MATTERS AT HAND: Berg might look east for a mentorTo find balance between leadership and activism, Rick Berg might look to Collin Peterson, his colleague across the Red River. Peterson has represented Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District for 20 years.
By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald
Of North Dakota’s two new members of Congress, Rep. Rick Berg is the one to worry about.
Not because he is inexperienced or incompetent. He is neither of those things. Berg served in the North Dakota House of Representatives for 25 years, and he guided plenty of legislation as leader of the Republican majority and speaker.
But Berg doesn’t have the intuitive political skills of the state’s other new member, Sen. John Hoeven, also a Republican.
Plus, Berg’s likely to be lonely.
The Senate is a much smaller body, only 100 members compared with 435 in the House.
And two senators are from North Dakota.
Only one North Dakotan serves in the House.
Kent Conrad, the state’s second senator, conspicuously accompanied Hoeven to the swearing-in ceremony. Conrad’s been in the Senate for 24 years; Hoeven was governor for 10.
Their relationship has been congenial, if not cordial.
That can’t be said for Conrad’s relationship with Berg.
Nor for Hoeven’s relationship with Berg, for that matter. Their relationship was often testy.
Politically, Hoeven and Conrad are closer than Berg is to either of them, even though he and Hoeven are both Republicans and Conrad is a Democrat.
Berg may be lonely personally, too. His family will stay behind in Fargo.
Hoeven’s wife, Mikey, will join him in Washington. The couple likely will take Washington by storm.
Hoeven also has the more experienced help. He’s pulled several from the governor’s office, and his gubernatorial chief of staff will head his in-state staff after the legislative session.
Berg’s staff has less experience in government, although some have long careers as political activists (but mostly in losing campaigns).
But it seems that Berg may have powerful pull.
He won a spot on the House Ways and Means Committee, rare for a freshman member. He’s among a number of freshmen Republicans listed as sponsors of the party’s showcase legislation, the repeal of the health care law.
This suggests that the Republican leadership has taken an interest in him.
So have tea party activists, who appreciate his supportive stance on their issues.
Here lies danger for the new congressman. He’ll need to negotiate between leadership, which is inherently more cautious, and activism, which is always impatient.
His ability to balance will be critical.
Here, he might look to Collin Peterson, his colleague across the Red River. Peterson has represented Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District for 20 years. He chaired the House Agriculture Committee while Democrats were in the majority, and he is the ranking Democrat on the committee.
Throughout his tenure, Peterson has shown extraordinary adroitness both in the House and at home. He was among the first of the moderate Democrats to identify with the so-called “Blue Dogs,” and he’s been among their most effective members.
He crafted what many regard as the best farm bill ever by recognizing the needs of producers, consumers and conservationists.
During the debate on health care legislation, he correctly sensed the political currents, stood up to the Democratic leadership and voted against the bill.
His constituents returned him to Congress at the same time that many of them abandoned the Democratic Party to vote for Republican legislative candidates.
What’s extraordinary is that Peterson never equivocated. He declared his intention clearly and didn’t waver — in contrast to Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who postured on health care and lost the seat he’d held for 18 years.
There’s a more recent example of Peterson’s savvy. When Republicans declared their intentions to repeal the health care law, Peterson dismissed the notion. “No chance” he said — and not just no chance of passing a repeal, but no chance of gaining Peterson’s support to do it.
Instead, he said he’d work with Republicans to fix the bill.
Once again, Peterson displayed personal conviction coupled with a shrewd sensitivity to political winds.
In short, he’s a master.
He’d make a good mentor for a new member.
That’s where Berg should turn.
Few districts have more in common than Minnesota’s 7th and North Dakota’s single district. Of course, the commonality includes a gigantic problem, flood control along the Red River. Here, too, Peterson is in a position to help Berg out. He’s made it clear that he won’t support a diversion east of the river, in his own district, but he’s advanced ideas to use farm legislation to reduce flooding throughout the Red River basin.
So, a partnership between these two — the veteran and the newcomer – would be good for Berg, helping to make him a strong and effective congressman more quickly, and it would benefit the region, too.
Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.