(This is the second in a three-part series on Sen. Kent Conrad’s career.)
When Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., retires from office next month, he takes a 26-year history of legislative accomplishment, negotiation and seniority with him.
During his tenure, Conrad became a trusted source on budget and fiscal matters. That trust and expertise was rewarded in 2006, when he was named chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. He said although he won’t miss the daily grind of the political process, he will miss seeing his work as a legislator bear fruit.
“I’m going to miss the chance to get things done for the state and the country. I like to get results,” Conrad said.
Retired Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Conrad’s work will be remembered among members of the Senate.
“Kent’s tenure will be long remembered for his ability to masterfully work the budget process,” Dorgan said.
Conrad was attentive to even the smallest of details of fiscal legislation, Dorgan said. Conrad had an uncanny ability to explain complex budgetary matters to both colleagues and the public, he said.
What stuck out the most, of course, were the endless stacks of charts, a Conrad staple at countless hearings and appearances on the floor of the Senate. Conrad would make fiscal presentations broken down step-by-step with a series of large charts in order to make his case.
“It’s quite an unusual way of making a case,” Dorgan said. “I know people kid him about them, but they were effective.”
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he admired Conrad’s strong bipartisan spirit during the two years in Washington, D.C., he spent alongside him.
“We were able to work together very well. I think he is someone who can work well with both sides of the aisle. We need more senators that are willing to do that,” Hoeven said.
Dorgan said Conrad had a history of pursuing solutions where others would have quit much sooner. That was the case whether it was a budget, a farm bill or North Dakota issues such as flood protection or the state’s Air Force bases, he said.
“We fought very big battles over a period of time that were consequential for the state of North Dakota,” Dorgan said. “We overcame having the air bases that were on the list of closures (from being closed).”
Conrad said keeping the Air Force bases in Minot and Grand Forks open was an important achievement. When he took office, there were 17 bases in the northern part of the country, with many on the list for closure. Today, the Minot and Grand Forks bases are among only three that remain. He said the bases not only serve important national defense needs but also help fuel the economies of the two cities.
Former Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said Conrad studied issues extensively and was well-prepared for all legislative dealings.
Pomeroy said Conrad was quick to act following the devastating 1997 Grand Forks flood, noting that plans for federal aid were being “sketched out within days while the water was still literally in the streets.” An aid package passed by Congress sent more than $1 billion to Grand Forks and the surrounding communities.
As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Conrad was one of the primary authors of the 2002 and 2008 farm bills. Conrad’s efforts in 2002 helped add more than $73.5 billion for farm bill farm programs. In the 2008 bill, Conrad’s efforts included improvements to the disaster aid program for livestock and crop losses and enhancements to domestic food assistance programs.
“Looking back on farm bill fights ... they really made a real impact. No state did better than North Dakota,” Conrad said.
He also was involved in the crafting of the 2012 Senate farm bill, which passed on a bipartisan 64-35 vote in June. The House passed its version out of committee in July, but House leadership has since refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has worked extensively with Conrad over the years, both as chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and as a member of the Budget Committee. She said Conrad left his mark on the last two farm bills as well as the current Senate bill.
“He’s certainly a fighter that sticks up for North Dakota every day,” Stabenow said. “He’s (also) not someone who is a demagogue. His style is to listen first and look for a common ground. It’s something we don’t have enough of in today’s world.”
Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple said Conrad always has had the needs of North Dakota in mind when crafting legislation.
“What I will always remember about him is his role in farm bills. He was not a farmer or rancher, but he was key in getting a couple of farm bills that were very good for the people of North Dakota,” Dalrymple said.
Budget matters were where Conrad worked tirelessly. He was a member of the Gang of Six (later to become the Gang of Eight) that crafted a debt reduction plan based largely off the Simpson-Bowles plan. The plan, written in 2011 but never enacted, was intended to slash $500 billion from the budget deficit and then cut spending and adjust tax rates to rein in debt further.
Rep.-elect Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said Conrad leaves behind a strong record to the state and country. He said Conrad’s ascension to the post of Budget Committee chairman gave him a great opportunity to address the budget deficit — though, unfortunately, that opportunity was lost due to partisan fights in Congress in the years since he took the role.
“I wish he’d have been able to be yielded more leadership (by his colleagues) in that regard,” Cramer said.
Conrad spent years actively mentoring other Democrats. He said that included the hundreds of staff who have come through his Senate office over the years.
“I’ve always been very interested in young people coming up,” Conrad said.
He said Pomeroy was one of the earlier Democrats he took time to mentor, along with Heidi Heitkamp.
Conrad hired Heitkamp in 1981 while serving as tax commissioner. Heitkamp won her first U.S. Senate term in November by defeating freshmen Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., by just over 2,900 votes. She will be escorted down the aisle of the Senate by Conrad and Dorgan in January to be sworn into office.
“It really puts a smile on my face to know that Heidi will step into the seat I held for 26 years. She’s North Dakota through and through. I hired her 30 years ago and I have nothing but the highest regard for her,” Conrad said.
Conrad said in recent years, he’s also mentored others, including former state Sen. Ryan Taylor of Towner, Grand Forks Sen. Mac Schneider and Jasper Schneider, director of USDA Rural Development in North Dakota, newly-elected Fargo state Sen. George B. Sinner and former state legislator Steven Tomac.
“I think we’ve got a good ‘bench’ in North Dakota, a good foundation,” Conrad said.
Tuesday: What Conrad plans to do in retirement.