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Haley Wamstad first woman elected as Grand Forks County state's attorney

Haley Wamstad stands outside the Grand Forks County Courthouse Nov. 7 in Grand Forks. She won the race for state's attorney and will be the first woman to hold the post. Photo by Tess Williams/Grand Forks Herald

When Haley Wamstad walked into the second-floor offices of the Grand Forks County Courthouse, she was greeted with "Hey, boss," a term still unfamiliar for the freshly-elected state's attorney.

She's the first woman to be elected to the position. The state's attorney is the top prosecutor in the county and makes decisions about proceedings for criminal and civil court cases on behalf of North Dakota.

Wamstad grew up just south of Grand Forks in Hatton, N.D., and spent her spare time growing up by helping out on her grandparents' farm or in her parents' business.

She studied communications and political science at UND and said she never imagined a career as a lawyer until a professor told her to consider it.

"Growing up in Hatton, we didn't even have a lawyer in town, so I'm not even sure I really knew what the role of a lawyer was or anything like that," she said. "I started looking at the classes I liked and I took his advice, and I'm certainly glad I did because it was a perfect fit."

Wamstad has spent over a decade working at the Grand Forks County State's Attorney Office and said she has worked in all divisions of prosecution there.

"One common thread, no matter what caseload you're working, is you really feel like you're making a positive impact on the people in our community," Wamstad said. "When I started, I was doing civil commitments and ordering people to treatment for civil or chemical dependency—when you get somebody from a very unfortunate spot in their life to a better place, that's very rewarding. And the same holds true for what I'm doing now. We deal with victims of pretty serious crimes, and if you can bring them some sense of justice, that's very rewarding at the end of the day."

Wamstad supervises the personal crimes unit, prosecuting cases involving assault, domestic violence or sex offenses. She helped open the state's first domestic violence court this year. The alternative court is tailored to provide faster court scheduling and offer rehabilitative options to offenders while they are serving their sentences in an effort to create a better outcome for them and their victims.

Wamstad said she's been interested in the state's attorney position for a long time but decided to run after David Jones announced his retirement in January.

She hopes to make changes that will help reduce the crime rate and recidivism. She said crime has been steadily rising, partly because of the opioid epidemic.

"The drug offenses kind of spill over to every caseload in our office," she said. "Whether it's talking about children being abused or neglected, or home invasions."

Wamstad said she looks forward to looking at new ideas and finding new ways to more efficiently address problems in the community.

The race between Wamstad and colleague Nancy Yon was close. Wamstad finished with 54 percent of the vote, and Yon got 46 percent, according to unofficial results.

"I think it goes to show that some of the things I talked about on the campaign trail are things our community is also concerned with," Wamsad said. "But I also think that it goes to show the community saw two very experienced, qualified candidates from within the office."

Wamstad said she watched the results come in with her family Tuesday night and was excited she won.

As she prepares to take office, she said she's still figuring out how to balance her current caseload with her future job. She said she'll finish prosecuting many of her 100 cases but may have to hand over some that are expected to run longer.

"Certainly, it will be a learning curve for me to take on the position, too," she said.

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