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Published January 19 2011

ND Sen. Conrad getting out of the game

Sen. Kent Conrad announced Tuesday he won’t seek re-election next year, becoming the last of North Dakota’s three long-serving Democrats in Congress to bid farewell to the Capitol and busting the 2012 Senate race wide open.

Conrad said he wants to spend the final two years of his term trying to put the country back on track financially and make it more energy-independent.

“And if I’m caught up in a re-election campaign, that’s going to take a lot of effort and a lot of energy that is better put into getting our debt down and reducing our dependence on foreign energy,” he said.

Conrad’s decision surprised state party officials on both sides of the aisle.

“I was shocked, like I think most of us are,” said Stan Stein, North Dakota GOP chairman.

“We were operating under the assumption that he was going to run again,” said Joe Aronson, executive director of the state Democratic-NPL Party.

However, given Conrad’s 24 years in the Senate and six years as state tax commissioner before that, he’s “certainly more than earned the right to take a step back and do something else,” Aronson said.

Democratic-NPL Party Chairman Mark Schneider called Conrad’s departure “a terrible loss for the state,” noting that Conrad was named as one of “America’s 10 Best Senators” by Time magazine in 2006.

“What he’s been able to do for North Dakota is nothing short of stupendous, and you just don’t replace that kind of person and that kind of service – not very easily, anyway,” Schneider said.

Conrad said the loss of Sen. Byron Dorgan to retirement last year and Rep. Earl Pomeroy in a failed re-election bid last November also factored into his decision. The trio, sometimes referred to as “Team North Dakota,” served together in Congress for 18 years.

“I’m sure it did have an influence,” Conrad said. “You know, Byron Dorgan’s my best friend. Earl Pomeroy’s a very close and dear friend. And certainly that’s changed things.”

Conrad said he’d been weighing a re-election run for months and made his decision over the holidays.

The Senate Budget Commission chairman said he has a “special responsibility” to bring the nation’s $14 trillion debt under control.

As one of 18 members of the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission, Conrad supported a plan released in November that would shave nearly $4 trillion off the debt in 10 years through a variety of means, some politically unpopular such as spending cuts, ending tax breaks and raising the retirement age.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he said.

Not having to worry about re-election will free up Conrad to make hard choices about debt reduction, Schneider said.

“It’s just so typical of Sen. Conrad. He wants to get down to business, and this allows him to do it,” he said.

Among Conrad’s other priorities during his final two years in office, he said, will be to craft a new farm bill, advance permanent flood control for the Red River Valley and address Devils Lake flooding.

Coupled with the loss of Dorgan and Pomeroy, Conrad’s imminent exit marks the end of an era that saw Democratic control of North Dakota’s three seats in Congress for nearly two decades.

“It’s certainly a changing of the guard, and it’s going to require the party to have its younger leadership move forward, perhaps a little faster than some of them wanted to,” Schneider said. “But we have good talent, and we will definitely have a good candidate in 2012.”

Schneider said Conrad’s legacy touches every corner of North Dakota, citing his work on flood relief, the farm bill, economic and rural development and keeping the state’s two Air Force bases open.

“But beyond that, Kent Conrad is also the last of a dying breed,” Schneider said. “He’s actually a bipartisan senator. He was able to reach across the aisle.”

Conrad said he hasn’t thought about what he plans to do when his term expires, including whether he’ll leave politics. He said he was surprised at how strongly his family felt that it was “time to move in a different direction.”

Conrad said he had many people contact him and ask if there was anything they could do to change his mind, including one who offered to quit his job and volunteer on his campaign for the next two years.

“I told them all, you know, I’ve made this decision. I’m at peace with this decision. I think it’s the right decision, and I’m going to stick to it,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

Timeline: Kent Conrad