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Sidelined in governor's race, Wayne Stenehjem weighs his future

Wayne Stenehjem has been coming to work at the Capitol in Bismarck for more than a decade and a half now, and nearly every day that he has walked into the Attorney General's Office, he's stepped by a hanging picture frame. Inside it are, in chron...

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Portrait by Sam Easter
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Wayne Stenehjem has been coming to work at the Capitol in Bismarck for more than a decade and a half now, and nearly every day that he has walked into the Attorney General's Office, he's stepped by a hanging picture frame. Inside it are, in chronological order, photographs of past attorneys general, with a few open spots at the end-black and white reminders that he wasn't the first to hold the office, and that he won't be the last.

"I always remember there's someone coming after me," he said last week, sitting inside his wood-paneled private office, a few strides from the portraits, a coffee mug emblazoned with little Norwegian flags in front of him. "I'm only here for this temporary time, however long it may be."

It's going to be a bit longer than he'd hoped. An upset in the June Republican primary means Fargo businessman Doug Burgum is now the favorite to sit in the governor's office-just across the hall-come December. And that leaves Stenehjem with options.

His term expires in 2018. Will he run for re-election?

"It's rather likely that I would run again," Stenehjem said, stressing that he's not making a campaign announcement, just assessing the odds. "I don't see myself as someone who would enjoy retirement. I'm 63; I'll be 65 then. Sixty-five is nothing. It takes you 10 years to get used to how old you are."

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What if an unpopular Hillary Clinton presidency makes Democrat Heidi Heitkamp's U.S. Senate seat vulnerable? That's due up in 2018, too, but Stenehjem seemed to rule it out.

"I don't want to live in Washington," Stenehjem said, citing a toxic political culture and his wife's career in North Dakota. "I go to Washington two or three times a year, and you know what? I'm never as happy as I am when I leave."

Reached by phone the following week, Stenehjem answered what might be the most pressing question that Bismarck politicos have for his future. If the governor's seat opens, will he ever run for it again?

"I hadn't even thought about that. I think we're going to see a Republican elected next week, and that's at least four years," he said. "Because I'd sure have to talk to my wife before she reads it in the Grand Forks Herald."

'I don't like to lose'

Stenehjem grew up in Bismarck, one of seven siblings in a deeply Republican family-he said his grandparents helped lead campaign efforts on behalf of Dwight Eisenhower. A 1971 graduate of Bismarck High School, he earned his bachelor's degree in political science and history from UND, graduating in 1974 before heading to UND's law school.

Before he'd earned his law degree, he'd been elected to the North Dakota House at age 23, making him one of the youngest legislators ever to serve. He was elected to the state Senate several years later, a position he held until 2000, when he won election to the attorney general's office. He's since become the longest-serving top lawyer in the state's history.

But Stenehjem's most well-publicized efforts over the past year have been his campaign for the governor's office, which he launched in Grand Forks more than 11 months ago. He entered the race as the favorite, clinching the party's endorsement in two ballots at April's state convention.

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In some races, that might have settled things. But Burgum, the Fargo businessman who hadn't garnered even a sixth of the votes at the party convention-on either ballot-stayed in the Republican primary race, drawing the campaign into what were, at times, heated exchanges. If voters bring the two together in the Capitol, there are a few moments from the campaign trail that might still be lingering in both men's minds.

A May 7 gubernatorial debate saw Burgum criticize the growth of Stenehjem's salary, and saw Stenehjem respond by asking if Burgum could live up to Ronald Reagan's "11th Commandment" not to criticize fellow Republicans. Both men said they saw negativity in the other's campaign.

Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, a state senator and Stenehjem's running mate, recalls the Burgum campaign as well-heeled, energetic and buoyed by the anti-establishment sentiments that worked against a veteran politician like Stenehjem.

"I think he took (the loss) in stride," Poolman said. "Certainly the evening of the primary, he was a class act. He certainly has maintained his sense of humor throughout all of this, and he is refocused on being a great attorney general."

Burgum's margin of victory was about 20 points. He won the primary election with nearly 60 percent of the vote, with Stenehjem at less than 39 percent, and in deep-red North Dakota he's considered the likely winner Nov. 8.

"I don't like to lose, it stings," Stenehjem said, but he called Burgum intelligent and hard-working, and said he'll be happy to work with him. "I did take an oath to serve in this office, and when all is said and done, people expect us to lead and to govern, and they don't want to hear a bunch of petty squabbling."

Burgum might have some uphill work ahead, though.

"He is going to have a quick learning curve, especially working with the Legislature," Stenehjem said. "He spent most of his campaign criticizing the Legislature and the way that they had managed the state budget. And I know there's a lot of hard feelings down there."

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The Burgum campaign did not arrange a phone interview with Burgum or provide an emailed statement on the primary season after being contacted by phone by the Herald Thursday afternoon.

One more portrait

Stenehjem ticks off accomplishments he's proud of as attorney general: busting meth labs, pressing for government transparency and fighting human trafficking.

In the last year, he's grabbed headlines for cases his office has been involved with, including pushes against environmental regulations like the Clean Power Plan . Stenehjem said there's also ongoing legal proceedings in a suit North Dakota joined against the Obama administration's direction that transgender students be allowed to use the bathroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity. That case, he said, is a federal overreach in a matter he argued is being handled effectively at the local level.

Stenehjem said that if he could handle one item, it would be pressing back on prescription drug and opioid addictions.

"We don't have enough treatment options that are effective and affordable and available, and we need to do that. Because we're either going to do that-and I mentioned this on the campaign trail-or we're going to have to double the size of our prisons."

And Stenehjem, too, answered how long he think's he'll try to stay on as attorney general.

"Do I have to decide right now?" he asked with a laugh. He reiterated that he likes the idea of seeking another term, and didn't specify much beyond that. "But I feel pretty young, and as energetic as ever and as committed to the state of North Dakota as ever."

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