(This is the first in a three-part series on Sen. Kent Conrad’s career. Conrad retires next month from the U.S. Senate.)
Hard work and perseverance have been hallmarks for Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., throughout his career in public service. It allowed him to first rise through the ranks of state offices and then become one of the longest-serving members in the history of the United States Senate.
Conrad will retire in January, after more than 26 years in office.
“When I look back, it’s amazing how much history I’ve lived through and been a part of,” Conrad said. “I’ve given it my best. I look back at what ... is really a remarkable string of successes.”
First elected in a 1986 upset victory, Conrad is the final member of the three-man Democratic “Team North Dakota” congressional delegation to leave Congress. Sen. Byron Dorgan retired in 2010 and was replaced by Republican John Hoeven. Rep. Earl Pomeroy was defeated that year by Republican Rick Berg.
Conrad, Dorgan and Pomeroy served together from 1992 to 2010. Conrad announced on Jan. 18, 2011, he wouldn’t seek a fifth term.
“Senator Conrad will go down as one of the most effective senators to ever have represented North Dakota,” Pomeroy said. “When it came to fighting for North Dakota, he had a laser focus and was almost unstoppable.”
Dorgan has been friends with Conrad for nearly 40 years. The two met when Dorgan was state tax commissioner in the 1970s.
“I still remember the first day he came in. We went for a long walk on the sidewalk around the front of the Capitol. I invited him to work for the tax department,” Dorgan said. “We’ve worked together (almost non-stop) ever since.”
It was the first step up the political ladder for the young Conrad. He had spent his childhood living with his grandparents and an aunt and uncle in Bismarck following the death of his parents in a car accident when he was 5 years old. Conrad first graduated from the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1966. He then attended the University of Missouri and Stanford University and received a bachelor’s degree in government before earning his master’s in business administration from George Washington University.
Conrad accepted Dorgan’s offer and joined him in the tax commissioner’s office, soon becoming assistant tax commissioner. He managed Dorgan’s unsuccessful 1974 U.S. House campaign.
Conrad was defeated in his first campaign for state office, a run for state auditor in 1976. When Dorgan was elected to Congress in 1980, Conrad took over the state tax commissioner’s office. He remained there until he launched his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1986.
Despite being down more than 30 points early in his 1986 race against Republican Sen. Mark Andrews, he said he felt he could pull off an upset.
“I’d just won a race for tax commissioner in which I’d gotten close to 80 percent,” Conrad said. “I always thought I was going to win. I felt I was in tune with what the people of North Dakota were thinking. Up to that point, it was considered the biggest upset in North Dakota history.”
When announcing his campaign, Conrad made a bold but peculiar promise that raised eyebrows and drew headlines.
“If I am elected, the federal deficit, the trade deficit, and real interest rates will be brought under control or I will not seek re-election in 1992,” he said in 1986.
On election night, Conrad eked out a 2,135 vote victory over Andrews, a one-term senator who had served in the U.S. House from 1963 to 1980.
Six years later, Conrad caught people even more off-guard when he stepped onto the Senate floor in April 1992 and he announced his intent to make good on his campaign promise. He told his colleagues he would not run for re-election because efforts to rein in the federal deficit had failed.
Conrad noted the shock from his colleagues and the press in an April 1992 Washington Post story.
“I was told (that among certain Republicans) the rumor was that I had cancer or I had AIDS. I don’t even have a hangnail ...It seems almost far-fetched to people,” Conrad said.
With Conrad’s announcement Dorgan sought, and won, the 1992 Democratic primary for Conrad’s Senate seat. Conrad was well on his way out the Senate door when five months later, fate intervened.
On Sept. 8, 1992, North Dakota’s Democratic senior senator, Quentin Burdick, died after serving 32 years. Conrad agreed to run in a special election to fill the seat, following requests to do so by numerous officials, including Democratic Gov. George Sinner. In December that year, he defeated Jack Dalrymple, then a state representative, garnering more than 63 percent of the vote.
Conrad took criticism from Republicans when he decided to run.
“I didn’t want to be just another politician that made a promise I wouldn’t keep,” Conrad said. “I think people felt ... I didn’t run for re-election. So that’s why I was so strongly supported for re-election.”
It wasn’t the last time Conrad would face controversy. In 2008, Conrad was a subject of investigation for over a year by the Senate’s Select Committee on Ethics. He was one of a number of high-ranking federal officials investigated in the Countrywide Financial Corp. scandal, which involved allegations of special treatment given to officials on their loans. He was cleared by the ethics panel more than a year later.
In June 2008, it was reported that Conrad had personally spoken to the Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo for a mortgage loan for a vacation home in Delaware. Conrad had secured loans on a $1.6 million Delaware beach home and $96,000 on an eight-unit apartment in Bismarck. The two loans were completed in 2004.
Former Countrywide official Robert Feinberg had handled the Conrad loans. Mozilo had later directed staff to give Conrad a 1 percent interest rate break on the mortgage, providing savings of $10,700. Despite company policy to not provide loans for more than a four-unit apartment, Conrad was given an exception. Conrad said throughout the investigation he was unaware of being given any preferential loan terms from Countrywide.
“I was getting the prevailing rates (that) could be read in the Washington Post. The whole thing was surreal,” Conrad said.
In August 2009, Conrad was cleared by the committee on ethics.
"The Committee does believe that you should have exercised more vigilance in your dealings with Countrywide in order to avoid the appearance that you were receiving preferential treatment based on your status as a senator," the committee wrote in a letter scolding Conrad.
Conrad said the ordeal didn’t lose him any clout or respect among his colleagues.
“I think by then people knew me. Enough of them had been through these things,” Conrad said.
Dorgan said over his years in the Senate, Conrad had earned the respect of his colleagues. He said with the exception of the Countrywide investigation Conrad overall had a remarkable run in the chamber.
“The key to success in the Senate ... is to get along with colleagues and develop alliances,” Dorgan said. “Kent was exceptionally capable in those areas.”
Monday: A look at Conrad’s achievements in the Senate.