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Jacobs: Why Heitkamp defies Obama

GRAND FORKS -- Mike Nowatzki of Forum News Service portrays North Dakota Democrats as being puzzled about the voting record of U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D."When asked once if she voted with her heart or her constituents, Heitkamp said she res...

GRAND FORKS - Mike Nowatzki of Forum News Service portrays North Dakota Democrats as being puzzled about the voting record of U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.
“When asked once if she voted with her heart or her constituents, Heitkamp said she responded, ‘I vote with my head.’”
“But several of her recent votes have some Democrats scratching their own heads.”
There’s really no need for head scratching. Heitkamp votes her heritage, and that includes both head and heart.
Heitkamp belongs to an earlier Democratic Party, a competitive party that fielded candidates and filled state offices for nearly half a century - a party that existed before today’s emphasis on political correctness, the nanny state and environmental purity.
Heitkamp is a Democrat of another generation. You might think of her as “Your Daddy’s Democrat.”
Yesterday’s Democratic Party was a rural-based machine that emphasized economic issues. Its great pillars were the North Dakota Farmers Union and the rural electric cooperatives. Organized labor was inside the tent, though it didn’t always get what it wanted.
There was a small, vocal intellectual wing of the party. There were important pockets in the state’s largest cities - Minot, Fargo and Grand Forks, particularly - which had large numbers of working people.
American Indians were important, too, often providing the votes needed for narrow victories.
Heitkamp herself comes from the rural working class. She grew up in Mantador, N.D.; her mother was the school custodian, her father drove truck and worked construction. She herself worked as a waitress and on road crews before she became an attorney..
Yesterday’s Democratic Party built many of the engines that fueled North Dakota’s economy in the last half of the last century, including coal mines, power plants and sugar refineries. Most of these were cooperatives run by political idealists who saw government as a tool rather than a tyrant.
Yesterday’s Democratic Party included farmers who saw their work as fitting into a national policy that stressed stable supplies, stable prices and good land stewardship.
Yesterday’s Democratic Party stressed military defense and helped spread military installations across the Northern Plains.
That’s the North Dakota party. North Dakota Democrats benefitted significantly from the philosophy that John Kennedy brought to the White House. He intended to lift whole regions of the country with gigantic public works projects. Appalachia got most of the attention, but Kennedy had dreams about the Great Plains, too, and capable allies in political leaders from North Dakota and other plains states.
North Dakota Democrats also had the powerful example of the Nonpartisan League, which voted to merge with the Democrats in 1956. One of the things that Democrats inherited from the NPL was a strong emphasis on grassroots organizing. The NPL had local leaders in every precinct, and they knew every voter.
This heritage drove the Democratic Party in the state to develop a sophisticated voter identification system that sought to get every likely Democratic voter to the polls.
That is the kind of campaign that elected Heitkamp in 2012, to the surprise of just about everybody but the senator-elect herself. She knew where her voters were, and she went to them.
She also understood that many of her voters were yesterday’s Democrats.
Yesterday’s Democrats owned guns. They served in the armed forces. They worked mining coal and refining sugar beets.
So, it’s no surprise that Heitkamp voted as she did on key issues. What would you expect from someone who served for a decade on the board of Dakota Gasification Company - owned by Basin Electric Power Cooperative?
Basin was one of the Kennedy Era’s big projects on the plains. It was meant to deliver power from the Missouri River hydroelectric dams across the plains states. It soon began generating power from coal, and when the out-of-state company that built the gasification plant couldn’t make it pay, Basin bought it.
Of course, the national Democratic Party has changed. The Obama administration had made gun control and environmental protection touchstone issues for Democrats - but those are stones that Heitkamp never would want to touch. So, of course she voted against the president.
Nowatzki’s analysis found Heitkamp disagreeing with Obama 22 percent of the time so far this year.
Don’t look for that to change. And don’t scar your scalp trying to understand why.
Heitkamp represents the heritage of the state’s Democratic Party, and she hopes to rebuild a party that can have that kind of appeal again. Her voting record and her public statements appeal to that base.
That’s why Republicans are fixated on Heitkamp. Hers is a formula that worked.
*****
A couple of notes about previous columns:
First, Republicans in District 10, the state’s northeastern most corner, now have four candidates for the state Senate.
Second, I mislabeled gubernatorial candidate Rick Becker on family values issues. He opposed some of the more restrictive abortion bills in the last legislative session, though he’s moved closer to that position in recent statements. It would have been more accurate to describe his legislative record as libertarian rather than pro-life.
Finally, Ed Schafer points out that he sold his wireless start-up to Sprint and made a nice profit on his effort - the definition of success in business. Plus he notes that the class he offers in North Dakota State University’s Ag Econ program is a leadership class that should fit nicely in UND’s curriculum as well.
Schafer will become UND’s interim president early next year.
Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, which is a part of Forum News Service. You can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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