Photos by Hillary Ehlen
Behind every politician is a life that often gets overshadowed by their career and constant news coverage. So, we are starting a series to learn more about the lives of politicians outside of the Capitol. We sat down with North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp at Fargo Brewing Company for the first installment.
So, tell us a little bit about yourself outside of politics. I know you grew up with six siblings, what was that like?
You know what’s amazing about my family isn’t so much that we had all these siblings, but we have so many extended family members. The girl who lived down the street spent most of her time at our house, our house was literally Grand Central Station for all the kids of Mantador. So we were never without a full contingent of almost a baseball team.
Speaking of your hometown, I read that they use the VFW as the bar and the post office. What was the population of Mantador when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, it was a town of about 90 people. So I tell everybody when I was growing up that my mother had four kids when I was born, there were no twins and the oldest was two. My brother (Dennis) was two going to be three, my sister (Thomasine) was two, Julie was already one and I was an infant. You know, you think about that and looking at a child who is just going to turn three and then think of having three other kids that small. The fact the my mother persevered and made it is really pretty remarkable. So I tell people my family was a tenth of the population of Mantador, North Dakota.
In your mind, what are the benefits and drawbacks of living and growing up in a small town?
I really never felt any drawbacks. In part because growing up in both Mantador and Hankinson put such an emphasis on quality education. We had great teachers so when you showed up in college, you didn’t feel any disadvantage or that feeling of being unprepared for college curriculum. You grow up with that comfort of knowing someone for 12 years. I have friends I went to school with that have been my friends and will be for the rest of my life. But we also have extended family, people who were important to us and the community growing up and you really have a chance to reflect the values of a small town. Whether it be the patriotism or the faith-based aspect, each one of these institutions played a big role in growing up.
Everyone has their favorite home-cooked meal. Growing up and after you left home, what was the meal you missed the most?
Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, her chicken gravy and blanched green beans or corn, the best. All homemade, she probably even butchered the chicken that morning. No one could fry chicken like my mom, all those Southern women who think they know how to do it, no way. Behind that meal would have been roast beef and mashed potatoes, for sure.
What motivates you? Whether that be professionally or otherwise, what keeps you getting out of bed every morning?
I think the first thing that I do and one of the dynamics I have brought to the Senate, especially being in a minority caucus, is the dynamic of rural America. I get up every morning wondering how I am going to make rural America stronger, more vibrant and more viable into the future. Because not a lot of people are thinking about them and that means quality rural hospitals, quality rural schools, a farm program that works for our farmers, reducing poverty in rural communities. A lot of what I focus on and a lot of what I bring to this is that rural perspective, which is consistent with how I grew up.
You are the first elected woman Senator in North Dakota. What does that feel like?
It’s always interesting because I have been around so long. This is my seventh statewide race, think about that. I ran in ’84 for State Auditor, in ’88 for Tax Commissioner, in ’92 for Attorney General, in ’96 for Attorney General, in 2000 for Governor and then this will be my second race for the Senate. So I don’t think about myself in that context. I don’t think about, “Oh, I’m a woman Senator from North Dakota.”
In fact, I tell this story about winning a race when no one thought you would win, you’re busy getting your office ready and busy getting ready to take over this responsibility and when I presided over the Senate for the first time, I turned to say the Pledge of Allegiance and I got really emotional. Because now all of the sudden I realized that the daughter of a school cook and a seasonal construction worker from a town of 90 people can be standing in the United States Senate, leading them in the Pledge of Allegiance. So when I think about what’s remarkable, I don’t think about how I am the first woman, I think about where I came from, my family struggling financially. The opportunities we have been given to get an education, which is the great equalizer for families like ours. People always want to say I did it on my own, no one ever does it on their own, I did it with community. For me, the thing that’s remarkable is where I came from to then serve in the United States Senate. That is not only a great story about North Dakota, but it is a great story about America.
Now, you are always bouncing around from D.C. to Bismarck to Fargo to all-around North Dakota. When you come through Fargo-Moorhead where is your favorite place to eat?
Okay, I have to confess it’s a little unfair because it is the same answer in Grand Forks as it is in Fargo. It’s Red Pepper. It makes me feel young again, it takes me back to college, I think the food is terrific and it’s unique. It’s not production line and it’s still a small, family-run business. For me, it’s a tradition, it’s part of the comfort you have of not just good food, but of remembering a place. I get the same thing every single time, a double ham, double cheese half grinder, taco meat, NOT HEATED and a hard shell taco. I’m really boring because it’s never been anything different.
What is you favorite thing about Fargo? What do you love the most about this area?
How dynamic it is. Prairie Den? What a great concept. Fargo Brewing? There are just so many more choices in Fargo and it has become younger and I like that about Fargo. The university has become very dynamic with lots of very interesting research going on, world-class research, so I like that there are things happening in Fargo that the rest of the country doesn’t realize and they are very exciting.
And people say, “Oh, you’re from North Dakota, what about Fargo?” and they harken back to the movie or the TV show and I always remind them that the movie Fargo is not about Fargo, North Dakota. It’s about Brainerd, Minnesota. I think that Fargo was always the big place we came to growing up, it was always a treat. I remember the first K-Mart, the first McDonalds, that’s how old I am. And Fargo today has a level dynamic energy that is really exciting. But North Dakota has a lot of that too, you see that in Bismarck. But Fargo being the largest city, it has attracted people from all over the country. It’s really easy to pitch Fargo because when you bring people here, they go “wow” so if we can get people here, they are amazed.
What is one thing that we don’t know about you that would surprise us?
I would say that I am a licensed SCUBA diver. I got it probably around 2010, but I decided that when I turned 50, I wanted to do something every year that challenged myself, that took me out of my comfort zone. I’ve slowed down a little bit on those things because of how busy I am, but I really do miss SCUBA diving. The first place I ever SCUBA dived was in Belize.
What has been the most rewarding thing about being a United States Senator to this point?
We’ve done some big things. We have opened up oil exports, we have passed a farm bill. These are really big public policy things that affect North Dakota and our region. But my proudest moment was a story when I was able to present a Purple Heart to a Korean War veteran who was injured in Korea and served in a POW camp. He waited over 60 years for the medal, and we were able to get him that medal. We were able to do it because of the hard work of our staff and the commitment we have to veterans. If you said the moment where I felt the proudest of being a United States Senator, it was when I was able to get him his Purple Heart.
Heidi Heitkamp’s Path to the Senate
Served as an Intern for the United State Congress.
Earned a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of North Dakota.
Served as an Intern for the North Dakota State Legislature.
Earned a JD from the Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
Worked as an attorney for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Ran for North Dakota State Auditor, but was defeated.
Served as North Dakota State Tax Commissioner.
Won the North Dakota Attorney General seat in the general election.
Was re-elected to the Attorney General seat by winning 64 percent of the vote.
Ran for North Dakota Governor, but was defeated by John Hoeven, her current partner in the United States Senate.
Served as Director of the Dakota Gasification Company’s Great Plains Synfuels Plant.
Ran for United State Senate and won, defeating Republican Rick Berg.
Currently running for her second term in the Senate against current Congressman Kevin Cramer.
Look for our conversation with Congressman Kevin Cramer in September’s edition of Fargo Monthly.
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