State Sen. Ray Holmberg has long been a fixture in the North Dakota Senate, but his tenure has earned him a place on the national stage, as he is tied with being the longest-serving state senator in the county.
Holmberg, a Republican from Grand Forks, has served 44 years in the Senate – he took office Dec. 1, 1976, one month after Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford. He shares the recognition of serving for the longest, continuous number of years as a senator, with Nikki Setzler, a South Carolina Democrat. And Holmberg is looking to extend that tenure.
Holmberg was informed of his status by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group dedicated to advancing the effectiveness of those governing bodies and inter-state cooperation, after the retirement of the longest-serving state politician, a Wisconsin Democratic Assembly member.
“The reason the question had been asked was because of Fred Risser, who was 90-something and had just retired,” Holmberg said. “I knew I was in the top group.”
A dozen legislators from around the nation round out that group, though those who have served longer than Holmberg mostly have more cumulative years, after having made the switch from House to Senate. An assemblyman from New York has served 50 years, and a Texas representative has served 52 years.
Like Risser, a Democrat who ultimately served 65 years in the Wisconsin Assembly, Holmberg has seen a number of changes in how the Legislature conducts business, and how elected officials interact with their constituents. The “analog to digital” switch allows for swift communication with constituents, but when they want answers they want them quickly, even when they are not so easy to give.
“You end up getting an email or a text and you answer it right away,” Holmberg said. “Sometimes that was in too much haste.”
But technology, especially for the most recent session, conducted amidst the coronavirus pandemic, allows for greater public participation, Holmberg said. Approximately half a million people streamed legislative hearings, and 10,000 people were able to testify virtually.
“There's no comparison to what it has been in the past. We've gotten a lot more public input,” Holmberg said. “That is a major change.”
Holmberg said he is feeling no long-term ill effects from having contracted COVID-19 in December, while in session. He received an antibody infusion shortly after his diagnosis. A day later, he said, his symptoms subsided.
In more than four decades since he was first elected to the North Dakota Senate, Holmberg has seen oil and the energy economy cycle between boom and bust, and changes in party control of the governor’s office and Legislature.
“I always am a great believer that you don't rest on your laurels,” Holmberg said. “It's not what you did as a party or in government yesterday but what you are going to do tomorrow, that makes the difference of staying in power.”
He recalled his first election, when four people, including the district chair, attended a Republican meeting meant to help fill legislative seats after Grand Forks was carved up by a lengthy redistricting process, one finalized by the federal district court. Holmberg and those three other attendees each went on to campaign and win, and he’s been representing District 17, which encompasses all of Grand Forks south of 32nd Avenue South, neighborhoods along the Red River, and large areas west and south of the city, ever since.
And getting back on the campaign trail is something he’s going to do again in 2022, when his term ends. “That is my intention,” Holmberg said.