GRAND FORKS -- The Three Amigos: gone, gone and now going.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., shocked the state Tuesday by announcing he will not seek re-election next year, preferring to concentrate on "serious challenges facing our state and nation," including a $14 trillion debt and the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
"It is more important I spend my time and energy trying to solve these problems than to be distracted by a campaign for reelection," he said in a statement released from his Capitol Hill office.
The departure after next year of Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman and a senator since 1986, would complete a makeover of the state's congressional delegation that was total, rapid and dizzying in its implications.
Just more than a year ago, longtime Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan dropped his own retirement bombshell, and he was replaced this month by former Republican Gov. John Hoeven. In November, 18-year veteran Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., was defeated by Republican Rick Berg.
The three were close personally as well as politically for more than 20 years and had often billed themselves as "The Three Amigos," or "Team North Dakota," using their combined 60 years of congressional seniority to score big for the state in the awarding of federal grants, programs and projects.
Commenting on Dorgan's surprise announcement, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said his absence in two years "will be felt not only by the people in North Dakota but those in northwest Minnesota and the Red River Valley" because of the role he could play in flood control, farm policy and other matters.
With Dorgan and Pomeroy out, conservative groups already had been running radio ads in the state targeting Conrad, drawing response ads defending the senator and his record, suggesting a long and heated 2012 Senate contest.
"That played no role," Conrad said in a telephone interview with the Herald today. "That's just the same nuisance stuff you put up with all the time.
"In fact, that almost encouraged me the other way," he said, laughing. "I thought to myself, 'Boy, if those people understood me, they'd know that's not the way to get me to leave.'
"I've got two more years to go, and as I contemplated this decision and how really serious the financial situation facing the country is, I knew I wanted to spend my time focused like a laser on getting this debt under control."
Independent analysts "said I'd be favored for re-election" if he were to seek another term, he said. "My approval ratings are still quite high. But it's hard to know in politics. Things tend to move in waves.
"I've been elected (to the Senate) five times, the last time with nearly 70 percent of the vote. ... But the defining question is, I believe, that this country is in very serious financial trouble, and how am I going to spend the next two years?
"I'd feel better about myself if I helped get this debt under control. I would love for part of my legacy to be that I was part of an effort to get our country back on track economically. I feel I've done my level best, and I've got two years to go."
He said he weighed the implications of leaving -- and the state losing his seniority -- so soon after the departures of his equally veteran colleagues. It could complicate the state's bid for federal support for such matters as flood control at Fargo and Devils Lake.
"Sure, it was a factor," he said. "We've got a tough, tough challenge" with the flood situation in the Red River Valley and in the Devils Lake Basin, but he will continue -- as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee -- to play a leading role over the next 24 months.
Obama: Conrad 'a tireless advocate'
President Barack Obama praised Conrad as "a tireless advocate for the people of North Dakota" who throughout his Senate career "has shown an unmatched dedication to putting our country on a sound fiscal path and a commitment to meeting our nation's energy challenges."
Obama said Conrad "has also been a good friend to me, and while I am saddened to see him leave the Senate, I look forward to working with him during the next two years on the important issues facing our country."
In the interview, Conrad said he had not talked with Obama but had discussed his decision with both Dorgan and Pomeroy.
"I think Earl was surprised," he said. "I don't think Byron was surprised at all. He's my best friend, you know, and I talked with him about this months ago, well before the last election.
"He quizzed me. 'Are you sure? Are you really sure this is what you want to do?' "
In his own statement, Dorgan said, "I understand Kent's desire to have another chapter in his life outside of government," but "our state and country will miss his strong voice in the national debate about fiscal policy" and other issues.
Conrad said his wife, Lucy, and the rest of his family "were unanimous" in supporting his decision not to run again.
"That was another factor," he said. "In this business, you know, there's a lot of time you're not there."
In a statement released by his office, Hoeven said he was surprised to learn of Conrad's decision.
"Senator Conrad called me this morning and we spoke about his plans for the remainder of his term," he said. "I thanked him for his service and told him I look forward to working with him over the next two years on the issues important to our state and our nation.
"Senator Conrad has served the state of North Dakota for many years, and over that time, he and I have had a good working relationship," Hoeven said
Fiscal policy, farming, floods
Conrad said the next two years "will be critical" for dealing with the country's most pressing problems, and he wants his top priorities to be getting "our country on a sound fiscal course," reducing dependence on foreign energy, crafting a new Farm Bill, advancing permanent flood control for the Red River Valley and addressing "the disaster in the Devils Lake Basin."
Speculation immediately began on likely candidates to succeed Conrad. Brian Kalk, a Republican member of the state Public Service Commission, had been considering a challenge to Conrad next year, but the Republican field is expected to grow now that the veteran senator has taken himself out of the race.
Pomeroy and former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp are among possible Democratic contenders most frequently mentioned.
"There are very strong potential candidates on our side," Conrad said, specifically mentioning Heitkamp and her brother Joel, a former state senator and now host of a Fargo-based radio program, and state Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, among others.
"All have tremendous future potential for statewide office in North Dakota," Conrad said.
He said he had no idea whether Pomeroy would be interested in a comeback bid.
"But he'd be exceptional," Conrad said.
Heidi Heitkamp, who said it was Conrad's hour and it wouldn't be appropriate for her to speculate on 2012, said the senator "served the state and the nation with courage, wisdom and relentless energy. The Senate will be a poorer place without him."
Seniority loss 'a sobering thought'
Mark Schneider, chairman of the state Democratic-NPL Party, called Conrad "a bipartisan giant, readily reaching across the aisle to do what is right for North Dakota," and party leaders in the Legislature saluted Conrad as a mentor and guiding example of public service.
"It will be a transition for our party, but our caucuses remain strong and committed to good government and the betterment of all working people," said Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor, D-Towner.
Conrad's decision "is a loss for our state and the U.S. Senate, but we have the utmost respect for his decision," added House Minority Leader Jerry Kelsh, D-Fullerton.
Few North Dakotans have had a larger impact on the state and nation, Schneider said.
"While the political implications of Senator Conrad's decision are significant, there will be time to address those issues in the coming weeks," he said. "Today, I join North Dakotans of both political parties in expressing heartfelt appreciation to Senator Conrad for his outstanding work on behalf of our country."
Jim Fuglie, a former state Democratic-NPL Party executive director, said Conrad "has put the country's interests ahead of his own," and "I'm proud of him for making this decision."
Since the day Conrad took office in 1987, "he has focused on the budget deficit," Fuglie said, and "there is no one better equipped to lead the process of solving our country's budget problems than Kent Conrad."
But Fuglie said he's "a little fearful of what all this means for North Dakota. The loss of all this seniority is a sobering thought. On the other hand, it may be that Kent is saying we're entering an era when seniority -- the ability to deliver for your home state -- isn't so important any more.
"Kent is saying the country is in deep financial trouble. And if the system has to change to solve our country's problems, he's going to lead that change by example. Good for him."
Earl Strinden, a Grand Forks Republican who served as majority leader in the state House of Representatives in the 1970s when Conrad worked with Dorgan in the state Tax Department, said he "wasn't all that surprised" by the senator's decision.
"I certainly disagreed with him many times -- major disagreements," Strinden said. "But I don't disagree with his observations about how we must get our financial house in order. If we do not, I'm fearful for the very future of our nation."
Strinden, who ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Quentin Burdick, D-N.D., in 1988, said he also could appreciate Conrad wanting to look at other opportunities.
"The opportunities are out there, very appealing opportunities," Strinden said. "I have a great respect for folks who serve in public office, but the demands of raising money and time consumed in running for election -- it becomes a full-time thing.
"He's looking at the rest of his life. He's doing what he has decided is best for himself and his family."
Best yet to come?
State Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said "the best is yet to come" from Conrad.
"Of his years in public service, Senator Kent Conrad will demonstrate his most important leadership in the next two years," Mathern said following Conrad's announcement. "He is in the middle of every controversy in the country in terms of budget balancing challenges and his attention to protecting the real needs of people worldwide.
"With this announcement, he will not be encumbered by constant fundraising tasks and the politics of another personal election. Senator Conrad is also giving due notice to the democratic process to field candidates. ... I firmly believe he will go down in history as saving our way of life from financial collapse."
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, called Conrad "a stalwart fighter" and said the caucus will miss him.
"There are a number of potential Democratic candidates who could make this race competitive while we expect to see a contentious primary battle on the Republican side," Murray said.
"North Dakotans have a long history of electing moderate Democrats to the Senate, and we believe they will have an opportunity to keep up that tradition next November."
'Work is not done'
Conrad expressed gratitude for "the extraordinary support I have received over the years from the people of North Dakota. ... It has been an honor to serve as their United States Senator for the past 24 years. Working together, we've helped build a strong foundation for North Dakota's future."
Conrad also saluted Dorgan and Pomeroy, "two of my best friends," with whom he served in Congress for 18 years.
"We worked hard to produce results for our state and our country," he said. "It is an experience I will never forget.
"Although I will not seek reelection, the work is not done. I will continue to do my level best for both North Dakota and the nation over the final two years of my term."
Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.