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Drew Wrigley, former U.S. attorney and ND's second in command, mulls life after office

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, a lanky figure in a suit and spotted red tie, was bright-eyed on a recent Friday as he strode through the glass doors inside the University of North Dakota's Gorecki Alumni Center. He paused to chat, al...

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ND Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley shares a laugh with Steve Burian, CEO of AE2S, during Friday's dedication of the new CEC facility at UND. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, a lanky figure in a suit and spotted red tie, was bright-eyed on a recent Friday as he strode through the glass doors inside the University of North Dakota's Gorecki Alumni Center. He paused to chat, all smiles behind rimless glasses. Standing alongside a news reporter, he cracked wise: If it were the governor here, surely the press would be hanging on his every word.

After a handshake and a promise to meet a reporter later, he walked out to a small cart at the curb waiting to whisk him off to a building dedication. He climbed in, grasped the wheel and was gone, trundling across campus to make another appearance.

Wrigley will be out of a job before the end of the year, when he and Gov. Jack Dalrymple make way for the next pair to take the helm in Bismarck, and it's not clear where exactly he'll go next. According to political experts, at 51, Wrigley is still in his prime for making a run at a highly visible office-but he's also shown he's more than willing to slip in and out of the private sector.

In another world, he might have been on the cusp of actually becoming the state's ranking executive. State Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, a Democrat, praised his abilities this past week. Dalrymple said in January he'd once expected Wrigley to "slide into the governor's chair."

But Wrigley didn't, declining to run in September 2015. His announcement came just a few weeks after the disclosure of an extramarital affair-an important consideration he made, he said, while mulling a campaign. He eventually endorsed Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

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Now his future is tough to parse. He and his wife, Kathleen, live in Bismarck with their three children, where she works as a school counselor. Wrigley said they're staying in the state capital for the foreseeable future.

"I'm in the process of deciding what I'm going to do professionally going forward, and it's an exciting time, frankly," he said. "Some people have reached out to me, and I just started returning those calls somewhat recently. It might not be too much longer until I get this settled."

A long resume

Wrigley has a long resume that goes all the way back to his early youth. Before he graduated from Fargo South High School in 1984, he ran track and cross country, and he played hockey until a broken leg ended his junior season before it began. He played trumpet in the school band, and he is an Eagle Scout.

"I liked the idea that there's a path of achievement up ahead of you, setting goals and then achieving that," he said of the Boy Scouts. "And then when my brother got his Eagle, the die was cast, right? I mean, he got his Eagle Scout badge, and I thought, 'I've got to get it. I've got to get Eagle.'"

Wrigley studied economics at UND and attended law school at American University in Washington, D.C.

He laughs as he remembers a story from one of his summers home from the East Coast. He'd dropped in to visit Rodney Webb, a U.S. District Judge at the time, in the hopes of earning a summer internship.

"I had on shorts and a golf shirt, and I happened to be downtown and I thought, 'I think I'm going to go over there,'" Wrigley said. "He looked at me and he said, 'Tomorrow, why don't you have some long pants on, and we'll sit down.'"

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Wrigley got the job.

Shortly after graduating from law school in 1991-and a judicial clerkship in Delaware-he joined the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, where he worked grueling hours, often in excess of 70 hours a week. He loved it and pointed out that's where he met his wife. She had been doing victim's advocacy work, which Wrigley explained was an intensely personal career. Kathleen's brother, a police officer, had been killed in the line of duty at age 21.

He and Kathleen were married in April 1998, and they moved to Bismarck. After a brief stint elsewhere, he became the executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. He joked that he'd never been to an organized political meeting, never organized a fundraiser, but he touted his mentors and the results of the 2000 statewide elections, which saw Republican John Hoeven elected governor. He soon went to work as Hoeven's deputy chief of staff.

President George W. Bush appointed Wrigley as U.S. attorney for North Dakota in 2001 - an appointment the president anticipated filling just after Labor Day, but one that was pushed back in the chaos after 9/11.

It was an appointment that came with headlines and a lot of visibility. It also meant he handled the high-profile conviction of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who kidnapped and killed UND student Dru Sjodin in 2003. It was the state's first death penalty case in a century and the state's only federal death penalty case.

Wrigley is proud of his office's drug convictions during his tenure, which lasted until 2009. He talks about making a big dent in narcotics trafficking.

"Across my eight years as U.S. attorney, by the time we got done, methamphetamines sold in the state of North Dakota, the purity had been cut in half and the price had nearly doubled," he said.

After his time as U.S. attorney ended, Wrigley worked in the private sector for a year before he got his next call to duty. Hoeven was leaving the governor's office for the Senate. Darymple, then lieutenant governor, was getting a promotion, and Wrigley got the lieutenant job.

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Governorship

Dana Harsell, an associate professor in UND's political science and public administration department, explained the lieutenant governor's office as kind of an extension of the governor's office. Wrigley, as lieutenant governor, presides over the Senate and sits on numerous committees and boards-but often, Harsell said, the office has a hand in pushing policy.

Wrigley likes to joke that Dalrymple still considers him good company - he's not tired of Wrigley yet - and he still feels like he's making "constructive" contributions to their agenda.

"We don't have the same views, we don't have the same approaches, but I think we've proven together that we can come up with a pretty sound product," Wrigley said.

He ticks off what he feels are big successes for both of them - from significant tax cuts to moving forward on water projects. He said the administration has responded "capably and well" to emerging issues such as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

"We're working with law enforcement on this, and I think you're going to see real progress in the next 30 to 40 days on a corridor that is protecting the workers there, that they can get the work done," Wrigley said. "This is critically important, not because it's some big oil company that some would like to refer to it-this has societal good. This is the gold standard for moving an important product."

Wrigley, who serves as president of the North Dakota Senate, won praise from members on both sides of the aisle, who describe him as a man with an easygoing personality - a man who's comfortable enough in front of the Senate chamber that he can deflect a simple mistake with a quick joke.

"I think with Drew, you get someone who has a very down-to-earth personality," Schneider, the Senate minority leader, said. "When he's speaking publicly, he doesn't sound any different than when he was speaking to me at an intern lunch at the U.S. attorney's office 10 years ago."

Perhaps one of the most reported moments in Wrigley's time in office was his public announcement that he'd had the extramarital affair. Speaking in September 2015, he stressed that the woman was not a state employee and that he had no professional connections with her. Wrigley, who had been mulling a run for governor, officially declined to join the race before the end of the month.

"There are a variety of reasons that go into any determination like that about whether you're going to run-a variety of considerations," Wrigley said when pressed on the matter. "You mentioned an important one. Because anytime you're going to-if you're going to throw your hat in the ring for public office, I believe it's got to be-it's got to be something that's consistent with the needs of your family at the time, and it's got to be something that you do as a team."

Sen. Majority Leader Rich Wardner, a Republican, said he believes Wrigley would have run for governor if it weren't for the affair. He pointed out, too, that he still thinks Wrigley could make a competitive run for governor in the future.

But it's tough to tell what his future holds-even for Bismarck politicians.

"Last night, we had a bunch of senators around talking about that very thing," Wardner said. "Nobody knew."

Moving on

Wrigley offered few clues himself on where he's headed in the coming months.

"We're in Bismarck. Like I said, we just built our new house. We're excited about that," he said, pointing out his wife's new role as a school counselor. "We'll just commit to being here, and I'll find something that is interesting, challenging and in this part of the state."

Harsell said Wrigley has options. In the time between leaving his U.S. attorney post and becoming lieutenant governor, he worked as a vice president at a health care administration company. That willingness to head for the private sector might serve him well, Harsell said, because his portfolio is so big. As lieutenant governor, he's worked on the state Investment Board, the Higher Education Challenge Fund Commission and the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Authority, to name a few.

If Wrigley does have a political future, there are a few options he might be keeping in mind. Bo Wood, an associate professor in UND's political science and public administration department, said a man like Wrigley could make a good run at state attorney general or Congress.

Wrigley isn't ruling anything out.

"People ask me now, do you think you'll run for something someday?" he said. "And you know what? I may. I certainly may."

Related Topics: DREW WRIGLEYRICH WARDNER
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