Sadie Hanson wasn’t old enough to vote in the 2018 election. But soon after she turned 18 in April, she became chairwoman of the Republican Party in North Dakota’s 42nd District. She missed out on the ballot box, but she’s been shaping local politics ever since.
Hanson is starting on a degree in business economics, with political science and public administration minors, after serving as a page at the state party’s 2018 convention and working for the GOP the following summer and fall—first as an intern and later as a “turf coordinator,” door-knocking and phone-banking and making thousands of voter contacts.” She’s still not sure about a future run for office.
“Right now I’m just kind of taking it day by day,” she said. “I really am kind of intrigued by law, so my plan is to practice law. But, you know, things come up along the way, just like my district chair position.”
Hanson’s youth isn’t uncommon in District 42, a great portion of which includes UND’s campus. Right now, it’s served by state Sen. Curt Kreun, a white-haired Republican political veteran. But he’s the relative odd man out next to Republican District 42 Reps. Emily O’Brien — who was 24 when she won her election in 2016 — and 21-year-old Claire Cory, who was just appointed to her position after Rep. Jake Blum resigned for a consulting role in the Twin Cities.
Blum, of course, won his own 2016 bid when he was 22.
“I was still in school,” Blum recalled. “I had to take a semester off and go into (the legislative) session. It was really a whirlwind.”
The district also defies the national stereotype of the reliably liberal, deep-blue university district, with a rotating cast of Democrats and Republicans representing it over the years — oftentimes ones who have gone on to high-ranking positions throughout state government. North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, a Republican, represented the district when he was in the Legislature. Former Democratic Rep. Kylie Oversen, chairwoman of the state Democratic-NPL, served District 42 until she lost her-re-election bid in a surprise upset in 2016. Likewise for former Democratic state Sen. Mac Schneider, who was the Senate minority leader when he lost his re-election fight the same year.
“Really, in a lot of cases, it’s about turnout. Who’s excited about voting? Who’s going to show up at the polls?” Schneider said. “In 2008, with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, it’s like running with a 50 miles-per-hour wind at your back. In 2016, with Hillary Clinton, it’s like running with a hurricane blowing in your face.”
The district, indeed, can be fickle. Though voters gave Schneider and Oversen the boot when they ran for the state Legislature in 2016, it supported both of them in higher statewide races in 2018, when they ran for Congress and tax commissioner, respectively. And as all three District 42 spots now are held by Republicans, voters in the district supported Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in her failed U.S. Senate re-election bid last year against GOP challenger Kevin Cramer.
The demographics of the district skew young. Kreun said the average age of the district is in the low 20s, and its shape — running a relatively narrow strip from North 55th Street to North 16th Street in Grand Forks — includes much of the UND campus as well as neighborhoods to the east and businesses along Gateway Drive.
“Honestly, District 42 is so unique. We have so many dynamics for our district. We have a lot of individuals from both sides of the aisle,” O’Brien said, pointing out the range of students, businesses and full-time residents.
As in nearly every district in North Dakota, there are so few residents per politician — relative to other states — that voters can develop a more intimate relationship with their representatives. O’Brien recalls spending three hours speaking with an elderly woman during her campaign.
And campaigning in a university district can indeed be an unorthodox experience. Schneider recalls, at one point, coming upon a group of kids beating an old pickup truck with an ax. They offered him a few swipes, and, with permission, he obliged, taking advantage of the chance to meet some voters and get “a few whacks” at the truck.
“I had a rule — anytime I’d knock on a door and somebody would offer me a beer, I was just duty-bound to say yes,” he said. “Inevitably that would happen several times during the course of a campaign, and inevitably with students.”
But perhaps the greatest challenge — one for everyone — is the district’s residential turnover. Schneider pointed out that most UND students are only going to vote in a local, quadrennial election just once. That means aspiring legislators are making their pitch to a new batch of voters over and over again, every four years.
“We have this constant movement in and out of the district,” Jeffrey Powell, the District 42 Democratic-NPL chairman, said. (It is young (and) it is dynamic.”
But, as Kreun says, managing all those challenges can indeed be done — and he argues that the leadership in office right now is doing it well.
“It is fun, I won’t deny that,” he said. “I get a kick out of working with young kids. And I get to learn a lot, too.”
And it’s important work for all of them. As Cory points out, she’s particularly interested in university funding matters.
“Just being involved is what’s important to me,” she said.