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A key figure in the 1950s move to merge the North Dakota Democratic and Non-Partisan League parties died Thursday in Bismarck.

Sebastian Fabian “Buckshot” Hoffner, 91, is remembered by colleagues as being a colorful character and important political mover-and-shaker. He died at St. Vincent’s in Bismarck of natural causes. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Born Jan. 20, 1924, on his family farm outside of Esmond, Hoffner was the oldest of 13 children. Following duty in the U.S. Army in World War II, he became active in Non-Partisan League politics.

He was an influential member of a group of young progressives who brought the two parties together in 1958, creating the modern two-party system in the state.

“The Democratic-NPL and the state of North Dakota truly lost a giant with the passing of Buckshot Hoffner. He carried the spirit of the NPL into the Dem-NPL and the entire state with his work,” North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party chairwoman Kylie Oversen said in a statement. “His enthusiasm and dedication for preserving and celebrating the past kept history alive in Bismarck and across the state. Buckshot was an early advocate for open and transparent government, of which we all are grateful for. His legacy will live on, far beyond his days.”

Lloyd Omdahl, a political scientist and former Dem-NPL lieutenant governor, said he knew Hoffner since the 1950s when he joined with the group of Democrats called the “insurgents” that pushed for the parties to merge.

“He was a very important person when it came to consolidating the NPL and the Democratic parties,” Omdahl said. “He was an interesting character, (and) he was an accommodating person.”

Hoffner was also the last chairman of the NPL Party’s Executive Committee after being elected in 1960.

Hoffner served 18 years in the Legislature including stints in the House from 1962-66, 1968-1972 and 1983-84. He served in the Senate from 1972-1980.

He served as minority leader in the House during the 1971 session and minority leader in the Senate during the 1975, 1977 and 1979 sessions.

He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 1966, state agriculture commissioner in 1980 and lost the Dem-NPL nomination for governor to George Sinner in 1984.

Hoffner was also a member of the 1971-72 North Dakota Constitutional Convention and was executive director of the North Dakota Centennial in the late 1980s.

“It’s the end of an era,” Omdahl said of his passing.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., agreed.

“It’s sad when you see these giants … move on,” said Heitkamp, who served as an intern in the state Senate in 1977 when Hoffner was minority leader.

“I witnessed just a masterful politician who stuck to his principles and knew how to make a deal,” Heitkamp said. “He was one of the people I went to when I was first coming into the party.”

One of her fondest non-political memories of Hoffner was his work with the centennial, which drew a huge crowd and for which he dressed up in 1800s attire.

Laws on the books that Hoffner played a key role in getting passed include the state’s coal severance tax, reclamation laws for mined lands, kindergarten and foundation aid funding for education as well as the state’s open meetings and records laws.

In the early 1990s, Hoffner retired from active politics. He founded and was executive director of the Missouri Valley Historical Society. Bismarck area residents also know him for his founding of the local pioneer town museum known as Buckstop Junction.

Jim Fuglie, a blogger and longtime friend of Hoffner, said he’ll be missed.

“He was colorful, articulate, honest and unwavering in his loyalty to traditional Non-Partisan League principles. Never a back-bencher, he served in leadership roles in whatever he took part in. The state has lost one of its political giants,” Fuglie said.

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(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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