Mike Jacobs: North Dakota already emptier without Wayne Stenehjem
Before his death last week, Stenehjem had been a presence in North Dakota politics for nearly half a century.
Wayne Stenehjem could fill a room – a courtroom, a legislative chamber, a committee room, a newspaper conference room, a convention hall and, for the last 21 years, an office in the state Capitol with the label “Attorney General” on the door.
He was a big man, tall and broad in the shoulders. He had an open, expressive face and a full head of hair. He dressed smartly, spoke clearly and gestured appropriately, all the while projecting a kind of Nordic grace.
He was proud of his Scandinavian heritage.
Stenehjem died Friday, unexpectedly, at age 68.
He had been a presence in North Dakota politics for nearly half a century. He was among the youngest legislators in state history when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976, representing what was called “the university district” because it included the UND campus and residential areas nearby in Grand Forks. Four years later, he moved to the state Senate. In 2000, he was elected attorney general and moved to Bismarck.
His father, Martin Stenehjem, was a banker. He is best remembered for his role in developing the Bank of North Dakota’s student loan program. Earlier he had worked in small-town banks, and his son claimed more than one of them as his “home town.”
Wayne Stenehjem was born in Mohall, N.D., north of Minot, graduated from high school in Bismarck and spent most of his career in Grand Forks practicing law and politics.
His family was politically active. His brother, Bob Stenehjem, served as majority leader of the state Senate. He died in 2011. Another brother, Allan, served in the state House and now works as a lobbyist.
Wayne Stenehjem could fill a ballot box. He won his first statewide election, for attorney general of the state, with 56% of the vote. He was re-elected five times, never winning fewer than two-thirds of votes cast.
He fell short in 2016, when he ran for governor. He won the Republican Party’s endorsement but lost the primary election to Doug Burgum, who had never been a candidate for office. Burgum had big money and big plans for the state. He's still in the governor’s office.
I have known Wayne Stenehjem through all of his career, and I’ve watched him closely, as journalists do. We were on friendly terms, but we were not pals. I was never in his house nor he in mine, and we never went out for beers together. We were professionals who needed, respected and liked each other.
Suezette Bieri, my life partner, had a slightly different relationship. She knew Stenehjem’s son, Andrew, and followed his service with the North Dakota National Guard.
The last time I was with Wayne Stenehjem, we fell into a kind of reverie about our parallel careers. I teased him about retirement. He ought to do it, I said, because his wife, Beth, had already retired. Suezette had retired before I did, and I said I regretted staying on the job, because it cost us a year we could have spent together. In this column, I boldly predicted that he would retire, and just before Christmas, he announced he would.
But he missed that extra time with Beth, his wife.
It’s hard to place Stenehjem on a political spectrum. He earned a reputation as a moderate in the Legislature, and certainly he was among the most liberal of Republican members throughout his service there.
As attorney general, he took a no-nonsense view of law and order, cracking down on meth labs, for example, and allowing the use of informants in drug investigations. They were expected to provide information in exchange for lighter sentences. One of them ended up at the bottom of the Red River.
As a member of the Industrial Commission – which was established to govern the state-owned businesses, the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator – Stenehjem had a role in regulating the state’s burgeoning energy business, since the Department of Mineral Resources reports to the Industrial Commission.
Initially, Stenehjem suggested identifying unique areas and closing them to leasing in order to protect them. This idea didn’t get anywhere, however, in the mad rush to develop the state’s oil and gas industry.
Stenehjem moved steadily to the right during his time as attorney general. He joined other Republican attorneys general in a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. In the COVID era, he signed on to legal challenges of mandates, calling them “a federal overreach.” In the Capitol, he was seen as a fixer, someone who brought people together, who worked toward compromise, and he earned the gratitude and respect of just about everybody in the building.
He never rushed to claim credit.
Today (Wednesday, Feb. 2), Stenehjem will fill the Great Hall of the Capitol, where there will be a public visitation from 4 to 8 p.m. The public funeral will be Thursday, Feb. 3, at 11 a.m. in the Bismarck Convention Center.
Already, North Dakota feels emptier without him.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.