Walking in a parade and working a crowd is nothing new to Heidi Heitkamp. For the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, they provide relaxing interludes during the hustle and bustle of a hotly-contested campaign drawing national attention.

Shortly before 9 a.m. on July 21 Heitkamp found herself at the McDonalds parking lot on South Broadway in Minot. The North Dakota State Fair’s parade was just minutes from kicking off. Volunteers and campaign staff were racing back and forth, placing campaign signs on a black pickup. Staffers also were scrambling to set up a sound system in the bed of the pickup.

“It’s a great way to get out there and meet a whole lot of different people,” Heitkamp said.

To this point Heitkamp had already for months been locked in a tight election battle with Republican congressman Rick Berg. Heitkamp, 56, says her decades of experience in and out of government are assets that would serve her well in Washington, D.C., to tackle the fiscal issues facing the nation.

Heitkamp took a few moments before the parade to explain that she’s “not in this for any reason other than solving problems.”

She said Congress has reached a point of near-paralysis due to partisanship by members of both parties. Heitkamp said too many elected to serve in Washington see issues through partisan lenses, getting bogged down in partisan bickering rather than address the people’s business.

“If you come up with the right ideas and you elect people willing to work across the aisle and not engage in partisanship, and if you elect people without seeing everything through “blue” shades or “red” shades, but with (a) clear vision, we can solve these problems,” Heitkamp said. “The person we send to the United States Senate needs to represent North Dakota, not a political policy.”

Heitkamp served as North Dakota Attorney General from 1993 to 2000. She served as tax commissioner from 1986 to 1992. Heitkamp also served as a lawyer for the tax commissioner’s office from 1981 to 1986. Her career began with a brief stint as a lawyer for the Environmental Protection Agency from 1980 to 1981.

Her husband, Dr. Darwin Lange, is a family practitioner. The couple live in Mandan and have two grown children, Ali and Nathan.

Her last run for office was in 2000, when she unsuccessfully ran for governor against John Hoeven. She was defeated by a 55-45 percent margin.

Despite being out of office for the past 12 years Heitkamp hasn’t been sitting idle. She’s served as the director of Dakota Gasification Company’s synfuels plant, located near Beulah, since 2001.

As staff and volunteers continue working setting up the truck before heading down the three-mile parade route, a volunteer with a petition for Smoke-Free North Dakota finds her way over to the group. The organization was collecting signatures for a proposed statewide smoking ban for the Nov. 6 general election ballot. The group’s efforts were successful: signatures were approved by the secretary of state’s office in September. The issue is listed on the ballot at Initiated Statutory Measure 4.

Heitkamp said the petition circulator brought back memories of a 2008 ballot initiative she was involved in. In 2008 she helped gathered signatures for Measure 3. The measure called for using a portion of North Dakota’s tobacco settlement dollars and create a tobacco prevention and control advisory committee. The committee’s task was to develop and fund a statewide tobacco prevention plan as well as create a tobacco prevention fund for the settlement money. Measure 3 passed that year with nearly 54 percent of the vote.

“When I was circulating petitions I would spend a lot of time at the State Fair. I’d work the whole parade route,” Heitkamp said. “I’d get like 1,000 signatures.”

Heitkamp said participating in parades is a great chance to interact with a wide variety of North Dakotans young and old. From waving to onlookers, tossing candy to children and shaking hands with and passing literature to potential voters, Heitkamp said it’s a relaxing campaign event.

“You have a few people that are just like ‘no, no,’” Heitkamp said, referencing the occasional parade-goer that doesn’t want to engage with her.

Most are pretty receptive, Heitkamp said. “You have some people who’re just so excited to see you.”

Heitkamp said there are several areas in which she differs from her opponent, one being her stance on the federal healthcare law. Heitkamp was in favor of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act prior to its passage in 2010.

She said the act is a good start, although it has its share of problems “the best strategy is to keep the good and fix the bad.” Heitkamp said she’s against repealing the act, which her opponent favors doing. Heitkamp said the healthcare mandate is one of her biggest areas of concern with the law, adding that she doesn’t believe the mandate will work.

“The irony is, is if it’s so unaffordable (healthcare) why tax it?,” Heitkamp said.

While traveling the state, Heitkamp said she discusses the law with residents frequently.

“When people ask me about the Affordable Care Act, I always bring it back to healthcare,” Heitkamp said. “Healthcare is 17 percent of our GDP, heading to 20 percent within a decade. That’s almost two times any other industrialized country.”

Heitkamp said leaders on both sides of the aisle need to sit down and flesh out the law. Heitkamp said keeping the law, and fixing it, isn’t an impossible feat if you get get into a serious discussion rather than politicize it.

“If you locked everyone in a room long enough, you’d probably have the Republicans ... admit it’s not going to be repealed. The Democrats would admit it needs a major rewrite. So what’s so difficult about this?,” Heitkamp said.

The federal deficit also is a top issue for Heitkamp. She favors the passage of a balanced budget amendment. Heitkamp said she’d only support a balanced budget amendment if it doesn’t result in negative impacts on Social Security and Medicare.

“We need to look at Medicare and Social Security systems as stand-alone systems,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp said one way to help reduce costs in Medicare is to negotiate costs with pharmaceutical companies for prescription drugs. She referred to the healthcare law as an example. Heitkamp said she had vehemently disagreed with President Barack Obama’s decision to take negotiations on prescription drug prices off the table while working to pass the law. She said it was a poor decision which left the matter of reining in healthcare costs unaddressed.

Heitkamp said Congress needs to come to an agreement on how to make sensible budget cuts. She said the across-the-board cuts that sequestration would bring following last year’s failure to reach a budget deal is a poor solution.

“I think it’s an abrogation of Congress’ responsibility,” Heitkamp said. “Let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish on this.”

Heitkamp said she’s in favor of increasing domestic energy production. She said it’s important to do so, both in fossil fuels and renewables, to provide energy independence and jobs for Americans.

“I think the best way to move oil is by pipelines,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp also favors approving the Keystone XL pipeline. The proposed 1,700-mile pipeline would stretch from the Canadian province of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Of the total pipeline capacity of 830,000 barrels of oil per day, a total of 100,000 barrels of oil per day has been promised to be dedicated to Bakken crude. The majority of the oil traveling through the pipeline would be Canadian oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has been under review for more than three years. It has drawn criticism from environmental groups over a stretch that would pass over the environmentally sensitive Ogallala Aquifer in the Nebraska Sand Hills. Obama denied the company a permit in January.

Heitkamp said Congress has a tall task ahead of it moving forward. She wants to make an impact and do her part to help chart a path to recovery.

“We have got to stop spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need ... these are going to be some tough choices,” Heitkamp said.

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