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Oversen steps into new role as state party chairwoman

Kylie Oversen was a UND student senator who proposed spending up to $2,800 to study cleaning up the "infamous" and occasionally foul-smelling coulee on campus in one of the first times she was mentioned in the Herald.

Rep. Kylie Oversen, 26, chairwoman of the ND Democratic Party, is the youngest chair in the U.S. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Kylie Oversen was a UND student senator who proposed spending up to $2,800 to study cleaning up the "infamous" and occasionally foul-smelling coulee on campus in one of the first times she was mentioned in the Herald.

That was 2010. Just five years later, her sharp political ascent has landed her the rank of North Dakota Democratic Party chairwoman during her second legislative session as a state representative from Grand Forks.

Oversen's colleagues see her bringing a new perspective to the position, both as a young woman and as a sitting state legislator, as they prepare for the 2016 election season. She'll help lead political efforts and setting overall goals for the party in her new role.

Recent history suggests she has a tough job ahead of her. Just one Democrat holds a statewide or congressional office, and Republicans have long held majorities in both the state House and Senate.

Oversen, 26, said Democrats will focus on the Legislature and on "recruiting new, young leaders and recruiting more women to the table." She cited figures that show less than 20 percent of the North Dakota Legislature is represented by women-with a fairly even split between the two parties-which ranks 38th in the U.S., according to the Center for American Women in Politics.


"I think people have responded well to our young female candidates that we've had in the last two cycles," Oversen said. "We never recruit someone just because they're a woman. We recruit the best and brightest that we can."


While the number of women serving in state legislatures across the country steadily increased between 1971 and 1999, the number has somewhat plateaued since then, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. The portion of women in the North Dakota Legislature edged up from 17.7 percent in 1999 to 19.1 percent this year.

Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the center and an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, said one of the barriers to seeing more women in elected office is encouraging them to run in the first place. Having someone like Oversen in a leadership role can help overcome that obstacle, she said.

"When women are asked by political leaders ... they're asked by the people who they know are influential in this world, then they're even more likely to run," Dittmar said. She added that having more women serve helps promote a representative government, and adds perspectives that otherwise wouldn't be there.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., pointed out the ratio of women in the U.S. Senate mirrors the portion in the North Dakota Legislature. She said having women in leadership positions can help change that, and praised Oversen for taking on the chairmanship.

"I think it's not just about women, it's about young people," Heitkamp said.

No 'lock'


Oversen, who will start her third year of law school at UND in the fall, noted the legislative seats gained by Democrats in November's election were women. They picked up one seat in the Senate with Erin Oban's election, while Pamela Anderson's win in the House was canceled out by Ed Gruchalla's loss.

Democrats lost all seven statewide contests by double-digit margins.

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, who represents District 42 in Grand Forks alongside Oversen, said she brings "tenacity" and "pragmatism" to her new role.

"She is exactly the kind of centrist, sensible-thinking, hard-working type of person we need to attract as candidates in the Dem-NPL," he said. And while Oversen acknowledges she doesn't have as much political experience as others, Schneider said she brings a sitting lawmaker's point of view.

"That experience is vital," he said.

Democrats don't have a monopoly on young or female leaders in North Dakota, however. Four female state senators hail from each party, and there are 11 female Democrats serving in the House compared with eight Republicans. Republican State Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger, 32, may be the youngest statewide elected official in the country, the Kansas City Star reported this week.

"I think anybody that's coming into the workforce, men and women alike, who are entering the job market and want the kind of economy that Republican policies promote ... those are the kinds of policies that are going to provide them more economic opportunity," North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Bob Harms said. "Nobody, Republicans or Democrats, have a lock on a particular demographic or age group or gender."

2015 session and beyond


While lawmakers adjourned the 2015 legislative session in late April, they left one bill on the table: funding for the state Public Employees Retirement System. Oversen cited funding for early childhood education and bills addressing human trafficking as positive outcomes of the latest session.

Harms said residents should be "pretty satisfied" with how the 2015 Legislature played out under the Republican majority, considering uncertain revenues from falling oil prices.

But Oversen was critical of a Republican-backed bill to lower the oil extraction tax introduced in the final days of the session, a proposal supporters say will help add predictability to revenues by eliminating price-based tax breaks. She was also a proponent of a bill to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, which all House Democrats and some Republicans voted for but ultimately failed.

While that vote attracted national media attention and emotion from gay rights proponents, Democrats could benefit more from campaigning on issues like resource development and economic development, said former Herald publisher Mike Jacobs, who now writes a weekly political column. He pointed out that Legacy Fund money will become available in 2017, giving Democrats an opportunity to present voters a plan for those funds.

For her part, Oversen said her upbringing in the western North Dakota community of Killdeer gives her some perspective from that part of the state, where the oil boom has brought on a need for upgraded infrastructure.

"We're still in this two-year cycle mindset where we haven't really looked long-term at how we're building communities in these areas and how we're expecting growth to sustain itself," she said.

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