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By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., Published January 07 2010

Curtain to close on North Dakota’s ‘Three Amigos’ dynasty

In November 1974, just days before Byron Dorgan lost his first congressional race, he made a campaign stop in Fargo.

“Hey, Byron,” a man called out. “I saw your commercial.”

Dorgan, who grew up in tiny Regent in southwestern North Dakota, had been running an ad that showed him standing on a hillside next to his horse, Melody.

“What did you think?” Dorgan asked.

“I liked your horse,” the man said, and Dorgan laughed.

Kevin Carvell, a former newspaper reporter who covered the 1974 election and later worked for Dorgan for 23 years, tells the story as an example of his sense of humor.

It is a sense of humor, including a willingness to accept a well-turned dig, which Dorgan shares with the two other veterans of the state’s congressional delegation, also Democrats: Sen. Kent Conrad and Rep. Earl Pomeroy.

When together, they often “are in great high spirits, amiable and funny, laughing with each other, teasing each other,” Carvell said.

They have been “the Three Amigos” (harsher critics favor the term “the Three Stooges”), the arm-in-arm legislative troika representing otherwise reliably Republican North Dakota for near a generation. But with Dorgan’s announcement Tuesday that he won’t seek a fourth term, the dynasty will end next January.

“We’re kind of like brothers,” Dorgan said Wednesday. “We’ve worked together for 18 years. … Few people get to go to work with their two best friends.”

Not all charmed

While more than a few Republicans have voted for one, two or all three of the trio, the party welcomed Dorgan’s announcement and looked forward to making it “two strikes” in November.

“Earl Pomeroy better brace himself for the toughest political campaign of his life,” national Republican spokesman Tom Erickson said Wednesday. “Between Pomeroy’s liberal voting record and the prospect of Gov. Hoeven gracing the top of the ticket in 2010, Pomeroy can all but be assured that this will be his last term in office.”

But there is no denying the personal solidity of the delegation. Their friendship and shared vision go back even farther than 1992, to that 1974 U.S. House contest.

Dorgan, then state tax commissioner, was challenging incumbent Republican Rep. Mark Andrews.

He hired Conrad, 26, as his campaign manager, and the two future U.S. senators stumped the state by car.

Conrad hired Pomeroy, 22, to drive the car.

“I remember it very well,” Pomeroy said Wednesday. “I was right out of college, and I had Byron on a very lofty pedestal.”

He was hired for the campaign’s fall stretch, from Labor Day on, “and they called me ‘Kiss of Death Pomeroy’ ” because he already had been involved in two failed campaigns.

“It was a thoroughly enjoyable campaign,” he said. “Byron was one of the more efficient and productive people I’ve ever known, and I enjoyed the warm and deep friendship between him and Conrad.”

As the three became closer, “It gave us a dynamic and a history together that basically anchored us as we experienced other things,” Pomeroy said.

“We were unique among the 50 states. No other state had a delegation that enjoyed each other as much. And while we arrive at decisions our own way, we share a passion and we share a world view.”

‘This guy’s OK’

Lloyd Omdahl, a former state official and longtime Democratic-NPL activist, played a role in getting two of the trio started.

Retired in Grand Forks after teaching political science at the University of North Dakota, Omdahl was working in the governor’s office when Dorgan, finishing work on his master’s degree in business in Denver, wrote that he’d like to return to North Dakota.

When an opening occurred in the tax commissioner’s office, Omdahl did some checking and sent a note to Gov. Bill Guy: “This guy looks pretty good. We think this guy would be OK.”

The three … ?

When the three took office after the 1992 elections, it ended a remarkable political dance.

Conrad was finishing a term in the Senate and, abiding by a campaign pledge, didn’t seek re-election. But 32-year Senate veteran Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., died in office, and Conrad won a special election in December for that seat. In November, Dorgan had run for and won Conrad’s old seat, and Pomeroy replaced Dorgan in the House.

“I can’t think of two other people I’d rather serve with,” Conrad said at the time. “They’re hardworking, they’re honest; they genuinely want to do a good job.”

Pomeroy was excited, too: “We’ll be able to approach a lot of things with a common strategy.”

Nobody was calling them Team North Dakota or the Three Amigos (or Three Stooges) yet. But Conrad anticipated it with a variation.

“I don’t think any of us could have anticipated this,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Three Musketeers.”

No rancor

During the 1974 campaign, Carvell, covering state politics for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, traveled a couple of days each with Dorgan and Andrews (who won that U.S. House election and two more, moved up to the Senate in 1980 but lost the seat six years later to Conrad).

“As we drove around the eastern part of the state, I pointed out to Byron that his hair was thinning,” Carvell said.

He included the observation in his story.

“When I went to work for him later, he said to me, ‘You know, I have never forgiven you for that.’ But he said it with a smile.”

The most tension between the three may have come in 1992, when Pomeroy first ran. Dorgan, Conrad and the rest of the Democratic-NPL Party had lobbied Pomeroy hard to seek Dorgan’s House seat.

Pomeroy, wrapping up a term as state insurance commissioner, had been keen on joining the Peace Corps. “But Byron was moving up,” Carvell said. “They told Earl they needed someone strong to fill in.”

Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.