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Associated Press, Published April 19 2013

Vote on guns puts Heitkamp in national spotlight

WASHINGTON — As Heidi Heitkamp eked out a North Dakota Senate race decided by less than 3,000 votes last year, one topic that rarely came up was gun rights. Now that Heitkamp is a freshman senator in Washington, an issue that once hardly registered has quickly become a defining one.

On Wednesday, Heitkamp joined three other Democrats and a majority of Republican senators in voting against legislation that would have expanded federal background checks for gun purchases.

Her opposition stood out because Heitkamp was the only Democrat not up for re-election in 2014 to vote against the measure. And in doing so, she shook off persistent pressure from her party's liberal base, fellow Democratic senators and the White House, which dispatched President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, to make a final, in-person appeal for her vote.

"Throughout the debate, I stood firm and protected the Second Amendment rights of North Dakotans," Heitkamp said after the vote.

It's a statement that matched Heitkamp's rhetoric throughout the gun debate, which has gripped Washington this year. Citing North Dakota values also parrots her campaign rhetoric, when she pitched herself in a race against then-Rep. Rick Berg, a Republican, as an independent-minded candidate pledging to vote with the interests of North Dakotans, not national Democrats.

Obama, among others, seemed mystified by the votes of Heitkamp and others who opposed new gun control measures.

"All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington," the president said Wednesday evening. "Who are we here to represent?"

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a victim of gun violence in Tuscon, Ariz., wrote of her anger in an opinion piece in The New York Times: "Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I'm furious. I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done."

Publicly, Heitkamp did not give the impression that she was wavering on gun legislation, though she waited until the day of the actual vote to say she would not vote for the measure.

"I think my position has been clear from the beginning," she said in an interview.

Pressure on her had been intense, culminating on the day of the vote. One of the senators leading a compromise effort on background checks, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., delivered a speech on the Senate floor imploring Heitkamp and other wavering senators to support the legislation. Heitkamp was presiding over the Senate at the time, looking directly at Manchin as he spoke.

"I understand that some of our colleagues believe that supporting this piece of legislation is risky politics," Manchin said. "I think there is a time in our life, a defining time in public service, a time when you have the ability to stand. When you know the facts are on your side and walk into the lion's den and look that lion in the eye and tell that lion, listen, not today."

By that time, Heitkamp had already been the target of two separate ad campaigns seeking to sway her on guns.

Just days after Heitkamp was sworn in, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence ran newspaper ads attacking her for comments on ABC's "This Week." During an interview on the show, Heitkamp said of Obama's gun control proposals, "what I hear from the administration (is) way, way in extreme of what I think is necessary or even should be talked about."

Within days the group ran ads in newspapers in North Dakota and Washington evoking the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., and signed by victims of gun violence during mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and at Virginia Tech.

Beneath a photo of a hillside memorial for victims of the elementary school shooting in Newtown, the ad read: "Shame on you, Senator Heidi Heitkamp for telling the country on Sunday that the Obama administration's response to Newtown — which may include universal background checks and a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines — is 'extreme.'"

Weeks later, Heitkamp was targeted again, this time by Mayor's Against Illegal Guns, a gun control group founded and supported by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The group ran ads on North Dakota television making the case for expanded background checks.

Heitkamp responded to the ads from Bloomberg's group witheringly, saying that she would not tell mayor of New York how to run his city and he should not presume to know how things worked in North Dakota.

Heitkamp said all the outside pressure has not surprised her or particularly bothered her. But she said she questioned its utility.

"It doesn't surprise me at all," she said. "The beltway is this fishbowl. They think that this stuff works or they think that they understand people in North Dakota. And they don't."

Rankling Democrats, particularly Obama, isn't exactly unexpected behavior from Heitkamp. In her 2012 race against Berg, she seemed to relish putting distance between herself and national Democrats. On energy policy, in particular, Heitkamp routinely upbraided the Obama Administration for what she said were its failings, citing its policies on coal and its decision to not immediately approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Then, as now, Heitkamp, explained her differences by citing her home state.

"It's about North Dakota," she said.


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.