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Published June 02 2013

Q&A with Rick Berg: Six months after narrow Senate loss, Berg still figuring out life after politics

Fargo - A year ago, Rick Berg’s goal was to visit three North Dakota cities every day as he campaigned for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Last week, about six months after losing that expensive race to Democrat Heidi Heitkamp by about 3,000 votes, Berg’s agenda consisted of attending his son’s three-day soccer tournament in the Twin Cities. He planned to spend the following weekend branding cattle on a family operation near the central North Dakota town of Hensler.

“So that’s kind of how it’s changed,” he said.

After serving in the state Legislature from 1984 to 2009, including six years as House Majority Leader, the one-term congressman said he’s still figuring out life after politics.

During a sit-down interview at The Forum in mid-May, Berg discussed his new business ventures and increased involvement in nonprofits, whether he’ll ever seek elected office again and how he thinks Heitkamp is doing so far.

He was upbeat for most of the nearly half-hour interview, seeming uneasy only when asked if he would have done anything different in his Senate campaign. He paused for 24 seconds, sighing and kneading his intertwined fingers before answering.

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length.)

It has been about 4½ months since your term ended in the House of Representatives. What have you been doing since then?

Well, I tell you, I’ve taken on the job, probably the best job I’ve had, and that’s a normal citizen, and it’s truly been a blast.

Someone gave me really good advice. They said, ‘Rick, when you get done, don’t make any major commitments for six months, just kind of sit back and see which opportunities, and really to find out where your passion is and what’s driving you.’ … I’ve always been a busy guy, so I’ve kind of tried to throttle back and say, OK, well I’m just going to have patience until July 1.

But really my passion has been much the same as my political involvement in that I see myself drawn to helping grow jobs, helping grow the economy, really from a nonprofit standpoint trying to help people.

When we spoke last week, you were in Canada. What were you doing there?

Well, you know, I wanted to see North Dakota grow. And so obviously the oil has been a tremendous impact in our country.

And so there was the Williston Basin (Petroleum) Conference up in Regina (Saskatchewan), and so I went up there (to) kind of see, both from the personal standpoint but also from the state standpoint, what we should be doing to help that industry.

And one of the things that I’m working on right now is – you know, a big challenge we have in western North Dakota is affordable housing – and so one of the areas that I’m actually in discussions with now is a group that would partner … and help provide more housing, affordable housing, in the Williston Basin area.

You sold your stake in Goldmark Schlossman Commercial Real Estate in 2011, after you co-founded the company and served as its senior vice president. Are you currently involved in any businesses, and do you plan to be in the future?

Well, I’m involved in a lot of different businesses. … There’s a couple of new businesses that are going to be starting here in Fargo that I’m involved with, helping them get going, as well as helping some existing businesses grow both here in Fargo and throughout the state.

Can you talk about the new businesses?

Well, actually not yet. You’ll hear about those.

You mentioned nonprofits before. Have you become involved in any new nonprofits?

Really, from a nonprofit standpoint I probably spend a third of my time there. …

And so one of the groups that I’ve been involved with is TNT Kid’s Fitness (and Gymnastics Academy). And what struck me my two years in Congress is when I went there, they help kids that have special needs, kids with disabilities. They would have kids that have been confined to really a wheelchair pretty much all week long, and they would come and spend time there and the staff there would help, whether it was a trampoline or whether it was a floor mat, have them kind of exercise their muscles, and you’d see grins ear-to-ear on those kids. I mean, that’s one thing that really struck me.

And then the other program I’ve been involved with is Jeremiah (Program). … It helps women, single moms. … So, it’s taking these women, helping give them the educational background and skills … to go wherever their passion takes them, for a career job or whether they want to start a business. … So, I don’t serve on the board, but part of my role there is we’re looking at having a facility, housing where these women could come together.

Are you involved in politics in any way, and if not, do you see yourself getting back into it someday?

I’ve always felt that you’ve got to have passion for what you’re doing. And certainly I don’t know what the future holds, but if there’s an opportunity to make a difference, depending on what that role is, I can’t rule anything out.

My goal is to do things I’m excited about, not to – and I’ve never been this way – not worry about doing things for political reasons, but just do things that you’re excited about. Maybe a mistake in my career, but … (laughs)

You haven’t ruled out a future run for public office again?

Well, you know, I’ve been involved in elected office for almost 30 years, and so the last six months are the only six months that I haven’t. And I really care about governance, I care about our future, and I think, like I said, I think there’s probably a role as a private citizen that’s as important as any elected position.

It’s been six months since the election, and you’ve had time to reflect on it. Why do you think you lost?

Well, it’s pretty complicated. The primary reason is I didn’t get enough votes. (laughs)

I mean, you can go back and you can slice and dice it and do all that kind of stuff. I mean, I have absolutely no regrets. When you put your heart and soul into something, I think the end result kind of happens for a reason. And so I’ll kind of leave that up to the pundits and everyone else to look at that.

But I just – yeah, I mean, I look back at the whole process and I was certainly disappointed in the outcome, but … I mean, just kind of overwhelmed by the effort and commitment that people made.

Do you think Heidi Heitkamp had a stronger campaign than yours?

Again, I’m not really one to speculate on that stuff. I mean, obviously, well, from my perspective, you know, I wish the campaign had been more about the issues facing the country. And to some degree I think there’s a difference between policy and politics, and in North Dakota, I’ve always believed that you do the right policy and the politics takes care of itself. I think if you look at one of the challenges we face as a country is I think they have those a little bit backwards. They look at the politics first and the policy second. And that’s why I think as a government we’re kind of stuck right now, because everyone’s afraid to do the things that need to be done.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

You know, I um, um … (long pause) It’s really a hard question to answer because whatever you would do differently would take time and effort away from something else and you don’t know what that impact would be. So, you know, if hindsight were 20/20, would there be things that we’d do differently? Absolutely. Having said that, I was just extremely proud of the effort that everyone put in, and all for the right reasons. And (we) came up short, but that’s the way the system works.

How would you rate Sen. Heitkamp’s performance so far?

Well, I mean, I truly wish her all the best. I mean, she’s in a very difficult spot. I think we need to look at, from my perspective, we should look at the results of Congress, and I think we all need to start holding people accountable for the end results of Congress. And basically the major decisions have been deferred. I mean, it’s a challenge getting started, getting into the swing, but I just, I truly wish her all the best.

She has taken some heat during her brief time in office, both for her vote against expanded federal background checks for gun purchases and her position in favor of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Are you surprised at the positions she’s taken on those issues, and are they the same positions you would have taken?

We’re a pro-business, Second Amendment state, so that’s exactly – you know, I’m a strong supporter of those. The Democrat caucus in the Senate is not. The president is not. And so, you know, that’s really the challenge that she faces.

That being said, are you surprised she took the positions she did?

Well, you know, here’s where there’s politics versus policy. And these are just some of the small decisions. I mean, the big decisions on budget, the big decisions that get our country going again and getting the jobs, I mean … those are the challenges that are facing us. So, I mean, those were the right decisions for North Dakota.

How do you hope you’ll be remembered in the history of North Dakota politics?

Well, my whole career the focus has been growing our economy and small business and education and kids. And I truly hope that people look at me as someone that really cared about the future and was willing to make the tough decisions today to ensure a brighter future for our kids.


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