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Patrick Springer, Published December 08 2012

Conrad reflects on time in Washington

FARGO – Kent Conrad sent tremors through North Dakota’s political landscape when he announced on Jan. 18, 2011, he would not seek a fifth term in the U.S. Senate.

The decision was an aftershock to the political earthquake delivered a year earlier, on Jan. 5, 2010, when Sen. Byron Dorgan, a fellow Democrat, announced he would retire from politics.

“He’s like a brother,” Conrad said of Dorgan. “It’s very unusual for senators to be close friends.”

Although senators from the same state and the same party are partners, they also are on some level rivals – successful politicians, after all, are fierce competitors with egos to match their ambitions.

Conrad and Dorgan had been so close, in fact, that Conrad’s wife, Lucy Calautti, served for a time as Dorgan’s chief of staff, an arrangement unheard of in Washington, a city of jockeying strivers that once prompted Harry Truman to quip, “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”

“Conrad’s wife leaves Dorgan,” Conrad said, chuckling as he recalled a headline in The Forum when she stepped down. “It’s one of our favorite headlines.”

Without his brother at his side, his partner in so many legislative battles, from farm bills to disaster relief fights and air base closure rounds, Conrad decided that he, too, would retire.

But Dorgan’s departure wasn’t the only reason Conrad decided to hang it up.

There are also the huge sums of money now required to run for national office, with Senate campaigns costing on average $10 million to

$12 million.

“The fundraising demands have escalated exponentially, and that is not a good thing,” Conrad said. “I never had a big-money race. I never had to raise more than $2 million or $3 million.”

When Conrad announced his pending retirement, he said he would devote his remaining time in office to working to solve the federal debt crisis and to passing a new farm bill – priorities that still top his to-do list.

As his final term comes to a close, Conrad sat down with The Forum Editorial Board for a wide-ranging interview about his 26 years in federal office, his future plans and what’s changed in Washington since he got there.

An uncommon route

Conrad, who was orphaned at the age of 5 when his parents were killed in a car accident, was raised in Bismarck by his grandparents. Early on he met Dorgan, who was appointed state tax commissioner at the age of 26.

After graduating from Stanford, Conrad returned to North Dakota in 1974 and worked on Dorgan’s unsuccessful House campaign.

Then, when Dorgan ran successfully for Congress in 1980, Conrad inaugurated his own political career, taking Dorgan’s spot as tax commissioner, an improbable launching pad for high office.

In a twist of political fate, Conrad was the first to reach the Senate, running as an underdog against Republican Mark Andrews, whom he unseated in 1986 by a mere 2,135 votes.

It was early in what became quite a run in North Dakota politics, the anomaly of a Democratic blue congressional delegation in a staunchly Republican red state.

Conrad, Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy worked so closely together they were dubbed Team North Dakota, regarded by observers as, pound for pound, one of the most influential in Washington.

But a lot has changed since Conrad arrived in the national capital a quarter century ago, little of it good in the view of North Dakota’s departing senior senator.

Sharp-elbowed partisanship has replaced problem-solving as the way to keep score.

Much of the blame in Conrad’s estimation stems from the 24/7 cable news networks’ insatiable hunger for controversy, with Fox catering to conservatives and MSNBC leaning toward liberals.

“The people who are the loudest and say off-the-wall things get the attention, and they get a disproportionate amount of the attention,” Conrad said.

“There’s a lot of time spent on figuring out how to get partisan advantage,” rather than seeking consensus on policy, he said, which used to be much easier to achieve.

Now, in an era of perpetual campaigns, members of Congress seldom venture beyond their partisan islands, another reason the gap between the parties has widened into a chasm.

“We spend too much time talking to each other,” he said. “When you spend too much time talking to each other, you start to believe your own press releases.”

The public is increasingly frustrated with political gridlock and people sense “something is wrong here,” Conrad said.

“Will it get better? I don’t know.”

Reflecting on legacy

Conrad said he’s confident the impending “fiscal cliff” can be averted. He said he senses moderates in both political camps will come together closer to the new year, when not doing so is the worst option.

A new farm bill is an important part of the deal. Adopting the Senate farm bill would provide

$23 billion in savings yet maintain strong support for farmers, he said.

“It’s got to be part of the deal,” Conrad said. “It’s hugely important to

North Dakota.”

Farm legislation, in fact, ranks high among Conrad’s appraisal of his tenure in the Senate, including the landmark 2000 and 2008 farm bills.

As a result, he said, North Dakota receives more per capita from farm programs than any other state. Conrad also is proud of his ability to obtain farm disaster relief.

Despite the dysfunctional politics in Washington and the seemingly intractable budget impasse, Conrad remains optimistic that a federal budget can be balanced.

One reason is that it happened before, in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president. The budget was in balance for four years and even achieved a surplus in 1999 and 2000.

“I played some part in that,” Conrad said.

Doing so meant belatedly keeping a promise he had made as a freshman senator. Conrad, when campaigning for his first term in the Senate, had promised not to seek re-election if the budget wasn’t balanced.

In 1992, he announced he would not seek another term, to honor his pledge. Then the death of Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., created a vacant seat, temporarily filled by his widow. Conrad resigned his seat and was elected to fill Burdick’s.

In recent years, Conrad has been a member of the Gang of Six, which turned into the Gang of Eight, and was named to President Barack Obama’s commission to tackle the chronic federal debt and deficit.

Conrad’s leading role for years on budget issues – he is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee – will be his leading legacy in national politics, in the view of Heidi Heitkamp, a protégé and fellow Democrat who will take his seat.

“Certainly being the consistent and constant voice for budget reform and sound fiscal policy is what Kent Conrad will always be remembered for” on the national stage, she said.

Looking for a new life

Conrad hired Heitkamp in 1981 to work as an attorney in the North Dakota Tax Department when he was tax commissioner, his first elected office.

They worked together for almost five years, and Conrad played a central role in many statewide issues, she said. Because his service in Washington overshadows his days in Bismarck, people tend to forget his early contributions, Heitkamp said.

“Kent always rose to the occasion,” she said, recalling his role in helping to keep the Great Plains Synfuels plant running after the original owners walked away.

Energy policy was a key focus for Conrad, whose state has long been an exporter of coal-fired electricity, has been called the Saudi Arabia of wind, and has shot up to become the nation’s No. 2 oil state.

Conrad regards his role as laying out a blueprint that helped decrease the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

Faced with a series of record floods, and an extensive highway system to maintain, infrastructure also ranks as one of Conrad’s lasting achievements.

Diverting Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota has long been an unrealized dream of state leaders. Conrad has helped secure $859 million in funding related to the old Garrison Diversion project, which evolved into the unfinished Red River Water Supply Project.

Conrad also has helped to provide more than

$1 billion to deal with the chronic flood at Devils Lake, including raising levees and roads.

And it’s no accident that two of the three remaining Air Force bases in the northern tier of states – where once there were 16 – are to be found on the North Dakota prairie.

“That didn’t just happen,” Conrad said, adding it took a lot of focused work to preserve the bases’ missions and provide upgrades to keep them valuable.

“I think you can go all across the state of North Dakota and see the impact of Kent Conrad,” Heitkamp said. “He was there when times were tough and he’s been there when times are good.”

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., first worked with Conrad when serving as governor, then became his colleague in the Senate.

Conrad is famous for using charts to illustrate his presentations, and is careful to make sure his audience understands his top points. But the key to his effectiveness, Hoeven said, is his intelligence.

“He’s a really smart guy,” Hoeven said. “He’s very analytical.”

While that’s probably not surprising, Hoeven said, many of Conrad’s constituents might not know that he’s a bit of a cutup who enjoys leavening a sober meeting with humor.

“He’s got a very good sense of humor, and he likes to kid and tease,” Hoeven said. “He’s got a warm personality, and I don’t know if people always realize that.”

But behind the amiable humor is a tenacity that Heitkamp pinpoints as another attribute that has enabled Conrad to stand out.

While Conrad is renowned for his charts and analytical approach, former Sen. Byron Dorgan was just as effective, but wielded folksy anecdotes instead of graphs, Heitkamp said.

“Byron’s a storyteller,” she said.

Conrad’s own summation of his approach: “You know, I’ve done my best over a long period of time.”

In a passing of the political baton, Dorgan and Conrad will escort Heitkamp down the aisle of the Senate chambers when she takes the oath of office in January, a walk Conrad will be happy to take.

As for his future, Conrad said, he hasn’t yet decided what he will do, although he expects to do some teaching.

“I’m not looking for another public-sector job,” Conrad said. He already has removed himself from consideration for several jobs that would have required extensive travel.

Conrad would relish being involved in one last deal to put the federal budget on sound footing, but at age 64 he’s weary of politics and eager for whatever is next.

“I’m really looking for a little freedom,” he said. “I’m interested in a different life.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522