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North Dakota Senate leader to retire after 30 years in Legislature

A former football coach and math teacher, Sen. Rich Wardner was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1990 and the Senate in 1998. He is the second longest serving Senate majority leader in state history, having assumed the role in 2011 after the death of former leader Bob Stenehjem.

Rich Wardner at a podium
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 1, 2020, in the North Dakota Capitol.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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BISMARCK — The North Dakota Legislature will be without one of its guiding voices when it next convenes for a regular session in 2023.

North Dakota Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner announced Wednesday, Dec. 15, he won’t run next year to retain his seat after three decades of service in Bismarck.

The 79-year-old Dickinson lawmaker known for giving fiery floor speeches and spurring fellow Republicans to action told reporters he decided he would retire three years ago, saying he had been in the position long enough and it was time to give someone else a try.

A former football coach and math teacher, Wardner was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1990 and the Senate in 1998. He is the second longest serving Senate majority leader in state history, having assumed the role in 2011 after the death of former leader Bob Stenehjem.

"This has not always been an easy job, but I have been honored to do it," Wardner said. "As I pass the torch, my greatest hope is we can come together as a party and as a state to focus on our shared needs and common goals."

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House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said Wardner's sincerity and work ethic has made him a great collaborator, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has presented many legislative and administrative challenges.

Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, said the upper chamber will miss Wardner, noting that he has always been open-minded to her ideas despite their partisan differences.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican and the longest tenured senator, said he's sad to see Wardner leave. Holmberg said he admires Wardner's ability to build consensus without telling colleagues how to vote.

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum called Wardner "a true statesman" and applauded his dedication to improving infrastructure, supporting technical education programs and upholding tribal partnerships.

Wardner’s retirement announcement comes a month after two senators, Nicole Poolman and Erin Oban, said they would not run for reelection. Both Bismarck legislators cited toxicity in politics as one of their reasons for retirement.

The majority leader has lamented the increasingly confrontational tone of political discourse between lawmakers and constituents, but he noted Wednesday that working to improve those interactions would be a reason to stay in the Legislature, not leave. Wardner said angry constituents need to realize that lawmakers are citizens, too, and they also want what's best for the state.

When asked what he hopes his legacy will be, Wardner tearfully said, "that he cared about the people of North Dakota."

The always energized Wardner said he still plans to stay active and serve North Dakota in retirement.

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"I'm not going to coffee every morning. I'm not going to be sitting around doing nothing," Wardner said. "I plan to be involved in the community and help wherever I can."

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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