Patrick Springer, Published December 29 2012
Forum Area Person of the Year: Heidi Heitkamp
She started her career as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency – an unpopular bureaucracy in a state that frowns upon federal regulation.
Then, she worked as a lawyer in the North Dakota Tax Department, an agency she later headed.
Although she served two terms as state attorney general, she hadn’t been on a statewide ballot for more than a decade when she announced her run for the U.S. Senate.
And she ran as a Democrat, virtually an endangered political species in a state that has turned a deep shade of Republican red.
But you know how that turned out.
Heitkamp, who never thought the designation of “underdog” fit her, defied the odds and made history in November as the first woman elected to represent North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.
Her against-all-odds achievement earned Heitkamp The Forum’s Area Person of the Year honor for 2012.
She’s happy if her milestone election to the Senate serves as an inspiration to girls and young women.
“It says to every young girl I met at a parade: That’s somebody who looks like me who is running for a very important office,” she said.
Women, because they often assume the role of negotiating the peace in families, are good at reaching consensus, Heitkamp said.
Would the deadlocked “fiscal cliff” budget talks in Washington have been resolved by now if more women were at the table?
“Yes,” Heitkamp said, chuckling. Then added, “That’s hard to know.”
More seriously, Heitkamp believes it’s important for women to hold office because they represent half of society’s talent pool.
“It hopefully will help broaden the pool,” Heitkamp said, referring to her historic election win.
In fact, when the new Congress convenes Thursday, Heitkamp will be one of 20 women senators, a record in the upper chamber, where one of five senators will be women.
‘Salt of the earth’
As for the accolade of being named The Forum’s Area Person of the Year, Heitkamp is reluctant to claim the honor for herself.
“There’s way too much me, me, me in America, and it really is us,” she said. “In some ways, I like to think that this is about the independent spirit of North Dakota.”
The state, she adds, has long been known for its maverick streak in politics, and the willingness of its voters to split the ticket.
True, but that didn’t make her victory – by fewer than 3,000 votes among 321,000 cast – less noteworthy.
With nothing less than control of the Senate at stake, Washington and its chattering pundits took notice.
A Washington Post columnist, for instance, proclaimed Heitkamp the best candidate of 2012, and she’s already made an impression on Capitol Hill.
“Everyone who’s met her in Washington is impressed with how she’s her own person,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “She’s just really taken this place by storm.”
Klobuchar, who in 2006 became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate in Minnesota, campaigned with Heitkamp, including a hotdish fundraiser in Fargo attended by Garrison Keillor.
“Heidi, she’s salt of the earth,” Klobuchar said. “People love her.”
One of Heitkamp’s appeals is the fact that she doesn’t fit a partisan mold but tries to find solutions in the middle on issues including fiscal balance and energy development, Klobuchar said.
“She’s somebody who will speak with a moderate voice,” she added. “I also think she and Sen. (John) Hoeven will be a good pair.”
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker agrees that Heitkamp knows that voters want their elected leaders to transcend partisanship to get results.
“She can certainly cross party lines,” Walaker said, “and that’s necessary. I think what’s important is not whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, it’s what’s best for North Dakota.”
A common touch
Heitkamp’s victory against Rick Berg made North Dakota history in another way – one that won’t surprise television viewers bombarded last fall by campaign ads.
The race marked the first truly “big money” Senate campaign in the state, with the two candidates spending a combined $11.8 million, by far a record in North Dakota.
“I don’t remember a campaign in North Dakota having the level of national interest,” said Mark Jendrysik, a professor of political science at the University of North Dakota.
Despite the heavy spending, Heitkamp’s victory “validated a certain kind of campaigning,” he added, one characterized by “good old-fashioned retail politics,” with appearances in parades, at church picnics and on front porches.
During the campaign, many commentators made mention of Heitkamp’s likeability and common touch.
Her disarming personality often comes across more like the daughter of a seasonal construction worker and school cook than one of the state attorney general who negotiated a landmark settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s.
A long road to senator
Heitkamp was one of seven children in a family from tiny Mantador, which now has a population of 64, a dot on the map in Richland County.
“She’s highly competent, and she is very much North Dakota,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., whose seat Heitkamp will fill. “If there was anybody who was North Dakota through and through, it’s Heidi.”
Conrad, in fact, was Heitkamp’s mentor. He drafted her to work as a staff lawyer in the North Dakota Tax Department in 1981, which he headed. She had been working as a lawyer for the EPA in Washington.
A few years later, Conrad gave her a mischievous nudge to enter the political fray in 1984, at the Democratic-NPL Party convention in Minot.
Now famous for the charts he wields in congressional hearings, Conrad had hung a sign the size of a bed sheet on a wall in the convention hall emblazoned with “Heitkamp, Heitkamp, Heitkamp, Heitkamp.”
Reporters asked her what she was running for. Her answer – nothing – evolved after she was drafted to run for state auditor, a race she narrowly lost.
Two years later, in 1986, running as an underdog, Conrad unseated Republican Mark Andrews to capture a seat in the Senate. Heitkamp was appointed to replace Conrad as tax commissioner.
Six years later, she was elected attorney general, a job she would hold for two four-year terms.
“I’m going to love being a senator,” Heitkamp said. “But I loved being attorney general.”
Besides working to curb domestic violence, one of her biggest achievements was the settlement with tobacco companies – work that would not be finished until later, when, as a private citizen, she led a ballot initiative to ensure money from the settlement paid for smoking control programs.
Heitkamp played a leading role in successful ballot initiatives to preserve banking customers’ privacy and to bar the government from seizing private property to a private developer.
Her political career stalled in 2000, when she lost to Hoeven in a race for governor, a defeat that came after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
During the “wonderful 12 years” away from elective office, Heitkamp picked up a couple of credentials some might find surprising.
She became a certified Pilates instructor “two diets ago,” she quips, and also became a certified scuba diver, a new hobby she shares with her husband, Dr. Darwin Lange, a family medicine physician.
Lange is a “shy farm boy” who prefers to stay in the background but is Heitkamp’s close confidante.
“Where you don’t see my husband in a real public way, my husband is a real important partner in what I do,” she said. “He’s my best friend.”
Actually, there’s a shy country girl inside the ebullient Heitkamp, whose personality seems to match her red hair. As a 5-year-old, she was so shy her father didn’t think she could serve as flower girl in her aunt’s wedding.
“I love people, and I get energy from people,” she said. “I also can get fairly reclusive. I’m not someone who’s afraid to be alone or doesn’t like to go to a movie alone.”
The demands of serving in the Senate, and all the travel the job entails, will be much easier to manage than they would have been 12 years ago, now that her children, Alethea, 27, and Nathan, 22, are grown.
Since the Nov. 6 election, Heitkamp has only returned to Washington for two or three days, and hasn’t yet found a place to live.
Instead, she’s spent most of her time traveling the state, meeting with constituents.
“I’ve been on this treadmill now for 16 months,” she said. The housing challenge will be solved at some point; in the meantime, she has friends who have offered her a place to live.
On Thursday, when she walks down the aisle in the Senate chamber to take the oath of office, she will be escorted arm-in-arm by two of her political heroes – Conrad, her close friend and mentor, and former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.
That moment will be exciting, and probably a bit emotional, Heitkamp said.
“Because they are giants in my mind,” she said. “Giant advocates for North Dakota. They have done so much for the state of North Dakota. It will be forever I’m reminded that I want to be in that vein.
“I want to be a person who is representing the interests of North Dakota. Not just fighting for North Dakota but getting things done.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522
The Forum Area Person of The Year recognizes someone who sparked changes and discussion that most influenced our area this past year. The Forum’s selection was made by editors after receiving readers’ suggestions. The following are past Person of the Year winners:
2011: American Crystal Sugar CEO David Berg personified the heart of labor struggles here and elsewhere in 2011.
2010: Denny Sanford, whose wealth and vision played major roles in shaping what used to be Fargo MeritCare Medical Center into the region’s largest hospital system.
2009: Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker for helping lead the flood fight.
2008: Fargo-Moorhead youths for their many volunteer efforts to better the community.
2007: Tracy Briggs, former WDAY radio personality and lead organizer of World War II Honor Flights.
2006: Joseph Chapman, former North Dakota State University president, for leading the university to a higher profile.