The girl who was Heidi Heitkamp used to run the streets of Mantador with different aspirations than the woman now sitting in the U.S. Senate.
This woman is surrounded by powerful men and women who lead this country. She ensures her voice is heard by lawmakers while representing rural America, much different from the child who hardly dared speak or look at anyone, she said.
“That’s how shy I was,” she laughed over the phone, minutes before heading back into session.
Mary Kathryn “Heidi” Heitkamp grew up alongside six brothers and sisters in Mantador, a small town in southeastern North Dakota that has a VFW Club serving as the community’s bar, post office and is the home office for Southeast Water Users. There are a handful of houses scattered along the few streets running either north and south, or east and west, humble beginnings for North Dakota’s first female U.S. Senator to be elected into office.
A longshot to the U.S. Senate, she won election in 2012 because North Dakotans trusted a woman “who got them” and understood their issues.
Heitkamp sought the seat held by her former boss when Sen. Kent Conrad chose to retire instead of seeking re-election. She thought Washington, D.C., was broken and she could help. She strikes a cord with North Dakota voters because of her tenacity and passion, a no-nonsense attitude that sends her across the aisle to work for issues, not partisanship. She is a politician, but doesn’t act political. In fact, she’s recognized as being one of the most bi-partisan congressman.
She has no plans to join the high level of partisanship that shackles many Congressional peers. “I don’t think that’s why North Dakotans sent me here, to represent a political party or engage in partisan fights,” she said.
She sponsors legislation to support children’s and women’s issues, and has close connections with North Dakota’s fossil fuel industry after serving on the Dakota Gasification Company’s board of directors from 2001 until her election.
“I bring an understanding of rural America. I wake up every day thinking about Hankinson, thinking about Mantador, thinking about what those places might look like in 10-15 years and what are the opportunities for rural people, people like us who live in and grew up in those communities, who raise our kids there,” she said.
A young Heidi
This formerly shy youngster decided she wanted to become a lawyer when she was in sixth grade. Having no intention of serving in public office, she watched popular TV shows “Perry Mason” and “Judge for the Defense,” propelling herself into a male-dominated field. In the 1960s, it was almost unheard of for a woman to become a lawyer, she said. That didn’t stop Heitkamp from graduating from the University of North Dakota, then Lewis and Clark Law School to become a lawyer.
Two internships — one with Congress in 1976 and the state legislature in 1977 — began her interest in public policy. Heitkamp changed her focus to now become a public policy lawyer, still determined to pursue a career in law.
“I thought I was going to help other people get elected, but didn’t plan on running for office,” she said, until Kent Conrad hired her to work in the tax department. He convinced her — “I don’t know how he did that,” she said — to run for state auditor in 1984, her first statewide race.
Being a lawyer was a lifelong aspiration. Being a politician was not, she said.
She lost the race, but threw her hat into the ring two years later to win a successful bid as the state tax commissioner, receiving 66 percent of the vote. She served in that capacity until winning the attorney general race in 1992. She battled drug dealers, protected senior citizens from scams and worked to keep sexual predators off streets and away from children. Also during her time as the North Dakota Attorney General, Heitkamp brokered an agreement between 46 states and the tobacco industry, which forced the truth about smoking and health. The settlement awarded about $336 million to North Dakota taxpayers, one of the largest civil settlements in U.S. history.
Politics hasn’t always been cordial to Heitkamp. She lost her first statewide race before winning election as state tax commissioner, then in 2000 she ran against John Hoeven, CEO of the Bank of North Dakota, for North Dakota governor.
During her campaign it was announced that Heitkamp was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is now in remission. She lost that race and thought her time in public office was over, she said.
“I decided there was a way for me to participate (in politics) without being an elected official, so I did a constitutional measure that protected private property from eminent domain. We did the tobacco measure, which was recently undone by the legislature. I did a number of projects, mainly on issues during that time period, so I felt like I was engaged in public policy,” she said.
Heitkamp has no intention of seeking election higher than her U.S. Senate seat. She speaks plainly on that matter.
She said most days have been an honor to represent the people of North Dakota and hopes she raises the level of civility in Washington since taking the oath of office Jan. 3, 2013. But to go above her Senate seat? That answer was a quick no from the senator.
“No. No. Uh-uh. How’s that for a clear answer? Never say never, but I’m just telling you, no,” she said, then laughed.
She lives in Mandan with her husband, Dr. Darwin Lange, a family practitioner. They have two children, Ali and Nathan.
After the governor’s race
Even though she wasn’t in office, Heitkamp was still asked to give a number of speeches, typically about cancer or overcoming challenges.
She laughed when saying her usual speech started something like this, “People want to know how getting cancer changed my life. I say losing an election changed my life more than being diagnosed with cancer. Losing that election for governor was a recalibration point. I really doubted whether I would ever run again,” she added.
She did in fact seek election for one of two North Dakota seats in the U.S. Senate. She was a true longshot since North Dakota had never before elected a woman as a U.S. Senator. Her message remained consistent in the year-long campaign when stressing, “We can change things.”
She had a healthy attitude regarding her time campaigning— it kept things in perspective. If the worst thing that happened was spending a year traveling across North Dakota, visiting old friends, people she knew while in state government, “That’s not a bad use of my time,” she laughed.
Heitkamp has immersed herself in male-dominated fields, first when she became a lawyer and then again when entering the political arena. Talking to Heitkamp is like talking to an old friend, a charm that radiates with North Dakota voters.
Those “old friends” are who she works diligently to represent, she said. “They sent me here to get results for the people of our state,” Heitkamp stressed.