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Rise in number of women from North Dakota hitting the campaign trail

In its 123 year history, North Dakota has sent one woman to U.S. Congress, Jocelyn Burdick in 1992, to serve out the remainder of her husband's term after he passed away. Her Senate tenure lasted three months.

This year, it could send two women to Congress as former Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp runs for the seat vacated by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., against Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., who left his seat in the House to run for Senate.

Former state legislator Pam Gulleson, who also served in leadership positions on former Sen. Byron Dorgan's staff, will take on Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer for the seat Berg is leaving.

"Women are seeing themselves more as leaders than they have in the past," said Renee Stromme, executive director of the North Dakota Women's Network, based in Bismarck.

"It certainly would be a change of pace," said Nicholas Bauroth, associate professor of political science at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

The issue isn't that women aren't electable in North Dakota, it's that women are less likely to run and often wait for others to ask, Stromme said.

"When women run, they're just as likely to win as a man," she said.

Choosing to run for a higher office is not a decision made lightly and is part of a political career, Bauroth said. If women aren't running for local or state offices, they're less likely to run for a national office.

In North Dakota, 22 percent of township officers are women, they make up 14.9 percent of the state Legislature and account for 6 percent of county officials, according to a study of all the races listed on the secretary of state's online registry published by Linda Johnson Wurtz in June.

Each year the number of women running for office in North Dakota increases, Stromme said. There were 315 women running for public office in all capacities in 2010, according to the Wurtz study. This year there were 463.

"It tells us that our state is moving forward in seeing women as leaders," Stromme said.

After having an all-democrat congressional delegation for 23 years, North Dakotans sent two republicans to Washington, D.C. in 2010.

North Dakota is a traditionally conservative state, but has a history of voting across party lines, Stromme said.

Because of that, the party lines don't intimidate the congressional candidates, who are both running through the Democratic-NPL Party of North Dakota.

"I think that people in North Dakota, at the end of the day, elect the person," Heitkamp said. "They make a judgment on who is the person who will best represent the state and best represent them in the United States Congress."

While women haven't been running for office, they're still taking on leadership roles throughout the state, Gulleson said.

"(North Dakota men) are used to women being full partners with them," she said. "In our farming and ranching and our small businesses across the state, women, wives, daughters, they're all full partners."

In her travels as a candidate, gender roles have not become an issue, Gulleson said.

"They know my work as a long-time state legislator, my work with (Dorgan), people from my part of the state know me as a full partner in our farm and ranch."

Heitkamp said in all of her years in politics, she doesn't think about herself as a woman candidate.

"I do know there is tremendous support from women all across the state of North Dakota who believe that maybe the perspective of a woman will be an asset to the United States Senate."

Gulleson and Heitkamp are not the only women running in statewide elections. Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, ran in the GOP primary against Cramer for the House seat.

Kirsten Baesler is running for the nonpartisan office of superintendent of schools and State Treasurer Kelly Schmidt is running to keep her office.

Ellen Chaffee is running as Sen. Ryan Taylor's, D-Towner, lieutenant governor against Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley.

It can be tougher for a woman in an executive race, like governor, than it is in a legislative role, said Heitkamp, who ran for governor against now-Sen. John Hoeven in 2000 and lost.

"Anywhere that there's a group of people making decisions there should be a women at the table," Gulleson said. "We represent 53 percent of the population; of course we should be represented in board rooms, in policy rooms, in legislatures, in Congress, at the kitchen table when it's decisions about the farm and ranch. We should be at every table where decisions are being formed."

The last day for independent candidates to file is Friday, and write-ins may file as late as Oct. 16 for congressional, statewide or judicial district races and Nov. 2 for legislative races.

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
(701) 456-1206