Heidi Heitkamp is no stranger to statewide elections. She lost her first one at the age of 28 when she ran for state auditor. She won the next three and then lost again when she took on John Hoeven in the 2000 gubernatorial election.
This year, the 56-year-old Democrat is giving it another shot by running against Rep. Rick Berg and Duane Sand in the race for one of North Dakota’s seats in the U.S. Senate.
Most North Dakotans know her as the former state attorney general, a spot she held for eight years in the 1990s. But to others who know her more personally, she’s an eternal optimist who refuses to back down from a challenge and believes she can change Washington D.C. for the better.
Running against a seated elected federal official is not an easy task. Berg has the bully pulpit and the unwavering support of a Republican Party that has dominated the past two election cycles in the state. But Heitkamp, who hails from the township of Captain’s Landing along the western bank of the Missouri River, has already raised the eyebrows of several national political analysts who say the race is toss-up at this point.
You’re no stranger to elections. How many times have you run for statewide office?
I ran my first race when I was 28 years old, for state auditor in 1984. I lost a very close race to the first Bob Peterson. Then I was appointed state tax commissioner after Kent Conrad was elected to the Senate. Then ran for tax commissioner and was elected. Ran two terms for attorney general and won both of those. All of the times I won I got over 63 percent of the vote. And then I ran for governor in 2000 and lost. So this will be my sixth statewide race.
What are some of the foundations of your campaign?
If you could run this campaign by simply going down to the local café and visiting, and that was all you had to do, that would be, to me, it would be heaven. That’s how I ran my first campaign, and I learned so much from about the state and about the people.
So often politicians want to stand there and talk at you. They want to do the 30-second commercial. And what I love about campaigning is I love listening to what people care about and their ideas. There’s so much wisdom out there. Those kinds of campaigns lead to a much more engaged and educated public official. So that’s how I love to campaign. In this kind of go-go type of election, that’s not all that you need to do. But I think you’ll see me again go out into the counties and into the cafés and doing the groundwork – and probably going door to door.
Have you been actively campaigning since you announced in November?
I’ve been doing exactly what I’m telling you, going around and coming into communities and saying I’d like an opportunity to visit with this person – not public meetings – but visiting with specific people who have been really active on this issues that is important to North Dakota’s future. I’ve visited both university presidents, you know, that kind of thing. Getting out there and saying, “OK, earmarks are gone so how are you guys faring and what would help make that research institution viable and an economic engine for North Dakota in the future, and what are your expectations from the federal government in the future?”
Describe your political platform and how you would serve North Dakota if elected to the U.S. Senate.
The first thing that needs to happen is everyone needs to climb out of the sandbox and start behaving like adults. Put the party aside.
A woman I met in Grand Forks said it best. She said “I understand that maybe you need to be a Democrat or Republican when you are running for office, but when you walk through the door you’re for me.” And I think people in this country don’t think the people sitting in those chairs are for them. They think they are for special interests and are highly partisan. They are following a partisan agenda instead of trying to help the people.
I think if you look back at my record over the years, I hope the one thing people would say about me is that I always put the people of North Dakota first. I believe the reason we have those seats is to make it better for the people who live here. That’s why I’m running. I don’t see that in Washington D.C. I see that the American people are taking a backseat to those special interests – whether it’s the Wall Street banks who weren’t ever held accountable, whether it’s the special interests that don’t want to lose their little tax benefit here.
The people who can hire lobbyists seem to be getting all of the attention and all of the laws written for them, as opposed to the American people. And I think that’s what this campaign is going to be about: How we are going to represent the state and the people of this country – not the special interests, not your own interest, but the interests of the people.
It might be advantageous for a Democrat in North Dakota to say those things about shrugging off party affiliations because the last couple of election cycles have favored Republicans.
I would say look at my record. You will see a record of somebody who, against party interests, has fought for the people. I’ve been able to create coalitions and work across the party divides to get things done.
Probably the best example was what we did on the property-rights initiative. There was a case called Kelo and it was about eminent domain. And I was outraged by that case, absolutely outraged that this woman who had lived in her house for all of these years could have it snatched up simply because somebody had more power than she did. And she deserved the protection of the Constitution.
I thought it was a violation of takings, but if the court didn’t see it that way then we needed to fix that problem. And North Dakota law would have allowed the same thing. So we started talking about it within my group of people – A lot of small business people, a lot of seniors – saying, well, this is amazing. At the same time the property-rights folks, the very conservative groups, were looking at it. We formed a coalition. Half of the sponsors where from their group and half were from our group, and we overwhelmingly got the signatures and changed the state Constitution.
When you look at when Fish and Wildlife tried to impose boundaries beyond wetland easements. It’s a long story, but back in the 1960s the federal Fish and Wildlife went out and talked to all these farmers and got them to sign over wetland easements. Little did they know that Fish and Wildlife thought that anytime anything was wet on their property that was included in the easement. So a couple of family farmers actually drained their wetlands to the point that the same number of acres was there as when the easements were signed. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office actually charged them criminally for doing that. And we in the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office got involved that and said that’s not going to happen on our watch and eventually went to the Eighth Circuit and were successful in helping them reverse it.
So I think you can see a lot of examples in my record when it wasn’t about party.
The polling looks like it’s going to be a close race between you and Rick Berg. So tell me what are going to be the things that differentiate you from Berg?
Every race that I’ve ever run, I don’t run against anyone; I run for the office. That’s my first priority, to tell people what I will do if they elect me.
And I recognize that campaigns are about contrast. I think where I have a record of working across party lines and being very open to new ideas, I think basically Rick Berg has proven himself to be a very partisan individual and an individual who cares maybe a little more about self-interest and special interests than he does about the people. And I think that’s going to be the biggest contrast.
Look at the record. Whose record reflects a passion and a commitment to representing the people of North Dakota and not just the special interests of North Dakota?
So when it comes to policy, we’ve got a huge federal deficit that seems to be an unending problem, and –
Can I just say – it’s not an unending problem. Back in the 1990s we were on a path toward balancing the budget. What people don’t understand about the deficit – well, that’s not fair; people do understand it because they pay their own bills at home. But the biggest concern I have about the deficit is that it’s gobbling up a greater percentage – it’s self-sustaining because of the interest rates – so all of a sudden we’ve got 20, 30, 40 percent of what we’re spending as taxpayers that’s basically going to retire our debt and on interest.
We were in a spot in 2000 where we thought we had this problem licked. So it’s not insurmountable. If everyone works together we can solve the problem of the federal deficit. But we can’t solve the problem by being so entrenched in political ideology. It’s going to take cooperation that I don’t see in Washington D.C. that I don’t see.
There will be a lot of months ahead to talk about the details. I don’t want to see my children burdened by the excesses of my generation. And this needs to get solved, and it can get solved if we work together. I have some good ideas that we’re going to be rolling out and talking about.
Can you give me a preview of what you think needs to be done about the deficit?
If you’re a family and you’re spending more than you are taking in, what’s the first thing you do?
Stop spending so much.
Yeah, you sit down and say: What in this budget is not essential spending? In some ways, what is not value added? There’s good debt and there’s bad debt. We all know good debt: probably mortgage. Good debt: student loans. Bad debt: borrowing on your credit card to take a trip to the Bahamas.
So we need to sort out good debt and bad debt. To me, there’s a whole lot of money that’s getting spent that ought not to be spent. And we’re going to be talking a lot about what those things are. And no institution, no agency should be exempt from that scrutiny. So that’s the first thing we need to do: Take a look at the spending and start reducing that spending.
We have to get this country working again. One of the reasons we’re at the slump we’re in with this deficit is that we aren’t working. We have 9 percent unemployment. So how do you stimulate the economy to get people back to work? How do you create opportunity?
Here’s a great example: I believe we should, in fact, be approving the Keystone Pipeline. I think there have been accommodations to environmental groups that are concerned. I think the Keystone people have bent over backwards. That is a great private-sector jobs program. And it’s important that we have access to that oil long term. So why aren’t we approving the Keystone Pipeline? I have no idea. There’s a perfect example that in the whole budget discussion, we need to look at putting people back to work so we can see revenue increased without even looking at the tax code. And as people get back to work, we will be once again on the plus side of the ledger.
What do you think about tax cuts – business tax cuts, income tax cuts – at this point?
With my background as tax commissioner, I probably understand taxes as well as anyone who’s ever going to run. You know, I’m a nerd – a tax nerd. I know what it means to broaden the base and lower the rates. I think that can stimulate the economy. But look at who decides what that base is: It’s all the lobbyists in Washington D.C. They say “Well, we don’t mind that rate because we can get this special deal or that credit.” And that doesn’t work.
When you look at individuals, I think it would be a tragedy not to extend the Bush tax cuts for the lower-income people, for the working men and women of this country. There’s an interesting dialogue brewing about what to do with the people who have higher incomes. And the mistake people make when people talk about that is they talk about it from the standpoint of “You owe it to us. You are the 1 percent so you owe us something.” And I think that talk is counterproductive and unfair. I think what we should say is that we’re all in this together, so let’s talk about what we all can contribute to solve the problem.
I think pretty much every candidate out there is going to say the same things you are talking about: Let’s find good debt and bad debt and determine where we need to cut. Almost everybody says that, but then they get to D.C. and that’s where the rubber meets the road. So what specifically do you think is bad spending?
I think we’ll have more examples. There are programs. This is the piece that when you look at it, understand this: Just like your personal budget, where you say you can’t afford cable TV – sorry Midcontinent, but a lot of people can’t afford cable TV anymore – or you can’t afford three cell phones and each one having a data plan.
And I think that when you look at it, there’s a need to scour every budget, because don’t tell me you can’t find waste in every budget in Washington D.C.
One big-ticket item obviously is health care. We need to reduce the cost of health care. We need to slow the increasing costs of health insurance. Think of how much we would save overall in our economy.
So how do you do that? There are a lot of strategies, but I think one that hasn’t been pursued very well is trying to help people stay healthier. And I have a record on that. People look at that and say, “Yeah, you know, it’s all about tobacco.” But I say tobacco costs all of us a lot of money. So if we can encourage people to stop smoking and reduce their use, we can save a heck of a pile of money in health care costs. So why aren’t we doing that? It needs to be a situation where we look at these budgets and say everybody is in this and everybody needs to be responsible.
You’ve probably heard the stories of how much waste was in Iraq. It makes me sick to my stomach. They talk about literally flying in pallets of American dollars. I have this vision of when the pallet got off the plane, they ripped open the wrapping and the money just blew all over the country. Is that a wise use of money? No. And who’s holding anyone accountable for that. Nobody. And I’m not saying that happens in every agency, but I bet some of that happens in every agency.
The times of unlimited spending are over. We need to create a budget that reflects our values and reduces our expenditures because we can’t sustain it. Never mind liberal or conservative, anyone with any economic knowledge at all knows we can’t sustain this deficit.
You say everyone is going to say that. Well, a lot of people went there and said they were going to do something about it and then didn’t. And one thing that you’ll know about me is that if I say I’m going to do something, it’s hard to get between me and a goal. People will tell you that: Don’t get between her and a good idea, because that’s who I am.
I’m not doing this because I want someone to call me senator. I’m doing this because I care about the people of this nation and the future of our children. And it’s time for a change. And we can’t keep sending hyper-partisan people to Washington D.C. and expect a different result. We need to send people who are independent, who have different ideas and who will engage in a discussion long term that will solve the problem.
Are there areas where you think we should be very careful about cutting or not cut?
I’m a huge believer in early childhood education. And I’m not saying there isn’t waste in education. Trust me, I think there’s a lot of waste in education that needs to be ferreted out. I think we need to hold educators and administrators accountable for results, and I don’t know that we’ve always done that.
So you look at education, but in the long term you look at higher education and what’s been the driving force of our amazing exceptionalism in America. It’s been our commitment to research and development – doesn’t mean every R&D project is good, but we cannot ratchet back on the development of new technologies in industry because we are in a globally competitive environment. If we don’t continue to innovate, we won’t be the dominant power that we are today. So anything that gives us an opportunity to be innovative and that gives us the next generation of technology, whether it’s clean energy technology, solar energy.
What do we need to do to stay ahead in the global economy?
Look at what China is doing. Everybody is worried about whether China will launch on Taiwan and whether they’re developing new weapons of mass destruction. And I’m saying we ought to be focused on that because it involves the security of an entire region. But what’s really happening is that they are going around the world buying up all the precious minerals. They are starting to control the instruments of production. We ought to be really concerned about that because it’s monopolistic. If they get the monopoly on all of the precious minerals in this world, we’re going to have a heck of a time revamping.
The other part of transitioning is that for years we thought we could do this by being the hub of the financial industry and the hub of technology development. And we’ve lost our ability to manufacture basic and critical products. If you were FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) today and you said “OK it’s time to retool,” who are you going to go to? Manufacturing used to be 20, 25 percent of our overall Gross National Product, and it’s not even close to that anymore. And that’s a critical national security risk. When we can’t buy a turbine to generate electricity anywhere in this country, that’s a problem. I used to kid about how I don’t really care where you buy a bicycle – it’s nice if they are produced in this country – but I do care where you buy things like turbines. We have to have that critical infrastructure in this country.
Having an effective, independent voice in Washington D.C. might be among the hardest things to do. How willing are you to go to the nation’s capital and take the kind of punishment that befalls people like that?
I believe in the power of a good idea. And if I believe in that idea then I believe I have the skills, passion and enthusiasm to convince other people I’m right. And I’ve done that my whole career. Maybe it’s just luck, but I don’t think so. It’s about momentum and belief. And you have to tell people that this is a good idea and we can make this happen. And I know you are entrenched over here and you’ve signed the pledge, but you have an opportunity to do something really remarkable using this good idea. We aren’t asking you to go all the way over here, or all the way over there. There’s middle ground here. I have an expression: Never let perfect be the enemy of good.
I just think that there’s an opportunity for an enthusiastic optimist who has a good idea, and it doesn’t have to be ideological or partisan. The good idea has its own characteristics. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be a starting point.
I think I’m coming into this at a time when people recognize that in order to get the citizens back we need to stop the nonsense and the partisan bickering. There’s no perfect one way or the other. This has to be a coming together of a lot of ideas that work. And if I didn’t believe that I can be a part of that, then I wouldn’t be in this race.
This is going to sound morbid, but when you’ve had a life-threatening disease and you don’t know how much time you have, you don’t want to waste any of that time on fool’s errands. You want what you do to matter. And that’s why I’m in this: I want my every day to matter.
Speaking of that, how big of a factor was your battle with breast cancer in the 2000 gubernatorial election against John Hoeven?
I think it was a factor. I don’t think we’ll ever know what was in people’s hearts. I’ve read some interesting stories about how people would respond to it, but it’s anecdotal. I don’t think we’ll ever know how big of a factor it was.
There were a group of people who said “I don’t know if she can do it” because I had young kids at the time and a lot of challenges. And then you get cancer and they go, “Well, she needs to take care of herself.” And I think there were people who thought that was the right thing for me and they were going to help me make that decision. And God love them because the one thing I tell people is that … it’s just a really private thing that you’re going through and you do it in a very public way, but I tell them that it’s probably the reason that I’m here because no matter what your political persuasion was, people were praying for me and that’s why I’m here.
How did that leak out?
I don’t know. I wasn’t ever going to hide it. But we wanted to know what it was before we said it was cancer. But, you know, it might have leaked out from the hospital or from people monitoring cell phones. We don’t know. And I don’t dwell a lot on it.
But this goes to my optimism: I never thought it would get me. And my husband is not that way, he’s not an optimist. He’s like a major Eyore. It can be the sunshiniest day and he’s going to look for rain. And one day he said to me “Heidi, you’re in denial.” And I said “So what? How is that hurting me? So what if I get up every day and think I’m going to have more days of getting up?”
You’re not the first person who said they’re going to go to Washington and make changes happen. How are you going to accomplish what so many other people have tried and failed to do in the past? I believe in the power of a good idea, but I doubt that power when we’re talking about Congress. So convince me.
What you are saying is you don’t think it ever can be fixed.
Well, I just don’t see the solution.
I’ll tell you a story. One of the reasons I wanted to become attorney general was that I had a very personal experience with domestic violence. It wasn’t somebody I knew directly, but it was somebody that I had tried to help with a divorce. Her daughter ended up dying. Her husband shot her daughter and then shot her. And I just remember thinking what could I have done differently. How could the people she had asked for help, how could we have changed this outcome. And it really made me want to begin to expose this for what it was. At the time, domestic violence was considered a public health problem not a criminal justice problem.
So I went out and was giving a talk to a group of law enforcement officers, and most of them understood this. But there was one officer, not from North Dakota, but he said “Listen here, girly, men are always going to hit their wives and there’s nothing you can do to change it.” And I said “You know, you might be right – I hope not – but I’m not going to argue with you. But I know one thing: I can’t live in a world without trying.” And that’s my point. I’m not going to give up my belief that it can change because then I’m done. If we don’t think we can change governments for the better by getting good people involved, then we’re done. Then give it up.
So I believe in the power of a good idea and that people when given good leadership can move in the right direction. This can’t be about sound bites and about gotchas. It’s got to be about what the people need and about ideas and debate on those ideas. I think the vast majority of people, if given the opportunity to do the right thing, will do the right thing.
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.