Mark Andrews deserved better. He was a prominent and sometimes commanding figure in North Dakota politics for a quarter of a century, the victor in a titanic struggle for control of the Republican Party in the state – the dominant party then as now. In the end, he was an independent voice, as critical of Republicans when they deserved it as he was of Democrats when he campaigned against them. All told, he served for 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and six in the U.S. Senate. He lost the Senate seat in a close election in 1986.
Andrews died Saturday, Oct. 3. He was 94 years old. His death wasn’t reported until the following Tuesday, Oct. 6, and then apparently because a funeral home routinely submitted an obituary.
Andrews deserved a bigger sendoff. Thirty-four years away from the limelight don’t diminish his impact or his importance.
At just 36 years old, Andrews was a prodigy with a pedigree when he first came to prominence as the Republican candidate for governor in 1962. Like many of the state’s governors, he had deep roots in the Red River Valley. His family had farmed near Mapleton, just west of Fargo, for two generations, and his father had been sheriff of Cass County, then as now the state’s most populous and most powerful.
Andrews lost that first election to William Guy, who was a bit older, though still youthful, and who ran as the candidate of the emergent Democratic-NPL Party. For newcomers and neophytes, those last three letters stand for Nonpartisan League, an insurgent movement that brought North Dakota a state-owned bank and mill and elevator. The NPL historically filed its candidates mostly in the Republican column; the switch to the Democrats occurred in 1956. This was a tremor in the seismic change that swept over the state. Having dominated the state’s politics for half a century, William Langer, known as “Wild Bill,” died in 1959. He’d been successively – though not without interruption – attorney general, governor and U.S. senator. The special election for a successor sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, Quentin Burdick.
The great opportunity for young Andrews came in 1963, when U.S. Rep. Hjalmar Nygaard died of a heart attack in the capitol building. North Dakota was divided into East and West congressional districts then, and the contest for the Republican endorsement for the East District seat was spirited, pitting the youthful Andrews against a coalition of conservatives led by John W. Scott of Gilby, a founder of the John Birch Society. Andrews, the liberal, won.
Of course, the more conservative Republicans haven’t given up. The state’s politics today are animated by the same sort of conflict within the Republican Party, though without the hysterical anti-communism of the Sixties.
Andrews won the election and immediately built a reputation as an independent thinker. A Republican to be sure, Andrews didn’t hesitate to take on the party establishment, and even the president. He indicated that he’d vote to impeach Richard Nixon, for example, and he frequently challenged Ronald Reagan’s economic and agricultural policies, a posture that drew national attention not to Andrews alone but to North Dakota’s once-vaunted exceptionalism in national politics – a heritage that Andrews understood and appreciated.
As congressman and senator, Andrews proved adept at promoting the state’s interests, notably championing the kind of farm programs that Reagan’s market orientation rejected. He’s probably best remembered for his work to promote the Garrison Diversion project, which would have moved water from the Missouri River to central and eastern North Dakota.
This issue dominated the state’s politics from the mid-Sixties when Andrews arrived in Washington. Unlike other state politicians, Andrews sensed that the project wouldn’t survive scrutiny, and he worked to salvage what he could of the plan. His efforts met hostility from water development interests in the state, who came to regard Andrews as a kind of traitor.
They might have provided enough votes to defeat him when he sought re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1986. That’s impossible to know for sure, of course; there were other issues of significance in that election, as Richard Fenno’s book, “When Incumbency Fails,” illustrates in some detail.
Apart from politics, Andrews had personal appeal. Perhaps the best illustration is his marriage. He’d known his wife, Mary Andrews, most of his life, and she became an integral part of his campaigns. Andrews bought time on Election Eve each year for what became known as “The Mark and Mary Show,” where the two of them talked about matters pending. Mary Andrews appeared on their last show, on Election Eve 1986, when she was seriously ill. Her illness and its treatment had become an issue in the campaign.
Mary Andrews died in July 2020, just months before her husband’s passing.
Mark Andrews’ own life can be parsed neatly: roughly 36 years before his prominence in the state’s politics, 23 years as a prominent player, and another 36 years, almost, out of the spotlight – so much so that his passing went unnoticed for 72 hours.
Sic transit gloria mundi. So goes worldly glory.
For clarity’s sake: The State Board of Higher Education has eight voting members, seven citizens appointed by the governor who serve four years, and one student who serves but one year. Faculty and staff each have non-voting representatives to the board. Measure 1 on the November ballot would double the number of citizen members.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.