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From 'cleanup girl' to senator: Heitkamp talks of working class roots, large family

Heidi Heitkamp is pictured recently in Grand Forks.

GRAND FORKS -- There is pride in Heidi Heitkamp's eyes and voice as she talks about working construction as a teenager and tough summer jobs while a University of North Dakota student in the 1970s.

"I was the first mix cleanup girl at Bridgman's Creamery," she said proudly, as if claiming a major political victory.

"I had to scrape the walls of 50-gallon vats where they had scalded the chocolate milk," she said. "My roommate didn't want to live with me anymore because I came home smelling of stale milk.

"I always carried a pipe wrench too, for cleaning the lines, and I went on breaks with the guys. I really thought I was something."

She told the story recently while visiting with Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown at Dakota Harvest Bakery, mixing serious talk about housing, economic development and supporting Grand Forks Air Force Base with reminiscences about her time in the city when she was young.

Every few minutes, friends and strangers interrupted to offer congratulations, and Heitkamp beamed.

"There is a personality, a warmth, and a sincerity that come through with Heidi," Brown said. "I'm really looking forward to working with her.

"When I saw her shortly after the election, she looked so radiant, so relaxed. The campaign is over, she's relaxed, and now she's ready to take on the world."

'My biggest asset'

Brown is an old family friend, not through Heitkamp but through her husband, Darwin Lange, a doctor in Mandan, N.D.

"We went to medical school together," Brown said. "People would get pretty discouraged about Darwin, how it all seemed effortless for him."

He told a story about how Lange always wore a baseball cap in class, which displeased the instructor, "who would ask Darwin questions and keep asking until Darwin would take off the cap. But Darwin just kept answering the questions."

"He's just a real smart kid," Heitkamp said, smiling.

North Dakota voters didn't hear or see much of Lange during the Senate campaign. "He's very shy," she said.

Brown nodded. "You get three words out of him and he's done."

"But they're worth listening to," she said.

She and Lange have two children: daughter Alethea, 27, is in a master's degree program in the Washington, D.C., area. Son Nathan, 22, is at home, working as he thinks about returning to college.

Lange will continue the medical practice he has shared for more than 25 years with Dr. Dale Klein, his best friend in medical school.

"He's going to have to figure out his own trajectory in this," Heitkamp said of her husband. "He loves his practice. He loves his patients.

"He is my biggest asset. When I give talks about politics, I always say, 'Choose your partner wisely.' I'm not sure he has great patience for the process, but he believes in what I do. Throughout the campaign, he went to work and he helped raise my kids. You don't see him -- he's very shy -- but I wouldn't have done this without him.

"I didn't realize until I lost the race for governor how invested he was" in her political climb. "That was really hard on him.

"He was in the middle of the cancer thing then, too."

In the midst of her 2000 campaign for governor, Heitkamp announced that doctors had diagnosed breast cancer. She cut back on campaigning as she underwent treatment but stayed in the race, which she lost to John Hoeven, who moved to the Senate in 2010. As the state's new senior senator, he will welcome Heitkamp to the chamber next month.

Heitkamp's cancer is in remission.

"My health is good," she said during the Grand Forks visit. "It was really good all through the campaign."

'Family arbitrator'

Heitkamp is the middle child of seven raised by Ray and Doreen Heitkamp in little Mantador, in southeastern North Dakota.

"Our family was a tenth of the population of Mantador," said sister Thomasine Heitkamp, professor of social work at UND.

"She was the family arbitrator," she said of Heidi. "She was right in the middle, and she could move from the older kids to the younger and had a view of the family that was not only compassionate but fully engaged."

Their father was a seasonal construction worker and school janitor. Their mother was the school cook.

"When my dad would be out working in the fall or spring, mom would take over janitorial duties and we would help her," Thomasine Heitkamp said. Heidi grew up "with a genuine sense of people," she said. "She understands people. In those rural communities, that playing field is pretty level. You all have to get along, and you learn early that you can't shrug off responsibility."

And sometimes you have to compromise.

Remember all those "Heidi" signs, playing off the candidate's widely perceived warmth and personality? Even opponents conceded it -- Heidi is "likeable."

But she started life as Mary Kathryn.

"She was named for two of our father's aunts," Thomasine Heitkamp said, "but when she started first grade, there was a Mary in her class, and a Kathy."

It was Kathy who suggested Heidi as an alternative, saying it would sound nice with Heitkamp. As "the ultimate compromiser," Thomasine Heitkamp said, Mary Kathryn accepted and has been Heidi ever since.

'To be involved'

She was at UND from 1973 to 1977, and she talks about her arrival on campus still with wide-eyed wonder.

"My father didn't graduate from high school," she said. "When we came here to UND, it all seemed so big, so exotic. 'Wow, we've come all the way to UND!' There were so many thinkers here."

She fondly recalls professors who "made it come alive" and "forced me to think," she said. "I felt like people took an interest in me."

In 1976, as an intern in Washington, she worked with a congressional study group and saw herself as someone laboring for good behind the scenes. "I was going to be the person who helped people like (retiring Sen. Kent) Conrad and (former Sen. Byron) Dorgan."

Her focus changed in 1977, when she had an internship at the state Capitol in Bismarck as a bill status reporter.

"Up to then, my whole focus was national," Heitkamp said. "In school, I had studied early colonial and post-colonial U.S. history and constitutional history. But work at the Capitol really drove my interest to state government."

The state House that session was evenly divided politically, and the parties were led by "interesting characters" -- Earl Strinden of Grand Forks for the Republicans, Richard Backes of Glenburn for the Democrats.

"Watching them and that session, I knew I wanted to be in public policy," Heitkamp said. "That's why I wanted a law degree. I wanted to be involved."

Creating a path

After law school in Oregon, Heitkamp moved to Bismarck in 1981 and worked for Conrad, then tax commissioner, now the state's senior senator. His retirement opened the door for her run this year.

In 1982, Conrad had told her she should run for something. Two years later, at the 1984 state party convention in Minot, people again talked to her about running for something. When she arrived on the convention floor, someone had put up a big banner with her name writ large three times.

"The reporters came rushing to me and asking, 'What are you running for?' 'Nothing!' I said."

But she was drafted to run for state auditor. She came close but lost to the incumbent Republican. But that race "created the path" that led to her appointment as tax commissioner, she said, and, in 1992, her election as state attorney general.

Now, as U.S. senator-elect, she confers often with her old mentors.

"I've been talking with Conrad and Dorgan about what to expect, what to do," Heitkamp said. "I've talked with Byron so much, he's going to get sick of hearing from me. But it's like having two great -- and free -- consultants."

Believe and try

She has followed in their path again with her Senate committee assignments, including Agriculture and Indian Affairs. She also is likely to pursue one of her long-standing interests: reducing violence against women.

"As attorney general, I fell in love with the law enforcement community," she said. "I got to be great friends with a lot of sheriffs and police chiefs, and the greatest joy I had as attorney general was working with those guys. They aren't social workers, but they see the dynamic and they want to keep people safe."

She was giving a talk somewhere as attorney general, she said, and "a grizzled old guy came up and said, 'Listen girl, men will always beat their wives, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.' "

She bit her tongue at the "girl" remark and replied, "I can't live in a world where we don't try."

That principle will guide her approach to the Senate, hog-tied as it seems to be by strident partisanship.

"My whole attitude is that there is absolutely nothing in the human condition that says you can't get along and get things done," she said. "The first step is believing. The next is trying."

Heidi's stats:

Born: 1955

Hometown: Mantador

Residence: Mandan

Family: Husband, Darwin Lange, family practice physician. Two children: daughter, Alethea, 27, son, Nathan, 22. Mother, Doreen Heitkamp, Breckenridge, Minn. (father, Ray Heitkamp, died 1982); siblings, Dennis Heitkamp, Fullerton, Calif., computer analyst; Thomasine Heitkamp, Grand Forks, professor of social work at UND; Julie Prochnow, Wahpeton, works at a tech company; Melanie Heitkamp, Bismarck, runs a large nonprofit; Holly Heitkamp, Fargo, works for Moorhead parks and recreation; Joel Heitkamp, Fargo, radio talk show host, former state senator.

Education: B.A., UND, 1977; J.D., Lewis and Clark Law School, 1980.

Career: Attorney, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1980-81; attorney with North Dakota tax commissioner's office, 1981-86; state tax commissioner, 1986-1992; state attorney general, 1993-2001; Democratic-NPL candidate for governor, 2000; director, Dakota Gasification Co., 2001-12; U.S. senator-elect, 2012.

Source: Grand Forks Herald/Forum Communications

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