Mike Jacobs: More decent people depart the N.D. Capitol
Public servants opt to walk away from state politics.
The doors of the state Capitol keep opening and politicians keep stepping out, never to return to their lofty positions. Last week brought three retirement announcements from three high-ranking officials, the attorney general and the floor leaders of both parties in the state Senate.
None of this was unexpected.
Rich Wardner, the Republican leader in the Senate, made clear two years ago that he would retire. A veteran of 28 years in the Legislature, eight in the House and 20 in the Senate, he’ll go home to Dickinson, where he promised to remain active in community affairs.
His Democratic counterpart, Joan Heckaman, who’s been 14 years a senator, might have run for reelection, but the district that she represents was carved up in the recent reapportionment plan. The change in population in the redrawn district she ended up in didn’t meet the threshold for an election at the two-year mark of a four-year term, so she was left with no option.
My guess is she wasn’t too disappointed. She’d be out of one of very few rural districts that’s been competitive for Democrats and into a solidly Republican district. After 14 years in the Senate, she’ll be moving from New Rockford to Dickinson to be close to relatives. I wouldn’t be surprised if she and Wardner sometimes caucus over coffee.
The third retirement had remained speculative. Wayne Stenehjem, the attorney general, said he won’t run for reelection in 2022. In an early column I said I’d bet on his retirement. I didn’t back my mouth with my money, however.
Stenehjem has been attorney general for 20 year. Earlier, he was a member of the Legislature for 24 years, where he represented a Grand Forks district. He won a House seat in 1976, when he was 23 and still in law school. After four years in the House, he moved to the Senate, and soon became chair of its Judiciary Committee.
He is among the youngest lawmakers ever elected in the state. For most of his legislative career, he was regarded as a liberal Republican, but his views edged toward the right when he moved to the attorney general's office.
From the beginning took a tough attitude toward drug crimes, not surprising for the state’s chief law enforcement officer. Later, he signed on to challenges to federal laws, including the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obama Care — a case he lost. He’s had better luck challenging the Biden Administration’s mask mandates, which he condemned as “a federal overreach.”
Fighting crime and overreach are not the only pieces of the A.G.’s job description. The attorney general is a member of the state Industrial Commission, which oversees the state-owned Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator. Stenehjem has been a backer of the bank, an enthusiasm he learned from his father, Martin, who oversaw its student loan program, the first in the nation.
Of course, the state-owned businesses don’t fit contemporary Republican ideology, but they’ve been resounding successes. The Mill will be 100 this year; the state Bank celebrated its centennial in 2019.
The Industrial Commission also regulates the oil and gas industry. Initially Stenehjem worked to identify, classify and protect important natural areas, but that bit of skepticism about the energy industry soon evaporated.
The attorney general is also the officer who manages the state’s open meetings and record laws, and here Stenehjem has been a steadfast supporter of openness — so much so, in fact, that lawmakers who savor secrecy had to legislate around him.
Of course, the attorney general’s job is not the highest prestige position in the state, and Stenehjem badly wanted to be governor. He was endorsed by the state Republican Party’s convention in 2016, but lost the primary election to Doug Burgum, now the governor.
Relations between them have been frosty. Stenehjem didn’t attend Burgum’s inaugural party, though there are conflicting accounts of which man made the decision. There were policy differences, too, and one public political feud, when the governor attempted to appoint someone to replace a legislative candidate who died. Stenehjem defended the state law that gives the district party committee that power. He won the case, which had important political consequences because the committee sent Jeff Delzer, longtime chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a close-fisted administrator of the state’s funds.
The attorney general’s job is the plum on the 2022 election ballot. Burgum’s term as governor extends to 2024, and neither of the state’s seats in the U.S. Senate is open this cycle. The state’s lone House member, Kelly Armstrong, has made a small splash, at least, in the House. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, he’s been a visible bulldog in questioning witnesses in both impeachment hearings. This likely solidified his appeal to North Dakotans.
The three retirees have more in common than the door. I worked around them for many years, and I can testify that Heckaman, Wardner and Stenejhem are all genuinely decent, committed largely in the mainstream of the state’s politics.
In the wake of other high-profile departures from the Legislature, provoked by hyper-partisanship, Wardner’s retirement statement struck an especially welcome note. His aspiration, he said, has been “that our actions would be rooted in civility, building each other up, recognizing each others’ inherent worth and disagreeing respectfully when necessary. Not only is this critical to ensure that good people are willing to serve, but also for the greater good of the people we represent.”
Amen to that, and godspeed to these able servants of our people.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.