creation of a meth treatment program at the South Dakota Women's Prison.

"If I have any disappointments, it's that I don't think we've done enough," Carson said, referring to the meth problem. "We're just starting to open our eyes up to it."

Carson has served on the House Appropriations Committee his entire career in the Legislature and eventually became the panel's vice chairman.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said Carson's role on that committee gave him the opportunity to fund many important programs for the state, including the meth treatment program.

"It's been instrumental in providing needed treatment for many South Dakota women that are addicted to methamphetamine," Jackley said.

As of June 30, 2012, at least 322 inmates at the South Dakota Women's Prison had either completed the program or were on their way to completing the program, according to Jackley.

Many of the programs contained in the sweeping reforms made to the state's criminal justice program by Senate Bill 70, which became law last year, were modeled, at least in part, on that program.

"Lance may have a quiet disposition, but he has been a very solid and effective legislator," Jackley said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic.

When Gov. Dennis Daugaard took office in 2011 with his sights set on eliminating the state's $127 million budget deficit with deep, across-the-board cuts, Carson said the House Appropriations Committee's work was grueling.

"It was a lot of hard work deciding who got cut and who didn't get cut," he said.

One of his biggest regrets, Carson said, was cutting $125,000 -- a relatively small amount within the state's budget -- that year from a program related to autism.

Still, Carson's work as an appropriator seems to have earned him the respect and trust of his colleagues.

"I think he's probably stricter with the state's money than he is with his own," Rozum said. "He's just awesome."

Carson missed the start of last year's legislative session because of a blood infection that landed him in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Sioux Falls for more than three weeks. He suffered damage to his heart and, as a result, underwent a procedure to install a heart pump meant to keep his heart running smoothly. He still served out the remainder of that legislative session.

"He is one tough cookie," Vehle said.

Carson said as he approached his term limit this year, his attitude toward term limits has changed. Carson this year voted in favor of a proposal to allow voters a chance to increase the term limits for state legislators from four to six consecutive two-year terms. The proposal was passed by the House but rejected by the Senate.

Carson said he voted for the proposal not for himself, but because he now sees how difficult it is to find legislative candidates in the more sparsely populated areas of the state.

"I see some real good points now on why maybe term limits hurt us a little bit," he said.

With his time as a legislator drawing to a close, Carson said he will miss it.

"They talk about legislators being a family," he said. "I truly believe that."

'A natural leader'

In 1984, Carson joined a financially troubled Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo Committee.

"We were strapped for money," Carson said. "We developed some programs that got us the revenue that we needed."

Jim Miskimins, the committee's current chairman, worked alongside Carson for many years. He gave much of the credit to Carson for developing a business plan to revive and expand the rodeo, which included selling promotional tickets to area businesses in an attempt to encourage more people to attend.

"Lance is a natural leader," Miskimins said. "He's the type of person that really rolls his sleeves up to get work done."

When Carson and Miskimins started, the rodeo, held each summer in Mitchell, was only a three-day event.

"It was a rodeo performance and that was it," Carson said. "Today, it's a variety of entertainment for everybody."

Last year, events held in conjunction with the rodeo -- now a four-day event -- included a golf tournament, a banquet and a chili cook-off. More than 10,000 people attended the rodeo last year.

"It grew a little bigger each and every year," Carson said. "Now it's growing by leaps and bounds."

The success of the event has allowed for a series of renovations at Horseman Sports Arena, where the rodeo is held in northern Mitchell. Two sets of aging, wooden bleachers at the arena have already been replaced with metal bleachers. A third set of wooden bleachers has been demolished and will be replaced with a set of metal bleachers this spring.

In August, the city of Mitchell agreed to put $75,000 toward the third and final set of metal bleachers, which will pay for about half the total cost.

Miskimins credits Carson with rallying support for the rodeo in the area.

"Lance inspired the committee and others who supported the rodeo to step up and do their part to help," Miskimins said.

Carson has been involved, at one time or another, in numerous organizations including the board of trustees at Dakota Wesleyan University, the Palace City Lions Club, the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce and a board for athletic advisers at South Dakota State University.

Carson also funds an athletic scholarship at SDSU, which he said is usually awarded to a men's basketball player. He became connected with the school when hired student athletes to work at his business in Brookings. Carson still holds season tickets for basketball at SDSU.

"I've done so many neat things over the years, I can't remember them all," Carson said.