Back to the Jan-Feb 2023 issue

Gary Carlson Cycles Into Retirement After Long Tenure With League

By David Unmacht

David Unmacht

The 49 state municipal leagues (Hawaii is the only state without a state municipal league) are different in many ways, including structure, programs, and operations.

Yet one singular task connects us all and that is statewide legislative advocacy. The core function of all state municipal leagues is to represent their members’ interests and concerns before the state’s administration, agencies, and legislature. So much of our process, member participation, and Board focus revolves around this work. League of Minnesota Cities Board members routinely say that our advocacy work is one of the most important services the League provides to member cities.

It’s now that time of the year — the beginning of a new legislative biennium. This year’s session is unique for at least two reasons: an unprecedented number of new legislators (almost 60 of the 201 legislators who will be sworn in on Jan. 3 are new to the Legislature); and an unparalleled-in-history budget surplus totaling over $17 billion dollars. The expectations are high across the political spectrum, especially since last year was notable for a lot of unfinished legislative business and disappointment.

Gary Carlson has led the League’s advocacy work for over three decades. He recently announced that this will be his last legislative session and he will transition to part-time work in late February. He will retire from his service to the League at the end of June 2023.

Gary — a renowned expert on topics such as aid to cities, public finance, economic development, pensions, taxes, and workers’ compensation (to name a few) — is excited about this session and knows there is a lot of work leftover from 2022.

Gary notes, “The work for our members never ends. I am excited about the opportunities in the 2023 session — a bittersweet one as I near the end of my tenure.”

I have worked closely with Gary for barely a blip of his tenure. Before I met him for the first time in 2015, I knew that he was legendary in local government circles for his unwavering commitment to serving Minnesota cities and for his year-round bicycle commuting to and from work and home.

Although seemingly onerous and burdensome, he quietly relishes the late-night texts, early morning emails, and all-hour-of-the-day phone calls. And, to no surprise, he replies promptly no matter where the hands on the clock rest.

Colleagues and peers in the advocacy business also appreciate Gary’s willingness to help them. Metro Cities Executive Director Patricia Nauman, who has known Gary for a long time, notes, “He is a friend to many and a valued peer; always willing to answer our questions and help us out.”

To know Gary is to know how much he cares. He takes his work personally; embedded in his DNA is a consummate commitment to fairness and serving as an apolitical resource to all interests. Always quick to share credit, he often remarks about the League’s goal to provide unbiased information on our positions: “You know we are doing our job when members of both parties are simultaneously unhappy with us.”

Gary believes city officials share an important role in the legislative process. “My team and I are always looking for city officials to take an active interest, be informed, build relationships with their delegation, and advocate on their behalf,” he explains.

“Call Gary” is a common city official refrain, since nearly everyone knows him by his first name.

The leadership of the League’s Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) team will change in 2023. Anne Finn will assume the IGR director role on Feb. 20. She has worked with Gary for more than 22 years (18 as IGR assistant director). Anne will seamlessly step into this new role and do a great job. Her reputation and respect from her peers and city officials are exceptional.

“Gary is such a fixture at the Capitol that it will not be the same when he is finished,” says Anne. “The groundwork he has laid over the past decades is firmly rooted, and we look forward to building on that in the future.”

For 30 years, through rain, snow, sleet, humidity, and hot sun, Gary has performed his duty. Walking from the League building to and from the Capitol and State Office Building, at all times of the day and evening, he was often a single, solitary figure crossing Rice Street and University Avenue. Quick to text a reply, handy with a spreadsheet, and a Twitter aficionado — he connected, cajoled, and communicated like a man on a mission. As that mission winds down, we thank him for his commitment and service.

David Unmacht is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1205.