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Forty years in public office builds network of supporters for Stenehjem

GRAND FORKS -- In some ways, Wayne Stenehjem's campaign for North Dakota governor began long before he officially launched it last November in a Grand Forks coffee shop.

GRAND FORKS -- In some ways, Wayne Stenehjem's campaign for North Dakota governor began long before he officially launched it last November in a Grand Forks coffee shop.

More than two decades before Stenehjem was sworn in to his current job as the state's attorney general, he was elected to his first public office as a legislator from Grand Forks. A relative unknown then, Stenehjem is now relying on his decades of experience and name recognition to help win the most high-profile election of his career.

While Stenehjem often touts his record as the state's longest-serving attorney general, his years representing Grand Forks in the Legislature helped lay the early groundwork for his electoral success. The district is home to many University of North Dakota students who end up living across the state working as doctors, attorneys, engineers and in other professions.

"Those folks have fanned out," Stenehjem said. "It's like a feeder system for a statewide coalition of supporters."

Stenehjem's classmates and colleagues from his early days in the Legislature remembered him as a hardworking and personable student and lawmaker who was bound for big things.

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"He seemed like the kind of guy who was a serious thinker, but at the same time a normal sort of guy who you could have a beer with," said Fred Strege, a Wahpeton attorney who graduated from the UND School of Law with Stenehjem in 1977. "The way he's handled the attorney general's office is similar I think to the way he was in law school."

But that long career has also fed into a criticism from Stenehjem's opponent, Fargo businessman Doug Burgum, that North Dakota politics is too heavily influenced by "career politicians" and a "good old boys" network of insiders. The contrasts in the Republican candidates' backgrounds and styles has produced an intriguing primary battle, with Burgum pointing to his business skills as an asset to manage the state's fiscal woes and Stenehjem citing his experience in public office as a steady hand at the wheel.

"I know that his service in the Legislature has benefitted him greatly in his work as attorney general and I suspect it would be the same in being governor," said Daniel Traynor, a Devils Lake attorney and former state Republican party chairman who is supporting Stenehjem's campaign for governor. "You've got to know how the process works."


A student for office

Stenehjem's political roots began in Grand Forks, but he was born in Mohall, N.D., a town of almost 800 north of Minot. After living in Williston and Bismarck, Stenehjem came to UND in 1972 to study history and English.

At that time, Stenehjem said, most large counties in North Dakota were made up of one legislative district, including Grand Forks County, where lawmakers ran at-large. But a federal court case in the 1970s prompted the state had to switch to single-senatorial districts, helping to create District 42 as the area around the UND campus.

"A lot of us started thinking this is now a student district, where the bulk of the interest in the district is students and university-related activities," Stenehjem said.

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It made sense, then, that a student should run for the Legislature. That's where Stenehjem, who already had an interest in politics and who had family members involved in the political process, came in.

"I just realized I knew a tremendous amount of people personally," he said. "Which is one of the unique things about this district, because you really do come in contact with each other frequently."

Stenehjem thought about running for the state Senate, but at 23 years old, he was too young to do so. He was first elected to the House while he was still in law school in 1976 and opened a Grand Forks law firm soon after. Stenehjem spent four years in the House before winning election to the Senate in 1980.


'Pretty idealistic'

But even with a self-described passion for representing his district, Stenehjem acknowledges he was "green" in those early days.

"We thought we were invincible at that time," said Jack Ingstad, a former Grand Forks lawmaker. "I think when you're younger and you're put in those roles, you don't understand some of the barriers that people who have been in it for 40 years understand they face. We were pretty idealistic."

And Stenehjem certainly didn't have the name recognition that he does today. He remembered once being mistaken for an aide by someone looking for a cup of coffee early in his career.

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But Ingstad said Stenehjem was "very active" and constantly tweaking legislation and introducing new bills. Stenehjem said his first major bill that passed into law updated state statute on tenant-landlord relationships, including provisions on how landlords could handle security deposits.

Along the way, Stenehjem learned how to legislate, build coalitions and rally support for bills.

"One of the main things that you learn is that today's enemy is tomorrow's ally," he said. "So you cannot afford, on any individual bill that you might disagree on, to make an enemy."

Ray Holmberg, a Republican state senator from Grand Forks who was first elected to office the same year as Stenehjem, said colleagues respected Stenehjem and paid attention when he spoke or introduced a bill. That helped him get legislation passed while Republicans were in the minority during the late 1980s and early 1990s, he added.

Stenehjem made domestic violence prevention a focus of his legislative career -- Holmberg said the laws on the books at the time were not "very protective" -- and he eventually rose to the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But Stenehjem didn't seek attention for his accomplishments, Traynor said.

"He was accessible and available, but he wasn't somebody who was a great promoter of himself," he said.


Higher office

Stenehjem flirted with higher office with a bid for labor commissioner in 1990 -- neither he nor Ingstad ultimately received the nomination -- and was once a candidate for the North Dakota Supreme Court, according to the court's website. He was also on a 1989 list to become U.S. attorney for North Dakota under President George H.W. Bush, a post that later was given to Bismarck attorney Steve Easton, according to archives.

It wasn't until the turn of the century, 24 years after first being elected to the North Dakota House, until Stenehjem was elected to statewide office.

Citing the demands of his work and constant travel between Bismarck and Grand Forks, Stenehjem said he realized he needed to make a choice: practice law or go into public office, but not both. With the encouragement of his wife, Beth, he chose to run for attorney general in 2000 but faced a formidable opponent in Glenn Pomeroy, a former North Dakota Insurance Commissioner.

"I didn't know if I would win," he said. "I was reasonably prominent here, but not statewide."

He won the election with nearly 56 percent of the vote.


'They trust me'

Sixteen years later, Stenehjem is in the middle of a heated primary battle for the governor's office. Burgum, who grew Great Plains Software as chairman and CEO and led it through a sale to Microsoft, has drawn the ire of some Republicans for his use of the term "career politicians," but he said in an interview that label is not meant for legislators.

"One of the great things about North Dakota is that we've got people with real jobs, real businesses, real life experiences that come together every two years to form our Legislature," he said.

But Burgum has called for term limits for statewide officials, arguing that it's a way to break up "power structures."

"I think there's real value in having the rotation of people in and out of government and the private sector, private sector to government, exchanging those ideas," Burgum said. He also pointed out that Stenehjem is running in the middle of his term as attorney general, meaning he could remain in one of the state's highest offices even if he doesn't win the election, and he would be able to appoint an attorney general if he's elected as governor.

For his part, Stenehjem pointed out that he was not appointed to his current position, and he instead earned the support of the majority of North Dakota voters.

"We do, of course, have term limits, and that's exercised on a case-by-case basis," he said. "And the voters can turn anybody out any time they want to."

Delegates at the state Republican convention last month chose not to do that, and Stenehjem won the party's endorsement on the second ballot in a three-way race. Whether voters again choose him over Burgum in the June 14 primary election -- and move on to the November general election against Democrat Marvin Nelson -- remains to be seen.

"I've learned in the 40 years that I've been involved in the political process that I know a lot of them, they know me, and I think they trust me," Stenehjem said.

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