Published January 17 2010
Gov. John Hoeven's life and politics: 'It was always a great challenge to beat John'
But a political future seemed predictable – even inevitable – according to family, friends and former classmates of the 52-year-old North Dakota governor, who’s now running as a favored GOP candidate for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.
As recently as 1996, Hoeven was briefly a Democrat – until then-Republican Gov. Ed Schafer said he had a straight talk with Hoeven about potentially challenging him in that year’s governor’s race.
“There’s no way you’re going to win,” Schafer said he told Hoeven.
The younger years
John Henry Hoeven III was born March 13, 1957, in Bismarck to parents John Henry “Jack” Hoeven, Jr., and Patricia (Chapman) Hoeven.
John III is the middle child among two sisters: Becky, who’s one year older, and Marjorie, who’s about three years younger.
The Hoeven family left Bismarck in the early 1960s and moved to Ashley, N.D., for about a year before settling in Minot in 1964, where some of the family still resides today.
A banker by trade, Jack Hoeven took over the First Western Bank & Trust of Minot in 1969, which evolved into a family business as the Hoeven children grew older.
At age 15, John Hoeven started his first job at the bank as a bookkeeper while he attended private Bishop Ryan High School.
Junior and senior high classmates of Hoeven described him as the classic clean-cut all-star honors student with leadership potential. He consistently earned straight-As and participated in a variety of activities such as athletics (including football, basketball and golf), band, drama, show choir and student council.
“He got teased some in high school for being so squeaky clean, but it looks to me like he made all the right choices,” said high school classmate George Ott.
Minot resident Chuck Merck was Hoeven’s best friend throughout junior and senior high school and described the young Hoeven as someone who “stayed out of trouble.”
“I think he knew from the time that he was a young man that he had potential for a good future if he knew what he was doing and kept his nose clean,” Merck said. “He always kind of knew the direction he was heading unlike many of us, who just kind of wandered around and did whatever.”
Many classmates recalled Hoeven as being intelligent, focused, driven and highly competitive.
“It was always a great challenge to beat John,” said Kathy Hett, a fellow trumpet player in the school band, who remembers beating Hoeven just once in a classroom challenge.
Hoeven went on to graduate as class president and valedictorian of his 1975 graduating class of about 96 students.
Many of Hoeven’s friends from his high school and college years, including his future wife, said Hoeven never talked about political aspirations back then.
Still, some said it was no surprise when Hoeven eventually pursued a political career.
After all, his father was no stranger to politics.
The elder Hoeven has been very active in the state Republican Party, from pursuing party leadership roles to donating thousands of dollars in contributions.
Jack Hoeven sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor in 1968 and once served both as the state GOP vice chairman and on the State Board of Higher Education.
“His dad gave him tremendous leadership, there’s no question about that,” Merck said of John.
Due to his father’s connections, John Hoeven caddied golf for then-Sen. Milton Young, also a Republican, and “they were good friends,” Jack Hoeven said.
“He was constantly aware of politics all of his life,” Jack Hoeven said.
But the senior Hoeven said he doesn’t think his own political activism prompted his son’s.
“I don’t think anything drove John anywhere,” Jack Hoeven said.
John Hoeven talked fondly of the influence his father had on his life – but also said his decision to be a Republican was his own.
“Obviously my father’s had an impact on me in many ways; it’s a very positive and wonderful impact across the board,” Hoeven said.
After Hoeven graduated high school, he attended one of the nation’s top universities.
While Hoeven attended Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., he joined Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity, where he shared a brotherhood with future successful men, including Ronald Reagan’s presidential speechwriter.
Jim Wasz, now alumni president of Dartmouth’s Class of 1979, rushed Alpha Chi Alpha with Hoeven in the spring of 1976.
“He was not overly gregarious – just a good man, never had a bad word about anybody,” Wasz said.
During his college years, Hoeven returned to Minot in the summertime to continue working at his father’s bank, finding his way into various roles and departments within the bank’s hierarchy.
Hoeven’s mother died in 1979, shortly before he graduated with honors.
Family of his own
In 1978, Hoeven asked out a woman named Michal who worked part time in the customer service department of his father’s bank.
“The first time he asked me out, I was absolutely elated,” said “Mikey” Hoeven, his wife of 27 years and North Dakota’s first lady. “I had kind of watched him from afar and always thought he was a cute guy and a very nice guy.”
The pair saw a play at an outdoor amphitheater in Minot during their first date.
They dated for only a few months, when Hoeven moved to Illinois to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at Northwestern University, and Mikey moved to Texas to pursue work and education opportunities there.
They were apart for about two years but stayed in touch and later married in 1983.
Both said they view their marriage as a “blessing.”
“It’s hard to believe we’ve been married that long,” Mikey Hoeven said. “We’ve grown so much together over the years. We are each other’s best friend.”
John and Mikey Hoeven have two children, Marcela and Jack, who are now 25 and 19, respectively.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, John Hoeven continued to move through the ranks of the First Western Bank & Trust of Minot, eventually becoming CEO.
Hoeven said he enjoyed the variety and public aspects of the roles he held at the bank, where his older sister still works, his father serves as chairman and he sits on the board.
“I like that it’s a people business,” Hoeven said. “On any given day, I might be in the bank, but I could just as likely be out on a farm talking to a farmer or in a business talking to a businessman.”
In 1993, the Hoevens moved to Bismarck so John could take his new job as president of the Bank of North Dakota.
“It was a chance to work with people statewide,” Hoeven said.
He was hired by the state Industrial Commission, which was then comprised of Gov. Ed Schafer, Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp and Ag Commissioner Sarah Vogel. In the coming years, Hoeven would be pitted against one of those three commissioners in a political battle and almost challenge another.
Hoeven said his jump into politics came as an evolution of his community activism, but Mikey Hoeven said the move to Bismarck was when her husband began showing an interest in politics.
“I think he was always interested in politics; he certainly paid attention to what was going on,” she said.
Hoeven hit the North Dakota political scene in 1996, when Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad publicly encouraged Hoeven to run for governor as a Democrat against the incumbent Republican Schafer.
In a letter to the editor published in a February 1996 issue of The Forum, Hoeven declared himself a Democrat and praised North Dakota state and federal Democratic leaders.
“I have always been moderate in my political views, but now that I am considering elective office, I realize I must join a political party and stick to it,” Hoeven wrote then. “I have decided to join the Democratic-NPL Party because I believe that is the best fit for my views.”
However, within a matter of months, Hoeven later recanted his liberal affiliation and declared himself a Republican. He never did end up facing Schafer, but it may have been because Schafer warned Hoeven that the upstart politician would lose in a face-off between the two.
Schafer told The Forum last week that he had spoken with Hoeven often throughout the months leading up to the 1996 election and told his potential challenger, “There’s no way you’re going to win. I’m winning this election.”
Schafer said he advised Hoeven that patience within the Republican Party would better set up Hoeven’s political future.
“Your personal philosophy and principles aren’t there (with the Democrats),” Schafer said he told Hoeven. “You’re going to be miserable trying to represent them. Not saying they’re right or wrong, but that’s not where you are.
“We had some good discussions about it, and he decided to stay in,” Schafer added.
Hoeven said he took time to evaluate where he stood and felt the Democratic-NPL Party was “not the right fit for me.”
“I stepped back and said, ‘No, that’s a mistake,’ ” Hoeven said, adding that the underlying philosophies of the Republican Party were better in step with his own beliefs.
Hoeven told The Forum last week that he was surprised the 1996 election season was even being discussed now, but Democrats believe it’s still a sticking point with the now-declared Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
“It’s an issue only because it does carry forward into the way he has acted ever since,” Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Mark Schneider said. “The fact that he was a Democrat and then he wasn’t simply shows he’ll sway in the political winds in order to get elected and stoke his popularity. That is not independent leadership.”
Hoeven’s first true attempt at public office saw him opposing a former boss: Heidi Heitkamp.
Hoeven came out the victor in the pivotal 2000 governor’s race, garnering 55 percent of the vote over Heitkamp’s 45 percent, and continuing Republican leadership in the governor’s office.
His re-elections in 2004 and 2008 (when he garnered 75 percent of the vote) made him the first governor in North Dakota history to be elected to a third four-year term.
During Hoeven’s announcement last week that he would seek the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Byron Dorgan, Hoeven said he had more to offer the state.
His family and former classmates said they back him 100 percent and hope he’s successful in his bid, which as of Saturday remained unopposed by a Democratic challenger, who many speculate might end up being Heitkamp.
“I think he’s exactly what we need in Washington, not just for us, but for this country,” said Hett. “I think his philosophy and the way he’s handled North Dakota, there’s a lot of common sense there.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541