Julie Fedorchak never stood a chance. Born into a family, the youngest of eight, that was active in their community and politics, she was destined to live a life of public service. “We didn’t spend a lot of time putting up yard signs, or doing things like that, but my dad always cared a lot about politics and believed strongly in conservative principles, so we talked about that while I was growing up,” she said. “It was a common topic of conversation around the dinner table, in the car, everyday. My mom and dad encouraged us to be involved in the political process.”
When Fedorchak was five, her family moved to Fargo from Williston when her dad was appointed to be the State HUD director. They lived in Fargo for ten years, until her dad received another appointment, this time to be the State Highway Commissioner. Julie had just finished eighth grade.
Moving to Bismarck just before her high school years may have caused a bit of anxiety at first. “I thought it was going to be hard, but it ended up being a really wonderful thing,” said Fedorchak. “I maintained my friendships from Fargo and reconnected with them at UND when I went to college. I even received campaign contributions (for the PSC race) from some of those friends.”
Fedorchak adapted quickly in Bismarck because of sports. “I was a basketball player. The very first person who introduced herself to me was Becky (Bosch) Ternes, and I have been friends with her ever since,” she said. “Living in Bismarck was nice for our family, too, being centrally located in the state with easy access for my siblings who settled in Williston, Grand Forks and Fargo at the time.”
Julie graduated from UND in 1990 with a journalism degree and high hopes of being a reporter. Job opportunities in North Dakota were scarce at the time, but she was offered a position working for Earl Strinden in the Alumni Association as the editor of the UND Alumni Review. “I did that for a couple years and worked with a bunch of great people. But I wanted to spread my wings,” she said. “One of my dearest friends had moved to Washington, DC. I went out to visit her, had some job interviews and ended up with a job at the University of Maryland in College Park.”
She loved the East Coast and the single lifestyle in DC. She was working on her career, but also thinking about her future. She had met someone at UND three months before she left (Mike Fedorchak) and they were keeping in touch. “I did a lot of thinking: where am I going to be, who am I going to marry, where am I going to land,” she said. “Then, two and a half years after I moved to DC, I got a job offer from Ed Schafer to be his Communications Director. It was a job that really appealed to me, so I loaded up my Pontiac Sunbird and moved home.”
She explained how the offer came to be: “When I was working for the Alumni Newspaper and Ed Schafer was elected governor, I interviewed him because he was a UND graduate. I was a runner, he was a runner. So I incorporated running strongly into the story. Little did I know how passionate he was about running at the time. He loved that story and consequently remembered me when they were looking for a Communications Director.
“They contacted me two weeks before I was to begin an MBA program at the University of Maryland. It was free tuition, generous grad assistantship — a really sweet deal.
It was a major crossroad for my life, and I am so glad I chose the path back to North Dakota.”
It was the third year of Schafer’s first term and Fedorchak stayed through his second term. “That was an interesting time, such a contrast to what’s happening in North Dakota now,” she explained. “We traveled the state regularly and talked to communities about their future. Ed was all about building North Dakota, identifying our strengths and working to build a bright economic future. He was tireless, always encouraging people and empowering communities to take their destinies into their own hands.”
That time in the governor’s office really jump started Julie’s interest in government and politics. She realized she loved public policy and trying to make government responsive to the needs of people.
Over the years, she wrote more than 400 speeches for Schafer and churned out a large number of communications on short, daily deadlines. However, Fedorchak wasn’t always interested in writing. She started college as an engineering major at the suggestion of her high school pre-calculus teacher. But that was short lived. “After my first semester of classes, I realized I didn’t want to be an engineer,” she said. “I started looking into journalism and loved it. I’ve really enjoyed the communications field and the many diverse opportunities it’s afforded me.”
She and Mike started dating more seriously when she moved back to North Dakota, and eventually got married. She was offered a job with the Hoeven administration, but knew the demands of the governor’s office and decided to take a break. She entered the private sector and started her own business, Liffrig Communications. As their three children were born, the business gave her the ability to set her own schedule and decide what projects to work on so she could be home with them when they were little.
Ten years later, with the kids all in school, Julie began evaluating where she was. She loved her business but missed public service. She jumped at the opportunity to join then newly elected Sen. John Hoeven’s state staff and served ultimately as state director, a position that engaged her in everything from farm policy to immigration.
Julie and Mike had talked about her running for office someday because of the experience she had gained working for and learning from people they both respected. “We discussed whether I should use that experience in an elected position of my own,” she explained. “When the Public Service Commission (PSC) position opened, it seemed like a great fit because I had worked with energy policy over the past ten years and the timing was right for us as a family.”
Governor Dalrymple appointed Fedorchak to the PSC in January of 2013. “The PSC is a technical agency,” she said. “We regulate multi-billion dollar industries that play a fundamental role in our economy. There is a lot to learn for every new commissioner. But my journalism background has served me well because I ask a lot of questions and I’m not afraid to keep asking until I get answers and understand.”
The position she was appointed to was up for election in 2014. While there were not many surprises with her work at the PSC, Fedorchak found herself surprised at how much she enjoyed campaigning. “The campaign provided an amazing platform for meeting and talking with people,” she said. “I love being a representative for people, hearing their issues and trying to get things done to serve them. People feel disconnected and discouraged about government and that’s very unfortunate. Through my service, in whatever small way I am able, I want to show people that government can listen, respond and serve their needs.”
Her kids got involved in the campaign as well. They marched in parades and even took an interest in the initiated measures. “It has been fun to see how much kids can do in a political campaign. We were careful to leave them home for events that might have had them continually asking, ‘Is time to go yet?’ Banquets are not a good thing for nine- and eleven-year-old boys.”
Early in that campaign while marching in parades, she and Mike realized people didn’t know who she was and couldn’t pick her out from the crowd of volunteers. Mike came up with a brilliant idea – Julie’s photo (her head) on a stick for parade walkers to hold. “It ended up being a great ice breaker, a way for people to connect with me and pick out the candidate. Mike is the creative one. He developed most of my best campaign ideas, including my slogan, ‘Power for our People’.”
When all of the results were tallied on November 4th, Fedorchak was elected with 66 percent of the vote.
With the campaign and two years on the job complete, Julie talked about what lies ahead: “This is an incredibly busy time at the PSC both with our regular workload and the legislative session approaching. We have a couple big legislative issues concerning public safety that I feel passionate about. Our budget includes a proposal for the state to take over the federal pipeline safety program for crude oil transmission lines. I have also initiated a proposal for a state supplemental rail safety program. That will be a tough push in the legislature, but certain issues are the responsibility of the government and public safety is one of them. It’s very difficult for an individual to protect themselves from a train accident or a pipeline spill. The government must hold the private sector to high standards in these areas. As the second largest oil producing state in the country, North Dakota has an obligation to our citizens to enhance public safety efforts for the good of the industry, the people of the state and the protection of the environment.
“The PSC is also in an interesting point in its history. All of our top managers are retirement eligible. So we have a huge transition looming with the potential loss of years of wisdom. We are working hard now to prepare and structure the agency strategically for the long term.”
While her responsibilities serving the North Dakota people loom daily, she also takes care of other critical matters. “What I find most helpful in balancing my diverse roles is having a clear sense of what is most important. Keeping first things first. It seems obvious but it’s easy to become distracted, so I try hard to stay focused on that every day,” said Fedorchak. “And it changes everyday. Sometimes my testimony for the Legislature needs to be first. Sometimes taking care of an aging parent, or going to one of my kids’ concerts needs to be first. Ultimately, when I am diligent about keeping first things first and not putting my family and my faith at the bottom but at the top, everything else falls into place. Everyone I know is busy, whether it’s the governor, my 84-year-old mother or my friends who work from home. I think the challenge for all of us is to find peace amid the chaos. Regular prayer and exercise are my pathways to peace.”
Find peace amid the chaos. Good advice for us all.
Advice from Julie for women considering public office (learned from a bunch of great mentors):
1. Make sure your family is on board with the commitment. Talk about how they want to be involved, if at all, on the front end. Don’t dismiss the value the experience will offer your kids and spouse.
2. Know your motivation. Why are you doing it? What do you want to accomplish?
3. To thine self be true. (Advice from John and Mikey Hoeven.) Many people will offer ideas, much of it helpful. Listen, consider but stay true to your own motivation and standards.
4. Speak up – ask questions even if you think everyone else knows the answer. They don’t.
5. Fuel your tank. Make time for the things that keep you healthy and energized and at the top of your game mentally and physically.