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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published November 12 2010

North Dakota state lawmakers elect leaders next week

BISMARCK – Newly strengthened Republican majorities in the North Dakota Legislature have left its House and Senate leaders unchallenged for re-election, while top Democratic leadership spots are expected to have contests.

Both parties will elect their floor leaders next week, when lawmakers gather at the Capitol for a two-day meeting to hear reports from the Legislature’s interim study committees.

Republicans emerged from last week’s elections with two-thirds majorities in the North Dakota House and Senate. Republicans picked up nine Senate seats, which left them with a 35-12 advantage over Democrats, and 11 House seats, which gave the GOP 69 seats in the chamber to Democrats’ 25.

Two House Democrats, Lois Delmore of Grand Forks and Ed Gruchalla of Fargo, still face mandatory recounts before their results are official, and a Senate Democrat, Arden Anderson of Wahpeton, plans to request a recount of his 36-vote loss to Republican Larry Luick of Fairmount.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the House majority leader, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Bob Stenehjem of Bismarck, said they were not surprised that no leadership challengers have come forward, given the favorable GOP election results.

“It’s pretty hard to say we didn’t do a good job,” Carlson said.

Carlson and his assistant, Rep. Don Vigesaa, R-Cooperstown, are both running for their second terms as the House’s GOP floor leaders. Neither man has a declared opponent, GOP lawmakers said.

Three Republicans are competing for the job of House speaker: Reps. Kathy Hawken of Fargo, David “Skip” Drovdal of Arnegard and Larry Bellew of Minot.

The speaker presides over the chamber’s daily floor sessions and is involved in choosing the members of House committees that review legislation. By tradition, the speaker serves only one term. The election’s winner will succeed Rep. David Monson, R-Osnabrock, who served during the 2009 Legislature.

In the Senate, Stenehjem is seeking re-election as majority leader, and Sen. Randy Christmann, R-Hazen, is running to stay on as his assistant. Stenehjem has been the majority leader since April 2001, while Christmann has held the No. 2 job since November 2000.

The incumbent Democratic Senate leader, Sen. David O’Connell of Lansford said he intended to run for his fifth term as minority leader. Towner Sen. Ryan Taylor, who bucked a Republican tide in winning re-election last week with 60 percent of the vote, said he would challenge O’Connell.

“It might be time for another direction. Leaders aren’t there permanently,” Taylor said. “It’s nothing against Dave. I consider Dave a good friend. He’s just a real gentleman.”

Grand Forks Sen. Mac Schneider is the only declared candidate for assistant Democratic leader. The incumbent, Fargo Sen. Carolyn Nelson, is stepping down.

Nelson is in line to become president of the National Federation of Music Clubs, which promotes musical study and appreciation, in June. As a result, she will have less time to devote to Senate leadership work, she said.

“He’s sharp. He’s personable. He’s easy to work with,” Nelson said of Schneider, who was first elected to the Senate in 2008. “I think he’s got room to move.”

In the House, longtime Democratic floor leader Rep. Merle Boucher of Rolette declined to seek re-election to the House in favor of a campaign for state agriculture commissioner, which he lost to Republican Doug Goehring.

Boucher’s assistant, Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, and Rep. Jerome Kelsh, D-Fullerton, are competing to succeed Boucher. Kelsh is a veteran legislator who served 18 years in the North Dakota Senate before he declined to seek re-election in 2002. He won his first House term in 2008.

House and Senate Republicans are holding separate meetings at 7 p.m. Monday to elect their leaders. House Democrats plan to meet shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Onstad said. Senate Democrats have not decided when they will hold their leadership elections, although the meeting may be held at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, said Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, who is chairman of the Senate Democratic caucus.

The Legislature’s three-day organizational session begins Dec. 6. The regular 2011 session begins Jan. 4.