In November, Republican Lonnie Laffen AIA of North Dakota won the 43rd District (Grand Forks) seat on the North Dakota State Senate. As one of three AIA members nationwide to win election to their state legislature for the first time, Laffen recently sat down for a BSA Q&A on his campaign experiences and vision for his public service.
Why did you decide to run for office?
I grew up in a small town where you really had to be involved in everything, so I always knew I’d be involved in public service in some way. But it’s difficult to be involved in our community. My town is small—only 50,000 people—and I’d have conflicts constantly if I chose to be politically active within the community where I am working.
I love our state, and when I looked around, I thought it could use an architect’s help. The state is by far the biggest owner of building space in North Dakota, with 11 higher-education institutions in addition to all the government buildings. Becoming a state legislator seemed a way to get back to some public service.
Was this your first time running for election?
Yes. My name had never been on a ballot before this election. Because of the work we do, I am fairly well known in our community—which was a campaigning advantage. I think people also respect the professionalism of being an architect.
Will you continue to practice as an architect while serving?
Yes, I will. I’m only 52 and have an architecture firm with about 45 staff in five offices, three of which are in North Dakota. It is much less conflicting to be a practicing architect and work at the state level, as the legislators are really acting on behalf of the state.
How does an architecture background help in public service?
It can be a huge advantage for campaigning. An architect’s background helps you plan and organize large projects, which is useful in a campaign. I used my graphic tools and knowledge for designing billboards and postcards, so an architect’s marketing expertise is also perfect for that aspect of campaigning. Going forward as legislators, architects bring a unique ability to see the big picture as well as the skill to organize large projects that can take a number of years. We are also good at understanding and working with large budgets.
What are the top issues facing your constituents?
In North Dakota, the issues are a little different from most of the rest of the country. We have a $1 billion surplus. We have a very good economy, but our surplus is really based on a very frugal populace who don’t live beyond their means. That has been the success for North Dakota: We don’t have foreclosures or banking issues because the work ethic and common sense of the North Dakotans means they don’t take out mortgages worth more than their homes. As strange as it may sound, during our last legislative session, we cut our property and income taxes by one-third.
Meanwhile, all our sectors of commerce are hot right now, and we aren’t a very big state. Agricultural prices are very high. The oil industry in the western part of the state is really exploding.
However, we have infrastructure and natural challenges: The roads in the western part of state are very battle-worn from the oil industry that is just taking off, and we have two huge water problems. Thirteen years ago, the eastern part of the state made the national news when the Red River overran its banks, a fire broke out and 13 buildings burned down. We built a huge dike system and got that under control, but now Fargo is facing similar issues. So flooding is a huge concern in the eastern part of the state. We also have a natural lake that rises and drops almost 50 feet at a time—swallowing up whole counties of land. We are trying to manage that through a pumping outlet system.
What are the top initiatives on your agenda?
The state is a huge owner of building space. In North Dakota, we have an extremely cold climate, so our energy costs are enormous. Yet there’s no statewide program for energy management or sustainability. I think we need to address this, and I know I can help there.
How will you measure the success of your first term?
I would feel successful if I could say that I had helped the state start thinking about the space we own as a whole and that we’d put some management pieces in place to control our energy use. The state of Oklahoma is doing some interesting things with how it manages energy in its higher-education institutions that center on policies, really, not new systems. That would be my starting place. If we could have something like that in place by the end of my first four years, that would be a good first step.
What role can government play in getting the building industry working again?
North Dakota’s building industry has never slowed down.
Was the AIA helpful to your campaigning efforts?
The AIA was not helpful at all. I called them because there is [ArchiPAC, the] AIA political action committee (PAC) that I have contributed to, but the AIA said its PAC won’t offer support at the state level. That was fine. I understood why our PAC money has to stay at the federal level; there just isn’t enough of a voice there, so that’s where we need to spend the dollars.
However, I thought the AIA would offer some sort of campaigning advice from architects who had run for election before. When I called the national office about that, they took my name and said they would have some people call me, but no one ever did. I probably should have called to follow up, but practice and campaigning do take a lot of time.
What could the AIA and its local chapters do to better help citizen architects?
We could do a better job of information sharing. I looked for some kind of guide for citizen architects and never found anything helpful. The AIA could develop policy statements on why architects make good leaders at the city, state and national levels, as well as some speaking points for architects to campaign on. I would be willing to help with that effort, if there’s a way. I think architects could be very successful legislators—we just need to collaboratively help them get elected.
Genevieve Rajewski is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers science, nature, animal issues, travel, food and passionate people for acclaimed publications such as Smithsonian, Washington Post Magazine, Wired.com and The Boston Globe. Her website is genevieverajewski.com.