Life of a legislator: From dawn to dusk and beyond, leaders’ hours filled with work for the people

BISMARCK -- By 7 a.m. Monday, Sen. Kelly Armstrong was already at the North Dakota Capitol Building, checking countless emails, looking through countless papers and reading through law that would overwhelm most people.

1603552+0321 legislature.jpg
Press Photo by April Baumgarten Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, works Monday in his office at the State Capitol Building in Bismarck.

BISMARCK - By 7 a.m. Monday, Sen. Kelly Armstrong was already at the North Dakota Capitol Building, checking countless emails, looking through countless papers and reading through law that would overwhelm most people.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner’s day started a little earlier, understandably. The Dickinson Republican met with chairmen of legislative committees beginning at 6 a.m.
Like most legislators, their days start early and seem to go nonstop until they leave the building - though it’s not always right at 5 p.m. After that, there are socials almost every night where legislators speak to constituents, businessmen and groups.
“You go to these socials because people from your home district are there, and they want to see you and you want to see them,” Wardner said, adding that passing on those events because you are tired is often not an option.
“We’re so busy here,” Armstrong said. “I think that is one thing that people don’t recognize here.
“One of the drastic misconceptions and misperceptions is that everyone comes here and sits around. Almost everyone in this building is working well over 40 hours a week. You have to. Otherwise, you can’t just be prepared.”
On Monday, Armstrong testified on a bill before serving as vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee to hear testimony from others. He also sits on the Energy and Natural Resources.
After finishing around noon - sparing about 15 minutes on an interview for this story - he ran amendments up to the Legislative Council two floors above him. Then, at 1 p.m., he went into the Senate Chambers to vote on several bills. An hour later, the Senate recessed so senators could head back into their committee meetings.
“If I have some easy amendments, I’ll go back up to Legislative Council before 5 o’clock and give them amendments that I am trying to get out,” Armstrong said. “This is kind of a good day to be here because it is really busy. We are running back and forth.
“If we get done by 3:30, I’ll start working on tomorrow. I’ll try to get lunch in there somewhere in between.”
Wardner’s day is similar, sitting in on committees, giving testimony and leading the Senate Republicans. He also is the chairman of the Procedural Committee and sits on the Emergency Commission for the North Dakota Statutory Committee.
His biggest responsibility is to “get the bills moving,” he said.
“You facilitate and communicate,” he said. “We want to get done.”
Monday was a good day; the Senate acted on 15 bills.
“Now there were no, as we call them, ‘wet blankets’ in there,” he said. “They were very straight-forward, simple.”
But as the Legislature nears the end of its 80-day session, the more controversial bills will come to the floor, meaning the two chambers will hear more debate.
“We might get through five bills a day,” he said.
This session, the House has offered up 475 bills for consideration. The Senate is considering 378. That doesn’t count the resolutions.
It seems like a lot, but many are meant to clarify or update the law, Armstrong said.
“A lot of bills are just technical correction and cleanup. The don’t have a lot of energy or controversial action,” he said. “Eight-hundred bills don’t make 800 new laws.”
Some bills require more work, like the surge funding bill, which Armstrong introduced. Senate Bill 2103 will send an unprecedented $1.1 billion to counties, cities and the state highway department for infrastructure improvements, particularly in the Oil Patch.
“I was honored to carry it,” said Armstrong, who is serving in his second legislative session. “I took that responsibility very, very seriously.”
While he wasn’t a sponsor on the bill, Wardner did a lot of work on it, Armstrong said.
As a partner with Reichert Armstrong Law Firm, being a lawyer helps when paging through laws, Armstrong said. He can read and understand law code, knows what questions to ask and who to speak with to get the answers he needs. He also says he is lucky to have a good memory.
He also said it is important to talk to credible sources and legislators on issues he may not be familiar with.
“Like on farming issues, I talk to (Sen.) Don Schaible, (R-Mott),” Armstrong said. “If it’s going to be a fight on a farming issue, I just turn around and ask Sen. Schaible to give me information.
“You really lean on the people you can trust that you believe know something about the subject.”
Wardner said he has assistants in his office to help him, adding he is blessed.
Armstrong added the western caucasus have organized to fight for the needs of the people in the Oil Patch, and they are more prepared than ever.
He added he is excited to be a part of that.
“This really gives me a way to be in the fight,” he said. “With everything that is going on in western North Dakota right now, they need somebody here who’s not afraid to take on the tough issues and who’s not afraid to stand up and say what they think.”
Armstrong said he thinks he fits that bill very well. He understands that not everyone will agree with his decisions, adding he doesn’t have time to think about that.
“You got elected to do a job,” he said. “I’m down here doing the best job I can.”
Armstrong said the hardest part of the job is being away from his family for days at a time.
“It’s not a party, we are working hard,” he said.
Wardner, who served in the House from 1991-97 and has sat in the Senate since 1999, said he keeps coming back because there is always work to be done. Making sure the state succeeds is what keeps him working long hours and preparing every day, he said.
“We’re concerned about North Dakota, we’re concerned about the whole state,” he said. “You don’t want to be the one making bad decisions for the state.”
One thing Armstrong hopes his constituents will do is call him with concerns on bills before he votes on them.
“The answer is get involved if you have serious issues, and get involved early,” he said. “If you have an issue with a bill, I would really like to know about it early.”
There is one other thing that constituents may not realize, Wardner said. The legislators are normal people, just like the residents they serve. He mention Sen. Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah, who is an environmental specialist for Coteau Properties Co.’s Freedom Mine.
“It’s everyday people working hard to do the work of the people,” he said. “Here is this young lady with two children. Now she is here, and she is doing very well.
“We’re not better than anybody else,” he said. “When I look out here, I feel very good. In the Senate, we have 47 people that I think are doing an outstanding job, because they are workers. I don’t have to hold their hand. They are self-motivated. They go out there and get the job done.”

Baumgarten is the news editor for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-456-1210.

1603553+0321 legislature2.jpg
Press Photo by April Baumgarten Dickinson Reps. Alan Fehr, front right, and Vicky Steiner, front second right, both Republican, look over emails and legislative documents on Monday while listening to debate in the House Chambers at the State Capitol in Bismarck.

What To Read Next
Get Local