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FARGO, N.D. – Deb Mathern has had a lifelong association with credit unions, and she would like to bring the CU industry’s common sense philosophy of people helping people into government. Her latest avenue for doing that is as a candidate for North Dakota lieutenant governor. She had served in the state Senate from December 1998 through December 2002. “I’ve been a credit union member since I was 9 months old,” said Mathern, now CEO of Fargo Public Schools Federal Credit Union. “My father was a big co-op member and opened accounts for all of his 11 children when we were babies. I’ve had credit union savings banks and credit union memorabilia around my house since I was old enough to walk. A credit union gave me my first loan when I got married.” What does her background in credit unions have to offer North Dakota? She says that in these difficult times, her strong sense of financial management is a real asset – “knowing you have to balance a budget, knowing the areas where you can look to maybe conserve, taking a look at and seeing if everything is streamlined, cost effective. One of my jobs lately has been helping people reach their financial goals. I would love to see our state achieve that also.” She says she also has a strong interest in economic development. “That’s a real strong area, as well as helping people with disabilities. I don’t believe in giving a hand out but I do believe in giving a hand up to help people get ahead.” She says she would like to improve the job picture for residents of North Dakota. “On some of these economic development boards, I listen to these people say `Well if you have to pay someone $60,000 there in New York, you can come here and pay them $40,000 or $50,000.’ I thought `Why are you selling our labor force short? We have excellent workers, hard working, ethics.’ And they keep selling us short. `Come here, you can pay our people less.’ That’s just the wrong approach to take. We have a record number of females working outside the home and people working two jobs to make ends meet. So we’re very under-employed and I want to see us turn that around.” Mathern has worked for credit unions since 1981. She had moved back to her hometown of Bismarck and took a part-time position at a credit union – “just to get out of the house for a little while.” She discovered she really enjoyed the work and worked her way from a part-time post to being a loan officer to becoming operations manager. Eventually, she left Bismarck, investigated theft and fraud for a retail firm and, eventually became CEO and president of the Fargo credit union, a 2,487-member credit union with assets of $16.1 million. While she has a drive to help people, doing it through politics was not something she had envisioned. She first got acquainted with the political process several years ago when a good friend who also was a credit union education and government affairs person asked her to testify on a bill. She brought her to the North Dakota capitol just to observe so she wouldn’t come in cold to testify. Another time, a couple of senators heard Mathern speak at two credit union functions and approached her about running. “I looked at them like they were crazy, of course, thinking `what is it that you see?’ But then I became friends with some of our national people at CUNA and got interested on a national level, too,” she says. When she returned in 1997 from a Washington government affairs committee, she was asked to run for state Senate as a Democrat but declined. She said she really didn’t have a party affiliation and considered herself an independent. But the Democratic Party kept approaching her about running. “After visiting with a couple of key people, I finally just said, `O.K. I’ll do it.’ But I did tell them they’d have to know that I won’t always vote with the party. Could they live with that? And they said, yes, that was fine,” Mathern says. “So, I agreed to run as a Democrat. I was always seen as a moderate, not always playing the party games or toeing the party line. I think that gains the respect of citizens and fellow legislators. They knew they could come and talk to me about their issues. As far as credit unions go, they really are nonpartisan, so I fell into that quite easily,” she explains. Mathern’s selection to run with gubernatorial candidate Joe Satrom was a bit of a surprise. “They had approached me a couple of months before our convention and told me my name was on the list but I never thought they would actually consider me. I just was very surprised and very honored,” especially, she said, since she is someone who didn’t have the political background, who grew up in such a large family and didn’t start out with a lot of perks. “The role that our lieutenant governor has been playing quite often has been as an ambassador and I can’t think of a more wonderful or fulfilling position,” says Mathern. “As I mentioned, the people part of this is the favorite part and I’m excited at the prospect of that. I think I can bring some good people into the fold of government. I’m a firm believer that the answer to a lot of our situations is the people who are digging those trenches everyday. It’s not necessarily upper management who always has the answers. We need to look to the people who are doing the jobs and the tasks. They’re the ones who know what needs to be fixed and how it can be fixed and a lot of times they have the answers. You just have to ask the questions and be willing to hear the answer.” Mathern noted that the present governor – John Hoeven – is an ex-banker. “I think this man has taken responsibility for every good thing that has happened in our state. He’s real good at taking credit for every good thing that has happened but not being accountable for things that should have been done.” Mathern says it’s important that credit unions become part of the process. “It’s really important right now with the prospect of taxation issues and more to have credit unions more involved. I serve as chair of the governmental affairs committee so one of my goals is to jumpstart our lobbyist-of-the-day program where every day there is at least one credit union at the capitol, lobbying or getting to know their legislator and sitting with them on the Senate or House floor and just being more a part of the process. You know once you’re familiar with something, you are not scared of it. That’s the goal I have: to get people comfortable with it, with being at the capitol, so when we do have these issues, they will know their legislator and they can call them up and say `it’s very important that you understand this aspect.’ ” Mathern says her fellow CU presidents have been supportive in her run for office as have the members of her credit union. While her employees have told her they don’t want her to leave, she said she has an “ incredible staff. I’ve been gone for four months at a time to serve in our state Senate. They were used to stepping in and doing my job and then kind enough to step aside again and let me back into the position.” Some bigger projects did get put on hold during that time, she said, but the staff is “so well-trained and such take-charge people that I have no qualms about it. We have a good succession plan if this were to happen.” Mathern has found that the credit union philosophy of people helping people really fits with her campaign for lieutenant governor. “That’s the thing I’m enjoying about this campaign-the people aspect of it. Getting out there and meeting people. One of the things I’ve learned a long time ago is there are two sides to every page. I’ve really learned to listen to the other side even though I thought I was right and knew everything about the topic or had no opinion on it. That’s one of (author) Stephen Covey’s points: `Seek first to understand and then to be understood.’” -

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