Inspired Woman Magazine

Heidi Heitkamp – One of a Hundred

by Deb Seminary

Heidi with her mother after learning she won the ND Senate race
Heidi with her mother after learning she won the ND Senate race
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.”

Campaign Promises

President Clinton joined Heidi on the campaign trail
President Clinton joined Heidi on the campaign trail
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.

Heidi with her supportive family
Heidi with her supportive family
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.”

Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan offer congratulations
Senators Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan offer congratulations
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.


  • Heidi,

    Just the other day I was on a blog Just Say Anything my first time that I have ever blogged and a gal replied over a period of time even went to the point of comparing me to one of Hillary Clinton’s comments I’ve worked in Law Enforcement in North Dakota as that was my career from Sept.1977 to April 2011; I have always liked your ideas, your support of many issues and I feel that you have backed North Dakotans to the Best that you can your voice is only 1 of the 355 and according to this Gal that replied to my blog she was stating that you never disclosed where you donated your wages during the Gov’t shutdown .. I basically stated that I didn’t care if you kept it or donated as you stated you were giving it to a charity Really does anyone knowing if you did or didn’t make you a better Senator ..I don’t believe it does …. Thanks for all you do and Have a Blessed Merry Christmas !

  • Keystone pipeline is game over for climate change just like fracking is game over for clean water for future generations. Instead of cleaning up the planet to make it better we keep spraying chemicals and spreading fertilizers that kill the soil and exasterbate global warming. What kind of world will we leave our children? There are alternatives, unless of course our leaders refuse to see and implement them. Right on Heidi’s back door step in Burliegh County, the NRCS is showing how farming can be made healthy and sustainable. Scaling back fertilizer and pesticide use to nothing and using less fuel while building organic matter. That is putting carbon back in the ground that has already been removed. We need leadership, not Keystone XL…..

  • Heidi,

    I think you are doing a great job for ND. I don’t always agree with alll your decisions but feel you make them with an open mind and without an under the table reward. Keep up the great work and best luck in the future.

  • Heidi,

    I’m glad you were elected to serve in the US Senate, and I am sure you will serve North Dakota well. That being said, I do not agree with your position regarding the Keystone Pipeline. Based on articles and opinions I have read, there are a lot more minuses than pluses. Also, recent pipe line breaks and reticent behavior by oil companies when it comes to disclosure have not helped convince me this is the best way to go. Research indicates great vulnerability, and monitoring miles and miles of pipe is a daunting responsibility. Are companies willing to undergo the cost of surveillance, maintenance and repair? I agree that transporting oil by rail is not a solution either, but we need to invest in renewable energy options that minimize pollution of the natural environment. There is a long road to travel to achieve affordable, safer energy solutions than fossil fuels, but new energy sources are the way of the future. Who will benefit most from the Keystone option? I don’t think the answers include wildlife, the natural environments, Americans, and other non-corporate stakeholders.

  • Keystone may be part of an “all of the above” strategy but it is misguided. The balance is wrong since “all of the above” is already overweight with dirtier carbon fuels. Put your efforts into renewables to clean up the environment and slow down climate change. Right now the “all of the above” policy needs more renewables and less dirty carbon. Keystone will transport some of the dirtiest.

  • Saying Keystone will help America become independent of foreign oil is extremely naive, and reveals that Heidi has bought into at least some of the lies being spread by Big Oil. That oil is being taken to the coast by Keystone to ship out and sell elsewhere. What could be more obvious? Consumer watchdogs, using Big Oil estimates, say Keystone will raise prices at the pump for Americans. Big Oil estimates on employment oportunites are always short of the reality. Always. And those few thousand jobs are decidedly impermanent, yet literally threaten millions of jobs that should be permanent and protected as such. Farming (look at the 180,000+ gallons of oil dumped on wheat fields in North Dakota this past September by a pipeline), outfitting, guiding, gear manufacturing, lure makers, canoe builders (look at the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil dumped into the Kalamazoo and Yellowstone rivers by pipelines), real estate (look at the property values zeroed out by the suburban pipeline that burst in Mayflower, Arkansas), boat builders, restauranteurs, hotel owners, big box stores, lodges—everyone in America is hurt by every one of those spills and both the State Department and Big Oil guarantee us that Keystone will spill many times during its lifetime. Mutiply Kalamazoo, Michigan or Mayflower, Arkansas “many” times and see if the American economy can withstand it. Decidedly, it can not. Keystone represents iirreparable damage to our drinking water supplies, our wildlife habitat, our forests, our farmlands, and our property values. Mathematics proves it: Anyone who backs Keystone favors Big Oil profits over the environmental needs and economic survival of the American people and the American way of life.

  • Heidi,
    Thank you for your work on important issues.
    I do ask you to reconsider your support for the XL Pipeline.
    My understanding is that the pipeline will likely have
    spills which will be detrimental to the environment and
    when there is finally a finished product, it will be meant
    maily for foreign countries like China. The bottom line is
    I think it important to listen to a NASA scientist,who says,
    “Game Over” for the pleanet, if the XL pipeline is built.
    I see the planet aas our life-support system. We would
    do better at conserving energy and lowering our use of
    fossil fuels and expand our use of solar, wind and hydro
    Thank you for your consideration of these ideas.
    Sister Mary Lou Geraets

  • I aggree with all your positions in this article except Syria. I lived through the
    Great Depression and World War II and offer this comment: 1. dictators need the
    threat of force to bring them to the bargaining table. 2. By our constitution, our
    president is the only one ultimately responsible for foreign affairs and able to
    “bargain” with dictators. 3. Back him by giving him the flexibility to use force.
    Congress has the final say in authorizing a declaration of war, but in the
    preliminary stages, back the president.
    It all worked out, because the president was strong and willing to negotiate …
    not because our Congress preferred to negotiate.
    Keep up the great work and keep striving for the middle ground.

  • Ms. Heitkamp, In the above article, you are quoted as saying that we should be comparing the pipeline to rail and trucking. I believe that to be short-sighted. I believe we could all benefit if Senators and Congress persons like you would look a bit further down the road and compare all aspects of a tar sand pipeline to other forms of energy that the money to develop the pipeline could be spent developing. Your statement sounds as if you have only considered how is the best way to get the tar sands here, not considering whether we have any alternatives to getting tar sands at all. I would urge you to think a bit deeper on how to meet our country’s energy needs without the risk of tar sands oil. Money will be invested to get our energy needs met so we can be independent of foreign supplies. Please think about our future on a longer term basis and invest our money in a cleaner greener source of energy.

  • I also oppose the keystone oil pipeline. It would be detrimental to the long term health of planet earth. Please reconsider your stance and support programs such as energy conservation and locally sourced renewables.

  • Heidi, energy independence is no longer the issue. Natural gas, if we can get deal with the methane leakage, is one of several far better options to tar sands oil. We need to conserve energy in serious, systematic ways and switch over to renewable sources. North Dakota has experienced its share of extreme weather. Don’t you all get it???

  • Heidi,
    I think you most definitely have it wrong on the XL pipeline. Nothing about that project will help Americans. Canada will just be using us to ship oil to other nations. I’m originally from Nebraska and really hate the fact that dirty pipeline will be disturbing farmland in our beautiful, clean state. Maybe you’ve not seen the awful tar sands spills from such pipelines. I thought I read about a tar sands spill in ND…. am I wrong about that? How many jobs is the XL pipeline supposed to create?…. 30? certainly not enough in my mind to take the risk!
    It has been good to see how hard you have been working in DC. I applaud your efforts on getting up to speed on so many issues and voting your conscience. I just wish that you had “bitten the bullet” on the gun safety registration vote… my family members were hunters when we lived in Nebraska. My dad was totally keen on gun safety. I wonder now that he is looking down on us how he feels about all the killing that has taken place in this country. I now live in Colorado and taught at an elementary school
    near Columbine at the time of the horrific shooting. Many of my colleagues had children there… It is painful to watch the same scenarios reoccurring over and over again in our country. Common sense registration is a beginning… please reconsider your stand on this issue.
    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you.
    Karen Greenhalgh

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