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Bismarck Sen. Oban won't seek reelection, citing erosion of civility in politics

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Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, speaks during Senate floor debate during last week's special session of the Legislature at the state Capitol in Bismarck.

Bismarck’s only Democrat in the Legislature won’t run for reelection next year.

Sen. Erin Oban announced Thursday she won’t be seeking a third term for the District 35 Senate seat, citing the divisive nature of current politics. 

Her departure opens up one of seven seats held by Senate Democrats, who have dwindled to their smallest minority in 50 years in the Republican-supermajority Legislature.

"It's obvious that the extreme rhetoric and divisiveness of the national scene have seeped into our state," Oban said in a statement posted to her Facebook page.

"The North Dakota Senate has been a place that, for the most part, has maintained decorum and respected the rules that govern the way in which we do business," she said. "For that, I am grateful. But it was also considered the more 'serious' legislative body, the chamber with far less tolerance for distractions, nonsense, and political theater, and over the last few years, that's been changing."

Oban, 39, works as director of community engagement for the Central Regional Education Association. The former junior high math teacher was first elected in 2014, beating Republican incumbent Margaret Sitte, who had led an anti-abortion ballot measure that voters soundly rejected.

Oban won reelection in 2018 with 54% of the vote over former Republican Party chairman Gary Emineth -- touted as a major victory by the Democratic-NPL Party for that election cycle, the same one in which former U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., lost the party’s only statewide seat.

The 2018 District 35 Senate race was the most expensive of North Dakota legislative races that year. 

Oban has bristled at legislation on culture war issues, such as restrictions on transgender K-12 athletes. Last week, in some of her final comments on the Senate floor, she opposed a ban on teaching so-called critical race theory, seeing other issues such as hunger, drug abuse and suicide as being more important.

“The bill is not serious policy, it’s a red herring, and it makes a mockery of our Century Code (state laws) when we’re willing to plug stuff in there instead of having difficult conversations,” said Oban, the Senate's assistant minority leader.

One of her biggest pushes in the Legislature was a state-administered paid family leave program, which Republicans repeatedly turned down, even as a study.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, discusses a study for a state-administered paid family leave program.

Most recently, Oban served on the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee -- one of 16 coveted seats, two of which went to Democrats.  She also leads the Legislature’s interim Education Policy Committee. Democrats don’t lead standing committees, but a few are offered interim committee chairs.

Democratic-NPL Party leaders issued statements commending Oban's service.

“Erin Oban is a rockstar, there’s no other way to put it,” Party Chairman Pat Hart said. “One of the reasons I first became active in the Party was because of the motivation and energy she projects.”

Oban’s announcement comes a week after Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, said she won’t seek reelection. She said she wants to spend more time with her family and students but also cited an eroding civility in politics.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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