09-06-11-WK Rich Wardner

Rich Wardner gives his acceptance speech after being elected North Dakota Senate majority leader on Tuesday night in Bismarck. Wardner, a Republican, is from Dickinson.

WILL KINCAID/Tribune

The Senate Republican Caucus elected Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, on Tuesday night to serve as the new state Senate majority leader.

Wardner fills the leadership vacancy created by the death of Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck.

The Tuesday night caucus was, at times, emotional.

"The last time we were here electing a new leader in November, I was here nominating my friend Bob," said Sen. Karen Krebsbach, R-Minot, in nominating Wardner for the job.

He beat out three others: Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, and Sen. Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden.

Wardner said his leadership style will be one of getting others to participate with a focus on the future.

"We cannot be plodding along, taking care of little fires and not thinking about the future," he said, adding that the caucus should be focusing on legislation for the next 10 or 15 years.

Wardner, now retired, spent most of his career as a science and math teacher and a football and basketball coach before spending a few years at the Dickinson Chamber of Commerce. He has served in both the House and Senate.

His background in coaching was apparent in both his campaign and acceptance speech.

"We cannot stand on our past records. Everyone of you has to be intimately involved," he said, adding that the participation of each legislator would give a sense of confidence and ownership.

"Ninth-grade football players and legislators aren't that different. They react the same to criticism and motivation," he said afterward.

Wardner will serve as the majority leader during a special session where the Legislature will deal with redistricting, the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo and the implementation of health care reform.

Geography may have played a role in the election. Stenehjem being from Bismarck served as a counter to House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo. Wardner said being from western North Dakota may have helped him get elected, though he did have to secure the votes of those from the eastern part of the state. He needed 18 votes to win, and Assistant Majority Leader Randy Christmann,

R-Hazen, would not release the final vote totals.

Though the western part of the state may now have more influence in the Senate, Wardner said he wants to address those issues in a way that's beneficial to the whole state.

Bismarck, however, no longer has the Senate leader.

"I wouldn't say it's bad for Bismarck, but it would've been good for Bismarck to have someone," said Dever, who did not get enough votes to make it into the final round of the election. "Bismarck will still be a powerful force."

The caucus also did not give the leadership position to the Fargo-based Grindberg. He had previously expressed interest in running for the U.S. House, but said Tuesday he is not interested in that.

"When my day comes that I leave public service, it will be from the state Senate," Grindberg said.

Christmann said the election represented a shift after he and Stenehjem led the caucus together for about 10 years, which he believes is record-setting.

"It's painful to carry on with things in Bob's absence," he said.

(Reach reporter Rebecca Beitsch at 250-8255 or 223-8482 or rebecca.beitsch@bismarcktribune.com.)

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