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Top North Dakota lawmaker Wardner to retire; Keiser also won't seek reelection

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The North Dakota Senate majority leader won’t seek another term next year, capping his 30-year career in the Legislature, and opening up a top job.

Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, announced Wednesday that he won’t run in 2022 for the Dickinson-area District 37 seat.

The retired teacher and coach said he and his family made the decision in 2018 that his reelection bid that year would be his last.

"While this is a bittersweet day for me, I'm proud of the many goals I have accomplished, and I've worked hard to help improve the quality of life in North Dakota. That's always been an important thing," Wardner said. "And I have fought, I think, tirelessly for conservative values. It isn't always that you say no to spending. It's spending wisely."

Wardner announced his decision the same day that longtime Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, also disclosed he won't seek reelection next year. Keiser has served in the Legislature almost as long as Wardner but has battled health problems in recent years.

Senate Republicans are expected to elect a new leader to succeed Wardner after the 2022 election. 

He said the next leader will need to understand respect of all lawmakers, regardless of their party or chamber, as well as delegation of authority.

"One person can't make all the decisions here," he said.

Wardner, 79, entered the Legislature in 1990, when he won a House seat. In 1998, he won a Senate seat. He was reelected in 2018 with 81% of the vote over his Democratic-NPL opponent.

In the Senate he has served on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chaired the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee.

In 2011, Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, died in a single-vehicle crash while on a fishing trip in Alaska. Senate Republicans that fall elected Wardner as the majority leader. He has served since, one of the longest leaderships in state history.

"This has not always been an easy job, but I've been honored to do it," Wardner said. "As I pass the torch, my greatest hope is we can come together as a party and as a state to focus on our shared needs and common goals, that our actions would be rooted in civility, building each other up, recognizing each other's inherent worth and disagreeing respectfully when necessary." 

When asked what he hopes his legacy will be, he paused, choking up, and told reporters: "He cared about the people of North Dakota."

In recognizing fellow lawmakers, he quipped that U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., is not only a former Senate colleague, but a former student and football player of his at Dickinson High School.

The second-term congressman in a statement said Wardner has been his mentor, colleague and friend.

"North Dakota is a better place because of his steadfast leadership. Dickinson would not be where it is today without his service. I hope he enjoys some well-deserved downtime. He has most definitely earned it,” Armstrong said.

Wardner's time as leader coincided with the longest-ever legislative session, in 2013, when lawmakers used all 80 days allowed by the state constitution to write new laws and budgets.

In 2015, Wardner helped guide the $1.1 billion “surge bill” with a focus on fast-tracked infrastructure projects in western counties impacted by the Bakken oil boom.

In 2016, legislative leaders and then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple coordinated a special session to patch a $1 billion state revenue shortfall.

In 2019, Wardner helped lead the “Operation Prairie Dog” infrastructure bill to fund projects around the state with oil tax revenue. The bill's name was inspired by the industrious, digging rodent.

He also helped write legislation establishing the planned Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library near Medora, Gov. Doug Burgum's biggest push in the 2019 Legislature.

In 2020, Senate Republicans reached their largest majority in 50 years, holding 40 of 47 seats, a number that surprised even Wardner.

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Since last year, he has helped lead decisions on how to spend billions of dollars of federal coronavirus aid, whether serving on the governor-led, six-member Emergency Commission or as leader guiding this year's regular and special legislative sessions.

Wardner also leads a panel of top lawmakers that ramped up the Legislature’s livestreaming technology last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The move initially was a two-room pilot project, but with $2.64 million of federal coronavirus aid, the panel wired up enough rooms to livestream all committee meetings and floor sessions of the Legislature.

Pollert

Pollert

Dever

Dever

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said he and Wardner have had a good working relationship that helped them plan for the 2021 Legislature amid the pandemic, and keep this fall's special session to five days.

"Out of the whole process, we became pretty good friends," said Pollert, who doesn't expect to make his own 2022 election announcement until after the holidays. 

He called Wardner "one of the most sincere people you'll ever see," and among the most well-researched.

Longtime Sen. Dick Dever, R-Bismarck, said he has most appreciated Wardner's leadership style.

"Some leaders control their people, and some empower their people, and Rich empowered us. He allowed me to make the contribution that I like to make in the Senate, and I think other members of our caucus would say the same thing," Dever said.

Wardner's legacy will be his hard work, according to Dever. 

"I don't think any other member of the Legislature in either chamber works as hard as Rich does," he said, noting Wardner's travels around the state and his style from being a teacher and coach.

The governor issued a statement offering "our deepest gratitude" to Wardner. 

"Wardner is and has been a servant leader within both chambers and also an educator and passionate coach. His dedication to improving infrastructure, especially during the Bakken boom, supporting K-12 career academies, higher education and tribal partnerships, and advocating for those working for the state will have a positive impact for generations to come," Burgum said.

Wardner said he plans to "stay active in my community." He'd like to "get back to some type of an education."

"Ladies and gentleman, I'm not going to coffee every morning, I'm not going to be sitting around doing nothing," he said. "I plan to be involved in the community and help wherever I can."

Wardner is the third senator to announce retirement next year. Sens. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, and Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said last month they won't run again in 2022, each citing an erosion of civility in the Legislature.

Keiser

Keiser

Separately on Wednesday, Keiser announced he won't seek another term next year. He was first elected in 1992.

"Words alone cannot express what a privilege it has been to serve our state and the wonderful people of District 47 from 1993 to the present," Keiser said in a statement. "I’d also like to recognize the fine work that Rep. Larry Klemin and Sen. Mike Dwyer have done for the citizens of District 47."

Keiser from 2003-19 chaired the House Industry, Business and Labor Committee, which oversaw such major legislation as a 2019 repeal of North Dakota's ban on Sunday morning retail sales. 

In 2019, he disclosed his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig's disease, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles.

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

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