by Deb Seminary
Heidi Heitkamp never thought about what would happen the day after the election. She was thinking about how fast the year of campaigning had gone and was working hard for the last few weeks. “Part of that was the experience I had running for governor, I’ve had my hopes dashed before,” she said. “You don’t take anything for granted, just go as hard as you can and then wait to see what the results are. The campaign was hard work, and then after getting elected I had to turn around and immediately start pulling together a staff, figure out where we were headed with issues. It wasn’t like getting re-elected, where everything is in place and you can have a little down time.”
Down time has not been on Heitkamp’s agenda in 2013. She said she worked as hard the first five months after the election as she did during the campaign, getting to know the issues surrounding the committees she was assigned to, deciding what her priorities would be within those committees and figuring out what to do with things that come up unexpectedly, like the President requesting to use military force in Syria. “Syria is a great example of how you can be on a path with your priorities and be taken completely off course by something enormous that needs to be taken seriously,” she explained. “I was going to meet with health care organizations (in ND) that week, but flew back to D.C. to do briefings on Syria and make sure I had all the information I needed to make such an important decision.”
After getting that information, Heitkamp came out against the military strike proposed by President Obama. “Senator Manchin (D-WV) and I ended up supporting a third approach – an alternative plan calling for a diplomatic approach first in Syria — which we think started some essential dialogue,” she said. “Ironically, that is what happened, signing a convention against chemical weapons and setting up a process to make sure they are removed.”
Many may assume that having one Democrat and one Republican Senator from the state would prevent much accomplishment. However, the two North Dakota Senators seem to work together on a lot of issues. “We are both on the Indian Affairs and Agriculture Committees,” Heitkamp said. “Senator Hoeven holds down the fort on Energy and Appropriations and I am on Banking, Homeland Security and Small Business. I think we have North Dakota covered. Our job is to represent the state of North Dakota and frequently those are not partisan concerns – helping Minot expand its airport, and the DOT take care of Highway 85, passing a long term Farm Bill, reducing the deficit. What helps us is we aren’t on the polar extremes. In some ways my philosophy would be closer to Senator Hoeven’s than it would be to people on the far left of my party.”
That is definitely the case with some of the issues Heitkamp talked about during her campaign. “I think the decisions I have been making in Washington, D.C. are consistent with what I said I would do in the campaign. People are surprised by that, which is always interesting.”
One of those issues is the Keystone XL Pipeline. “We need the infrastructure in this country that is going to get us into energy independence in North America. I have been up to the Oil Sands and had conversations with the officials up there. I have great confidence they can be part of a North American energy independence strategy for the long term. I don’t understand the opposition to Keystone, because if you are going to do a carbon comparison, it should be a pipeline versus a railroad versus a truck. I think the President should do the right thing and approve the Keystone Pipeline so they don’t miss another construction season.”
And, there are a few things she would change about the Affordable Care Act. “Number one, I don’t like the restrictions they put on flexible savings accounts,” she said. “We need to do more with prevention and reward high quality and low cost. There is good and bad in the health care law.”
Heitkamp’s views are earning her some points on Capitol Hill. “Someone, whose position I disagreed with, told me ‘we can really benefit from fresh eyes on a lot of these issues.’ So it’s not something I’m going to back off of. I didn’t go there to just nod my head, I went there to question a lot of these policies, and find real solutions by working with Republicans and Democrats. Hopefully that is what I’ve been doing.”
Getting things done
Heitkamp does not feel she is treated differently as a female lawmaker. “In the United States Senate, you are one of a hundred,” she said. “What you have to do is figure out who shares your common goals, and that can change based on the issue, and build the relationships you need to get things done.”
One of her priorities and one of the first things Heitkamp is proud to have supported, is the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. She feels it reflected the priorities of the twenty women in the Senate, and also spoke volumes about the kind of grassroots effort women and men all over the country put into persuading their congress to vote for the reauthorization.
Heitkamp was also part of a group of 14 bi-partisan Senators that came together to resolve the government shutdown. That group negotiated a compromise framework to reopen the government, which paved the way for the deal the Senate and House eventually passed. “I think it is no surprise that women, even though only 20% of the Senate is female, represented almost 50% of the people who came together to resolve the impasse. Women are more interested in results than headlines.”
While she is making a difference is some areas of the government, Heitkamp expressed frustration in others. “We say we need to get our debt and deficit under control, and what do we do? We cost the government $160 million a day to shut it down, and Standard and Poor estimates the shutdown took $24 billion out of the economy, we pay people NOT to work. Tell me how that is fiscally responsible. It’s not, and it makes no sense.
“One of the difficulties I have had with the transition, coming from executive jobs like Tax Commissioner and Attorney General, is this process of legislating seems pretty broken to me. And some may say, ‘well, you’ve never been a legislator before’ but I’ve watched the North Dakota Legislature where they have rules and actually have to make final decisions and move on. There just doesn’t seem to be that sense of urgency.
“The Senate passed a Farm Bill with great fanfare and I was really excited because it happened in the first couple months I was there, only to see it stall out in the House. We started out the year with some really big issues, immigration reform, healthcare and Water Resources Development Act – all of that got sent over to the House and nothing has happened.
“I am hopeful we can get through this next round without taking the economy to the brink right before Christmas. Both sides are going to have to compromise and start legislating. That would be a good thing.”
Life in D.C.
Heitkamp, who shares her D.C. home with her daughter, gets up early, works out a couple mornings a week, usually has a breakfast meeting by 8:00 and returns home by 8 or 9 pm. She has many meetings throughout the day – with staff, nominees for federal appointments and other various groups. She has three to five meetings per day with North Dakota constituents to ensure she understands the issues that are important to them.
She also has the opportunity to preside over the Senate four or five hours a week. “The newer members of the Democratic Caucus take responsibility for chairing the floor,” she explained. “That has been very useful because you get to know the procedures and listen to a lot of different points of view you might not otherwise. It is a valuable exercise.”
She is on five committees, and they have a lot of meetings which require preparation. “In order to stay well informed on the things that are my priorities I try to build as much expertise as I can. On other things that are critically important, like a Syria vote, you have to work really hard to catch up, spend some long hours in meetings, reading and analyzing what you can. You rely on your staff, spend time in briefings and meeting with experts.”
The person who convinced her that politics might be a career path and serves as Heitkamp’s mentor is the man who once occupied the seat she now fills. Kent Conrad still lives in D.C. and is available as a sounding board. “During the shutdown I spent some time with him, discussing options, and I called him during the Syria situation. He talks in generalities about how to approach problem solving and is very helpful even though he is limited, by ethics rules, to what he can talk to me about. I talk to Byron Dorgan quite a bit, too.”
Heitkamp has not had much time to connect with family and friends since taking office and has received lectures from senior members of the Senate telling her to slow down. But her point of view is that this is her first year and there is a learning curve. She has to get familiar with the rules, the issues and who to talk with to get certain things accomplished. “When I come back I am traveling around the state so it is hard to find the time to just go grab a cup of coffee with friends,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things I really miss. As I get more seasoned there will be more time for other things but right now we are at this critical spot. We need a budget and we need to establish some sense of confidence that the public can have in their government.”
She summed up her thoughts about her new life as a United States Senator: “I know there will be challenges everyday. What is hard for me is not being able to convince other people to see things the way I see them, with that North Dakota common sense and willingness to work with almost anyone – Republicans and Democrats. Washington, D.C. is full of really, really smart people, a fair number of them who forgot it’s not just about how much you know, it’s what you do with what you know.”
Her Political Background
Heitkamp credits her grandmother for piquing her interest in politics and her experience working as a status reporter in the North Dakota legislature as a college senior sealed the deal. Heitkamp got her law degree, worked for the EPA for a year, then came back to work in the N.D. Tax Commissioner’s office. She was elected N.D. Tax Commissioner in 1986 and served until 1992 when she was elected Attorney General. She served in that position until 2000 when she ran for governor. Heitkamp then served as the director of Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant from 2001 to 2012 prior to her U.S. Senate campaign.