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Dale Wetzel, Associated Press, Published December 03 2012

ND House Democrats choose Onstad as floor leader

BISMARCK — North Dakota House Democrats, their already small ranks diminished by last month's election, chose Kenton Onstad as minority leader Monday after Jerry Kelsh decided to stand down from the post.

Onstad, a Parshall Democrat, was elected as floor leader without opposition for the 2013 session. The choice came a few hours before the Legislature began a three-day session for organizational work, which will include issue briefings, computer training and desk assignments.

Lawmakers begin their regular session Jan. 8.

Onstad, who lost to Kelsh in a leadership race two years ago, had announced another challenge. Kelsh, who had said he would run for another term as leader, said Monday he had changed his mind.

“I've kind of given up the last two years of my life working for the caucus, finding candidates, and supporting them,” Kelsh said. “I'm 72 years old and I just thought it was time to let somebody else do it, if they want to do it.”

Onstad, in a speech to House Democrats at the party's state headquarters in Bismarck, said rebuilding Democratic strength in the Capitol would be a long-term project.

“We have to set some goals. Without any goals, we have no expectations,” Onstad said. “The second thing is, we have to create a message, and that message has to resonate with our voters in the public. It can be simple, but it's got to be always there.”

Onstad represents a western North Dakota district that includes the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. He was first elected to the House in 2000 and served two sessions as an assistant to former House Democratic leader Merle Boucher, D-Rolette.

Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, was elected as Onstad's assistant without opposition. The incumbent, former Rep. Lee Kaldor, D-Mayville, did not seek re-election to the House.

Republicans have two-thirds control in both the North Dakota House and Senate. Democrats gained two Senate seats in November's election, but Republicans still outnumber them, 33-14. In the House, Democrats lost two seats, and now have 23 to Republicans’ 71.

Onstad's election means Democrats will have new leadership teams in both the House and Senate in the approaching session.

Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, was elected Sunday night as the party's new Senate leader, replacing former Sen. Ryan Taylor, D-Towner.

Schneider was Taylor's assistant during the 2011 Legislature. Taylor passed up a Senate re-election race in favor of a run for governor, which he lost to Republican incumbent Jack Dalrymple.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, replaced Schneider as the assistant minority leader.

Republicans chose their House and Senate floor leaders last month. Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, was re-elected as majority leader, while Rep. Don Vigesaa, R-Cooperstown, was chosen for another term as his assistant.

In the Senate, Dickinson Republican Rich Wardner was re-elected as the Senate majority leader, while Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden, succeeded former Sen. Randy Christmann, R-Hazen, as Wardner's deputy. Christmann resigned his seat last month after he was elected to the state Public Service Commission.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.