GRAND FORKS — Serving in the state Legislature is not a smooth track to statewide or federal office in North Dakota.
In 131 years of statehood, only three former legislators have represented the state in the U.S. Senate, and all of them were appointed. Only one had a significant legislative record, Milton Young, who was appointed to the Senate in 1944 and served until 1981, having won five subsequent elections.
In the state’s modern era, beginning in 1960, Norman Brunsdale, who been a state senator, was elected governor and came out of retirement when he was appointed to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy. He served until Aug. 9, 1960, and didn’t seek election.
The third, William Purcell, had been a state senator and state's attorney in Richland County before he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1910. He sought election but was defeated.
So far, all of those named are Republicans, except Purcell, who served a single term in the state Senate.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that sitting legislators haven’t sought the office. Most recently, Jack Dalrymple ran twice for the U.S. Senate and was beaten both times. He was elected lieutenant governor and became governor when then-Gov. John Hoeven was elected to the Senate in 2010.
Hoeven never served in the Legislature. Nor did Doug Burgum, the current governor, nor Ed Schafer, Hoeven’s predecessor. Hoeven had been president of the state-owned Bank of North Dakota; Schafer was a businessman and Burgum a tech entrepreneur.
So far, all of those named are Republicans, except Purcell.
Democrats George Sinner and William Guy each served briefly in the Legislature before winning the governorship, though in Sinner’s case, there was a gap between his state House service and the governorship.
The record for legislative service among governors belongs to Art Link, who served more than 20 years in the state House of Representatives, where he was minority leader and speaker. He didn’t move directly to the governorship after his legislative service, however. Instead, he served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Some of the state’s best-known governors were never legislators, including William Langer, the most notorious of them all, and Lynn J. Frazier, the first governor in the United States recalled from office. That happened in 1921. The next year he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served until 1940, when Langer defeated him.
The only other governor elected to the Senate was John Moses. A Democrat, he was gravely ill when he was elected in 1944, and he died soon after he took the oath of office. Young was appointed to his seat.
Otherwise, state’s attorneys and even mayors have been chosen as often.
Sitting legislators have fared better in races for the U.S. House of Representative, including Kelly Armstrong, currently the state’s lone House member. Other legislators serving in the U.S. House in the modern era were Don Short, Roland Redlin and Thomas Kleppe, who represented the western part of the state while North Dakota had two congressional districts. Hjalmar Nygaard, who represented the eastern district, became the state’s only congressman when the state lost a seat after the 1960 census. Nygaard died in office in 1963. His successor, Mark Andrews, had not served in the Legislature. Earl Pomeroy, who served 18 years, and Rick Berg, who served a single term, were legislators, Berg as both majority leader and speaker. Kevin Cramer, now a U.S. senator, served six years in the U.S. House.
Cramer’s move from the House to the Senate is not unique in the state’s history. Byron Dorgan did that, too, succeeding the Burdicks, Quentin and Jocelyn, husband and wife. Neither had served in the Legislature.
Three other House members made the move to the Senate, Henry Hansbrough, the state’s first House member, Martin N. Johnson, who served a decade in the House and a few months in the Senate, and Asle J. Gronna. Not one of these had legislative experience in North Dakota, though Johnson had served in the state Senate in Iowa, and Gronna had been a member of the Legislature in Dakota Territory.
Legislative service isn’t a stepping stone to other statewide offices, either. Of 12 incumbent officeholders, only three served in the Legislature: Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, Public Service Commissioner Randy Christman and Treasurer Thomas Beadle, who won office in the 2020 election.
Statewide officeholders have a better record of moving up than legislators. Sen. Cramer, for example. He was a member of the Public Service Commission, a regulatory board.
Political party officials fare pretty well, too. Several party chairs have found their way to Washington. Rep. Armstrong is the most recent example. He was chair of the state Republican Party as well as a state senator. Andrews and Young were party activists before they won federal offices. Rep. Berg made the move in the opposite direction, becoming party chair after his House service.
All this might seem tedious, but here’s the point: This session, lawmakers are debating whether to move to annual meetings of the Legislature. North Dakota is one of only four states that meets on a biennial schedule.
Annual sessions would allow quicker response to emerging issues, like budget crises and pandemics.
They’d have another consequence, perhaps unintended. Annual sessions would keep legislators in the news, and at election time, voters would be more familiar with lawmakers who might have ambition for other offices.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.