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Life and career of North Dakota's longest serving attorney general leave deep mark

In the days since Wayne Stenehjem died, observers from all political corners have remembered him as a principled man who left a deep mark on North Dakota's government.

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Gubernatorial candidate Wayne Stenehjem speaks during the Republican district convention Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, at PRACS in Fargo.Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service
Forum file photo
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BISMARCK — Any public official who holds office for as long as Wayne Stenehjem is bound to find supporters and detractors, but in the days since North Dakota's longest-serving attorney general died, observers from all political corners have remembered him as a principled man who left a deep mark on the state's government.

Stenehjem, who was found unresponsive at his Bismarck home on Friday, Jan. 28, died that evening at 68 years old. His career in elected office began when he was a 23-year-old law student and spanned a half-century in which North Dakota political control underwent a dramatic shift from the Democratic Nonpartisan League to today’s Republican Party dominance. 

Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, who was elected to the Legislature alongside Stenehjem in 1976, said the former attorney general championed many of the same issues from his days as a lawmaker into the final years of his career, among them government transparency, women's rights and a compassion for people struggling with addiction. As a veteran of the Legislature, Stenehjem had policy know-how and deep relationships with lawmakers that allowed him to be an effective attorney general, Holmberg said.

Holmberg also pointed to North Dakota's "quirky battles with the federal government," highlighting Stenehjem's successful lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over water regulations. These were important steps in "assuring that the state of North Dakota was, as much as possible, charting (its) future rather than just giving in to every issue that comes from the federal government," Holmberg said. "He definitely left a mark in that area."

The previous occupant of Stenehjem’s office, the Democratic former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, spoke highly of his decisionmaking as attorney general, highlighting his work to establish the state crime lab, protect transparency laws and weed out drug crime and human trafficking, an area where she said he was a leader “not just in North Dakota but, I think, nationally.”

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And though Heitkamp said she disagreed with some of the ways Stenehjem conducted his office on the national stage, including his 2018 decision to join a lawsuit seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act, she said his work on more locally rooted issues mirrored her own approach.

“At the end of the day, the work that he did in the Office of Attorney General was fairly consistent with the day-to-day stuff that I would have done,” she said.

Mike Jacobs, a former Grand Forks Herald publisher and editor and longtime observer of North Dakota politics, became emotional reflecting on Stenehjem’s decades in public service and described him as “a kind of model political figure for our generation.”

“I think there are a lot of people in his generation who feel a really personal loss,” Jacobs said. “Because he exemplified a whole lot of things that we thought were good — not least of them decency.”

Even so, Jacobs was critical of some aspects of Stenehjem's approach as the state’s top law enforcement official, including a decision to back off of an initiative aimed at protecting certain undeveloped natural areas near the start of the oil boom.

Jacobs added that he was disappointed in what he characterized as Stenehjem’s shift from a longstanding record as a political moderate in the Legislature toward the right of the Republican Party over the last decade.

The 2016 governor’s race, in particular, will be remembered as a bellwether in North Dakota politics, the columnist predicted. That race featured Stenehjem as the Republican establishment candidate, Bismarck Rep. Rick Becker representing the party’s right wing, and the outsider businessman Doug Burgum, now governor — a three-man contest that Jacobs said shed light on the conservative factions now vying for GOP control.

“That campaign brought all this to the surface,” he said. “So we can all look into the pot now and see it boiling.”

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Among many influences on the Attorney General’s Office, Stenehjem’s track record on issues of open records and government transparency has been broadly noted since he announced his intentions to retire in December.

Jack McDonald, an attorney for the North Dakota Newspaper Association who specializes in transparency laws, said he believes the state’s sunshine laws are on firmer ground today thanks to Stenehjem’s time in office.

Stenehjem approached that aspect of the job with a particular zeal, McDonald said, pointing out his opinions tightening loopholes to ensure local governments couldn’t skirt open meetings requirements. It was not uncommon for Stenehjem to have his office call up local officials and ask them to open records without ever issuing a formal opinion, an approach McDonald said few attorneys general or state officials would do.

Stenehjem championed open records policies well before entering the Attorney General’s Office in 2001, McDonald noted, often making them a priority during his 24 years in the Legislature. “It was just one of those issues where he was always there,” McDonald said.

In one specific instance from those Legislative days, Heitkamp recalled the famous records fight of her own attorney general tenure in which Stenehjem, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, subpoenaed her and Gov. Ed Schafer in an attempt to open a state audit of tribal casino operations.

“It was a pretty high profile kind of brouhaha. But never with any rancor or anger,” recalled Heitkamp. “I never thought Wayne was out to get me. He was out to get information that he thought he was entitled to, and we were like, ‘No, we’re not gonna do that.’”

Heitkamp, who first became friends with Stenehjem when she was an undergraduate at the University of North Dakota and he was in law school, said her first memories are of “a smart, smart, funny guy.”

His humor was a great asset over a long career in politics, Heitkamp said. “The one thing that I hope doesn't escape the discussion is, Wayne was incredibly funny. And could turn a phrase. And make you laugh.”

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Though the veteran North Dakota Democrat noted she and Stenehjem had their differences over the years, she said she never doubted his commitment to the job and to public service.

“In his heart, he just wanted North Dakota to work,” she said.

If you go

The public funeral for Stenehjem is set for 11 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 3, at the Bismarck Event Center. Visitation will take place in Memorial Hall at the Capitol on Wednesday between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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