ND politicians set a precedent by bridging the divide

May 4, 2018

By Hunter Andes
NNAF News Fellows | Bismarck State College
The U.S. is politically split among the political ideologies of Red, Blue, and in some cases, Purple. Each one represents certain values and understandings.
For many, these political ideologies are passed down from generation to generation, with little thought as to why they believe what they believe. For others, a lifetime can be spent trying to understand, what their ideologies actually are.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, wasn’t always a Republican. He started his political career as a Democrat, but then decided the Republican Party was a better fit for him.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, it’s a matter of your philosophy,” Hoeven said. “Generally, Republicans believe in more limited government, more individual freedom, empowering individuals, more individual responsibility.
“And Democrats,” he added, “generally believe in more government. It just kind of comes down to your philosophy—what’s the best fit for you.”
Hoeven alluded to how the multiplicity of information outlets today makes it particularly difficult for people to find ways to compromise.
“The challenge is for all of us to hear both sides of any given argument—hear both sides—and then, while still honoring our principles, finding ways to reach out to the other side and craft something that is a reasonable solution for everyone concerned,” he said. “That is how we have to do it, but it’s hard to do—because our structure now in government is for everyone to advocate for their position, and they do that very aggressively.  At the end of the day, there has to be some give and take—some recognition that no solution is perfect. We have to find a way that everybody benefits.”
Some politicians in Washington may not work with the other side of the aisle, but for those who do, it doesn’t go unnoticed. The Center for Effective Lawmaking recognizes the top 10 most effective members in each house of Congress, and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, made that list according to an Oct. 5, 2017, news release.
Heitkamp said that she had been judged on where her voting record was on the spectrum. CEL’s findings showed she was literally right in the middle in terms of her voting.
“I’m one of the most moderate members of the U.S. Senate,” she said. “I think that reflects the people of North Dakota—I do. It’s really important that we try and maintain moderate voices.”
“There are a lot of examples where I haven’t seen eye to eye with my party,” Heitkamp said. “In the category of environmental regulation, there’s a lot of provisions that I thought were extreme and overreach. On a number of issues, whether it concerns the Second Amendment, or whether it has to do with Supreme Court nominees—I definitely have not been with the party positions. I have found a way to get things done even though it’s difficult, but that’s not to say there aren’t challenges.”
Heitkamp acknowledged that it’s impossible to make everybody happy all of the time, but she said if they, as politicians, vote for what they think is right, their constituents usually recognize that.
Heitkamp said, “(North Dakotans) understand that they’re not going to agree with someone 100 percent of the time, but if you’re achieving results, if you’re actually getting something done, and if you work hard, they tend to reward hard work.”
However, there are times when that hard work doesn’t get rewarded. In a 2016 state house race, North Dakota District 4 constituents voted out a local farmer. They voted for two, out-of-state men, who may now be facing a recall.
Kenton Onstad, a District 4 Democrat from Banner Township, southeast of Parshall, ND, was the minority leader of the state House of Representatives until the 2016 election. Onstad grew up on his family farm and still lives there.
During his years in the House, Onstad said he always tried to present bills that his constituents wanted—no matter the party line.
“I always thought we were there [in the state capital] to serve the people,” Onstad said, “no matter if they voted for me or not.”
He said the best legislation comes when all the ideas are brought to the table.
“It’s OK to disagree, but let’s at least sit down and listen to both sides,” he said. “Let’s cooperate and do what’s right for North Dakota. Cooperation, after all, is a lot easier in solving problems than conflict is.”
Even though Onstad lost, he is staying true to his small-town principles by remaining active in his party and community. He said he still takes phone calls, and tries to help his former constituents in any way he can, stressing that that’s the North Dakotan way.
“People do, and need to, adhere to their principles,” Hoeven said. “You also have to find a way to work together—we always have to try and find ways to work together.”
Hoeven said he tries to work across the board in the Senate with Democrats and Republicans alike because in order to pass a bill, votes from both sides are needed.
“I have a lot of background doing that,” he said. “As far as being in elected office, you have to work with everybody, and I try to do that. Sometimes I do think that voting with the party is the right vote, and sometimes it’s not. I base my vote on what I think works for North Dakota and the people I serve.”
Heitkamp and Hoeven have a record of collaboration in a number of areas. Whether it be agriculture, energy, Indian affairs, or anything that is for the betterment of the state, the two senators are usually on the same page.
“For the things that are truly unique to North Dakota and that benefit North Dakota, I think you’re going to see Hoeven and I working together,” Heitkamp said. “It’s really helpful, in my opinion, to have someone in the Democratic Caucus and someone in the Republican Caucus working for North Dakota—then you have both sides covered.”