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After city's 'unprecedented' year in Legislature, Sen. Ray Holmberg named Herald’s 2021 Person of the Year

The Herald has been naming a "person of the year" since 2014.

holmberg 4.jpg
Ray Holmberg, shown on Dec. 29, 2021, is the Herald's 2021 Person of the Year.
Korrie Wenzel / Grand Forks Herald
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When the North Dakota Legislature went back into session late in 2021, there was plenty to do. Not only were political districts being redrawn around the state, but there were hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds to be distributed.

State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, was in the middle of it. And as the top Senate budget-maker, everyone in Bismarck knew he had a lot on his plate. Those days, he recalls, were a whirlwind.

“They were super hectic, because I ended up being on both committees (tasked with redrawing districts and appropriations),” he said. “So it was constant. It went a lot smoother than we thought.”

Those hectic days were huge for the state, and Holmberg was instrumental in securing funding for Grand Forks throughout the year, and notably during the special session.

"Sen. Holmberg was in his element during the special session and was a tremendous asset to our city," Mayor Brandon Bochenski said. "His relationships with legislators around the state set Grand Forks and the state up well for the future."

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Among the projects with Grand Forks implications to receive funds:

  • $150 million to support infrastructure for a natural gas pipeline that will link western oil fields with eastern communities.
  • $10 million for natural gas transportation to Grand Forks County.
  • $50 million for renovation projects at UND.
  • $10 million for space education and research at UND.
  • $2 million for hyperbaric oxygen therapy at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

And on top of his legislative leadership in 2021 and in the past, Holmberg has been declared one of the longest-serving state senators in the nation.

For his work and leadership during both sessions in 2021, Holmberg has been named the Herald’s Person of the Year.

“Grand Forks did exceptionally well,” said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. “While Ray will be quick to give credit to many of the other legislators in our community, who certainly played a role in that, Ray is really the legislative leader in the Grand Forks legislative delegation.”

Wilfahrt said the dollars that flowed into Grand Forks from the special session are “unprecedented” and he believes Holmberg’s leadership played a big role in securing them.

Gov. Doug Burgum said Grand Forks is “tremendously fortunate” to be able to draw upon the experience and representation of Holmberg.

“As a passionate advocate for the citizens of Grand Forks and all North Dakotans, Ray consistently delivers for his constituents. He is also a true statesman of the Legislature, treating his fellow lawmakers with dignity and respect and always speaking eloquently on the Senate floor,” Burgum said. “It’s no secret that he possesses a razor wit, frequently offering a one-liner to keep the chamber in good spirits. Quite simply, Sen. Holmberg is a joy to work with and a treasure of the Legislature whose legacy is firmly secured. We are deeply grateful for his incredible 45 years of service to the state of North Dakota and its citizens.”

The Herald began naming a Person of the Year in 2014, basing the recognition on staff nominations, outside conversations, the impact the person had on the community and sheer volume of news coverage they drew over the previous 12 months.

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Holmberg, who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he is honored to be considered, but reluctant to be in the spotlight. He feels the pandemic produced other worthy candidates.

“Personal opinion: I would have been much more excited if (the Herald) had gone with the health care workers this year,” he said. “They should be ahead of politicians. They can always honor politicians.”

Holmberg’s selection places him among a list of prior recipients who have either been the protagonists of major, city-changing efforts, or embodied the best of Grand Forks’ qualities. Last year, the Herald selected Hunter Pinke , the UND football player paralyzed in a skiing accident in late 2019. His road to recovery — and to a new life — was a remarkable story of perseverance.

Between 2014 and 2019, other winners included East Grand Forks City Administrator David Murphy ; Richard and Susan Lunski , who were first on the scene when a train struck a local school bus; UND’s hockey and football coaches Brad Berry and Bubba Schweigert , who both notched extraordinary seasons; UND president Mark Kennedy ; Olympic hockey champions Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux ; and Joshua Wynne, who was interim UND president the year he was selected.

Holmberg was elected to the state Senate in 1976, and has represented Grand Forks ever since. That 45-year tenure has made Holmberg one of the most respected leaders in Bismarck, whose voice continues to shape both the Legislature and the state more broadly.

And while Grand Forks has 12 legislators serving in Bismarck — all of them making important contributions to the city and the state — Holmberg stands out for his seniority, his high rank on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and the significant sway he holds over spending that benefits the community.

‘Ray is the master,” said state Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks. “Ray works very hard at this. I mean, constantly. He makes it look easy sometimes, but it’s because he put in all that hard work and put in that background.”

State Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said Holmberg has a “calm, somewhat quiet, but influential presence” as a legislative leader. Holmberg, he said, doesn’t need to command attention.

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“When he speaks, people listen. It’s hard to pinpoint whether that’s just his personality, if that is respect for the (Appropriations Committee chair) position, if that is respect for his experience — maybe it’s a combination of all three,” Mock said. “But he is probably one of the most, if not the most, powerful and influential legislators that we have in Bismarck. It comes as no surprise that he is heavily involved in most major projects that come from or benefit our corner of the state.”

A diplomat

State Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, is one of the freshest faces in the GOP Senate caucus and calls Holmberg a mentor. But when he was still a candidate seeking office in 2016, Meyer remembers watching Holmberg address the Senate chamber, selling them a bill that not everyone was satisfied with — but one that needed to pass.

Holmberg quoted a 1970s pop-rock song.

“He starts out this floor speech about Steven Stills (of Crosby, Stills and Nash fame): ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with,’” Meyer recalled. “That was the very first taste I had of him carrying the floor, and it made me turn my head a little bit. ‘Did he just quote that on the Senate floor?’”

Holmberg’s bon mots are often what the public sees and hears; what they don’t usually see are Holmberg’s abilities in private. Close observers describe Holmberg’s sway within the party as rivaling that of a majority leader (a position Holmberg insists he does not want).

RELATED: As state divvies up federal COVID money, Grand Forks seeing special session spending wins And

Holmberg, asked about his advice for leading the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee for decades, said it’s important to be a diplomat.

“Every member of the committee has to know that they get to breathe, that they’re part of it from beginning to end,” he said. “They’re going to lose and they’re going to have victories and successes and disappointments. But the key is that they are all, every one of them (included).”

City Administrator Todd Feland credits Holmberg’s abilities with multiple big wins for Grand Forks over the years — from funding an economically important research program, to helping set aside funds that boost career and technical education, to the tens of millions in state funding that helped build the city’s new water treatment plant.

“There are no bridges to nowhere as part of this,” Feland said.

City Council President Dana Sande agrees.

“He’s a guy that does more listening than speaking,” Sande said, “because I think he’s always trying to move the chess pieces in his head.”

Holmberg, after being told he was named the Herald’s Person of the Year, downplayed his role in the city’s fortunate legislative year. He noted that the “Senate can only do half of it anyway,” and said other lawmakers deserve credit as well. While he is the only local member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, there are two local lawmakers – Sanford and Mock – who serve on the House Appropriations Committee.

“It’s a team effort. It really is,” he said.

Related Topics: RAY HOLMBERG
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