A sit-down with the senatorWASHINGTON — There are some pivotal transitions in Sen. Byron Dorgan’s life that he made happen with a mix of ambition, aggressiveness and hard work.
By: Joseph Marks, The Dickinson Press
WASHINGTON — There are some pivotal transitions in Sen. Byron Dorgan’s life that he made happen with a mix of ambition, aggressiveness and hard work.
His election to the powerful Ways and Means Committee during his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, was the result of months spent courting Majority Leader Tip O’Neill’s chief of staff Leo Diehl who, like Dorgan, was a former state tax commissioner. And his intense work campaigning for fellow Dakotan Tom Daschle’s election to Senate minority leader in 1994 brought him into the ranks of Democratic Party leadership after two years in the
There is another set of accomplishments that seem, at least in part, to have happened to Dorgan rather than being done by him. First, there was the late ‘60s phone call from then North Dakota Tax Commissioner Edwin Sjaastad to the young Dorgan, just out of graduate business school and working in the Denver aerospace industry, asking him to come work as his deputy.
“I decided to come back to this opportunity in North Dakota thinking ‘I’ll work with the Tax Commission for two or three years and get some management experience … and I’ll take that experience and leave,’” Dorgan said Thursday, two days after he announced he wouldn’t seek a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.
“I was always planning a career in business and that’s where I thought I’d end up.”
Less than a year later Dorgan found Sjaastad dead in his office — of an apparently self-inflicted bullet wound — and Gov. Bill Guy asked the 26-year-old deputy to fill his boss’s post.
“A lot of fairly significant Democrats wanted to be appointed to this key position,” Dorgan said. “It takes some courage for someone like Gov. Guy to reach out to a 26-year-old and say ‘I’m going to give you a major appointment in my administration.’ ”
Dorgan was re-elected twice as tax commissioner and, after one failed House campaign, was elected six times to North Dakota’s lone House seat before moving to the Senate in 1992. Nearly two decades later, the three-term senator describes his decision not to run for a fourth term as a matter of taking hold of events rather than letting them happen to him.
“I was preparing and planning for another campaign and about July of last year I started doing some more thinking,” Dorgan said. “Because it becomes almost a reflex. I’m here. I’m a senator. A campaign’s coming up so I better organize...If I ran for election in January, that’s committing seven years. Add that to the 30 I’ve already spent here and that’s a long time without a lot of control over your life.”
A whirlwind of politics
When asked to name his greatest accomplishments in the Senate, Dorgan quickly rattled off a list of North Dakota development projects that he’s attacked with the same vigor as the young state Tax Commissioner who sent auditing teams to Chicago and New York to squeeze tax revenue from major corporations doing business in North Dakota.
That list includes: $600 million for the Red River Valley Research Corridor, stretching between Grand Forks and Fargo; A U.S. Geological Survey study and research funding for new drilling technology that’s helped western North Dakota become the fourth-largest domestic source of recoverable oil; and a revised farms program that better protects family farmers from droughts and price fluctuations.
And a Grand Forks flood control project that steered one of the worst floods of the century along the city’s eastern edge “without even breaking a sweat.”
When asked to list the most important national legislation of his tenure he paused to reflect on the past 18 years.
“That is such a hard question,” he said, “because there have been so many big issues that have intervened, like the terrorist attacks, a couple of recessions and a financial collapse.”
As chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee during the height of the Iraq War, he held 20 hearings on the granting of Pentagon contracts, which then-Senate colleague Mark Dayton, D-Minn., credited with doing more than anything else to provide oversight of the war’s conduct.
“We were all frustrated by the lack of independent oversight and Byron showed great political courage and resolve,” Dayton said.
Dorgan has also been applauded for his 1999 fight against deregulations in the banking and financial industries.
“If his warnings had been heeded we might well have averted this economic downturn,” said fellow Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., Dorgan’s longtime friend.
The choice to leave
Dorgan’s office in the Hart Senate office building is neatly organized and he wears jeans and sweaters when Senate’s not in session. Two acrylic “abstract rodeo” paintings hang on opposite walls. There’s also a small glass case with former President Bill Clinton’s golf putter as the two often golfed together and Clinton gave him the putter as a gift.
Farther down that wall, a larger glass case is filled with mementoes, including an oversized white Bible, a gift from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R–Utah, when Dorgan’s oldest daughter Shelly died unexpectedly in 1993.
“A lot of people think this place is a verbal battleground and people don’t like each other,” Dorgan said. “Orrin’s a Republican and a very different politician than I am in many ways, but we’re close friends.”
Dorgan says he’s focusing all his energies on a few final priorities, especially a new Energy Bill and securing federal funding for Fargo flood protection.
Kevin Carvell, a North Dakota historian, said Dorgan will be only the second non-interim North Dakota senator to retire from his seat rather than losing an election or dying in office.
“It kind of reinforces this notion I have that this place is like the Hotel California,” Dorgan said. “There’s a check in but no check out. It’s very hard to get here but it’s also very hard to leave and in too many cases people stay too long…”
Of the two Democratic senators who’ve announced so far they will not run for re-election in 2010 — the other is Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd — Dorgan was the much likelier bet for re-election, according to early polls. Dorgan insists there’s no guarantee Democrats will lose the 60-seat majority that allows them to break a filibuster and pass legislation over unified Republican opposition. But he also argues he owes no debt to his party beyond serving out his term.
“There’s never a time when it’s the right time for the caucus to say ‘We encourage you to leave the Senate now.’ They always say ‘you can’t do it now,’ ” he said.
Dorgan’s written two books in the past five years, including the New York Times-bestseller “Take This Job and Ship It,” about U.S. trade imbalances and the outsourcing of American jobs. He has an offer to write two more, which he said he’s inclined to take, though he wouldn’t discuss potential book subjects. He also said he wants to spend time focusing on energy issues and would be open to a post in the Obama Administration, if offered.
“I don’t feel very old and I don’t ever think about retirement,” he said. “They say ‘retire from the Senate,’ but I don’t ever intend not to work.
“Work is what keeps me active and intellectually interesting, I think.”
— Marks is a former Grand Fork Herald reporter living in Washington, D.C.
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