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Former President Clinton returning to Grand Forks March 17 for N.D. Dem-NPL convention

The last time former President Bill Clinton was in the Grand Forks area, the Red River was at a record 54.35 feet and much of the community was underwater.

Former President Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton

The last time former President Bill Clinton was in the Grand Forks area, the Red River was at a record 54.35 feet and much of the community was underwater.

Clinton is returning for a visit March 17, nearly 15 years after the flood, as the keynote speaker at the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party state convention, the party said Thursday.

"It's going to be a very special thing for him to come back and see the city of Grand Forks as it is now, one of the great cities in North Dakota," said state Democratic Executive Director Andy Zabel.

Former North Dakota Gov. George Sinner, who has known Clinton for years, invited him to speak. Sinner said he was not sure Clinton would accept because he said he wanted to wait to get involved with campaigning until later in the year.

It seems likely that Clinton accepted because of to his 1997 connection to the city, Sinner said. "I have a hunch that, after his speech, he would like to go around and see how the city has rebuilt," he said. "He hasn't forgotten Grand Forks; I know that. He still mentions it."


Clinton is expected to be in Grand Forks for four or five hours, and he plans to tour the community following his speech if time allows. The state party convention will be held March 16 to 18 at the Canad Inns and Alerus Center.

Dems ecstatic

News of Clinton's upcoming visit has already generated excitement, and a dramatic spike in traffic to the Democratic-NPL Party's website, Zabel said.

"There are not many bigger names out there than Bill Clinton in politics," he said. "We look forward to building off the momentum of this into the election year."

Party Chairman Greg Hodur called Clinton an "exciting, inspiring speaker."

"He's going to fire up our people and the community," Hodur said. "He'll remind us that when we come together and work for the common good, nothing can stop us."

Mark Jendrysik, professor and chairman of UND's Department of Political Science and Public Administration, said Clinton's visit is "definitely a big deal" for Grand Forks.

"How often does anyone that important come to North Dakota?" he said.


The last time the city has hosted such a prominent political event was during the 2008 presidential campaign 2008, when then-candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke at the state party convention.

Though Clinton's visit will likely "fire up" Democrats and boost fundraising for the party, its impact in the voting booths on Election Day will probably be less noticeable, Jendrysik said.

"I'm not certain if that's going to change anything," he said. "It may encourage the national party to put more resources into this state, but I think they're going to be running their numbers and figuring out if it's a good investment.

"It's a long time until the election, but it's a very nice thing," he added.

Remembering '97

Eliot Glassheim, a member of the Grand Forks City Council then and now, still remembers Clinton's 1997 visit fondly. The councilman was among the 3,000 or so evacuated to a hangar at Grand Forks Air Force Base after their homes flooded.

"I was very reassured and hopeful from the message he carried, and he followed through with it," said Glassheim, a fellow Democrat who also serves in the North Dakota House.

Clinton and his administration, in power from 1992 to 2000, were largely responsible for pushing Congress and federal officials to help the Grand Forks area recover in the weeks, months and years after the Red River receded, Glassheim said.


The federal government contributed more than $700 million to help in the rebuilding and more than $227 million to help build the city's flood control system.

"It was 15 years ago that Bill Clinton came here to give us some hope through the flood and the relief, and he absolutely came through to help our city," said City Council President Hal Gershman, who is active in Democratic politics. "I understand that that's one of the reasons that he wanted to come back."

"When he was in Grand Forks in the aftermath of the 1997 flood, you could tell his heart just went out to us," said U.S. Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp in a written statement. "We knew he believed in helping people and he knew how to bring the right people together to make progress possible."

"When he comes back, the former president is going to be amazed at how North Dakotans' pluck and perseverance paid off," she said.

"North Dakotans remember with fondness the Clinton era," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., in a written statement. "It was a time of great prosperity for the nation. We were running budget surpluses. We weren't engaged in conflicts overseas. And because the United States was in a fundamentally different place at that time, we were better equipped as a nation to address urgent needs at home."

Getting Bill

Sinner, who was North Dakota's governor from 1985 to 1992, said he and Clinton "fought lots of battles together" when Clinton was governor of Arkansas.

"We've been very close throughout the years," Sinner said. "He's a great, great human being as far as I am concerned."


Sinner said his daughter, who works for Conrad, called him recently to see if he would ask Clinton to speak to the state Democratic-NPL convention. He said he passed along the request about three weeks ago and Clinton accepted recently.

Sinner said he would not guess what Clinton will speak about in Grand Forks, but he said attendees should expect to be moved by his comments.

"I've never heard him give a speech that wasn't right on the money," Sinner said. "He just seems to have a sixth sense for knowing what the situation calls for, and his words are so perfectly chosen."

Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to rjohnson@gfherald.com .


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