Sen. Heidi Heitkamp isn’t sure what her next chapter will be, but she knows where it will unfold.
“I’m going to be back in North Dakota. Whatever I do, I’m going to be doing it from North Dakota,” Heitkamp said this week.
In an interview with The Bismarck Tribune, the Democrat reflected on her time in office that will end sooner than she hoped after her election loss to Rep. Kevin Cramer.
“It’s been a hard-fought campaign. Every day you get a chance to turn the page. This isn’t the last chapter,” Heitkamp said. “We’ll look for opportunities to do the stuff that we wanted to get done when we went to Washington, D.C. And a lot of that relates to the future of our children.”
Heitkamp, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from North Dakota, will deliver her final speech from the Senate floor at 11 a.m. Central on Tuesday. She said she plans to highlight some of her accomplishments and emphasize the need for bipartisanship.
“I think there’s a whole lot of things that could get done, if we tried to look for that middle ground,” she said.
Heitkamp points to her work to build support for lifting the 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports as a significant achievement.
“That’s the one accomplishment that’s had a dramatic effect on North Dakota’s economy,” Heitkamp said.
Last week, the U.S. was a net oil exporter for the first time in decades. Though the milestone was expected to be short-lived, lifting the ban has opened global markets for Bakken crude and U.S. crude exports are expected to continue rising.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, who co-sponsored legislation with Heitkamp to lift the ban, commended Heitkamp for her “dogged efforts” to get Democrats on board.
“It was hard for her because this was an Obama administration, an administration that was not exactly favorably inclined toward more oil production, more fossil production,” Murkowski told the Tribune. “She felt very strongly about it.”
Cramer and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also supported lifting the oil export ban. Cramer has said no single lawmaker deserves credit for passing a law. He did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Heitkamp said some of the most gratifying work she’s done is case work on behalf of North Dakotans. In six years, Heitkamp’s offices helped more than 18,000 North Dakotans with a federal agency, such as fixing issues with Social Security or veterans benefits.
“It can be the difference on whether someone sleeps at night, whether they can afford to put food on the table,” Heitkamp said. “Those are the things that I think are, for me, some of the most meaningful.”
The accomplishment Heitkamp says she believes will have a lasting impact is the first bill she introduced, creating a Commission on Native Children. The 11-member group, which includes North Dakotans, is studying strategies to address economic, social, justice, health and education disparities experienced by Native American children.
Leander “Russ” McDonald, president of United Tribes Technical College, is among the commission members. He said the main goal is to provide a report to Congress on how different systems that support Native children can work better together.
“I’m really hopeful. I’m anticipating some good work to happen,” McDonald said.
Heitkamp said she plans to continue to advocate for improving conditions for Native children.
She also plans to continue working to combat human trafficking, an issue the former state attorney general was passionate about during her term in the Senate. Heitkamp helped write and introduce legislation to hold websites, such as Backpage.com, accountable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking.
When asked whether she would consider running for office in the future, Heitkamp responded: “At this point, after you get through a campaign, the last thing you want to do is think about a next campaign ... This wasn’t about politics for me. That was a necessary step to do the work.”
Cramer defeated Heitkamp with 55 percent of votes over Heitkamp's 44 percent. Heitkamp said her loss to Cramer was in part due to demographic changes.
“There’s trends and there’s shifts. North Dakota shifted very dramatically to being much more conservative and much more Republican,” she said.
Heitkamp added that the race became nationalized and “too heavy of a lift.” The race was considered key for control of the Senate.
“If it were a local race, we would have had a much better chance,” she said.
Heitkamp, who did not call to congratulate her opponent, said she has not spoken with Cramer since the election.
“He made his victory announcement before I had a chance to call and concede. It seemed kind of anti-climactic, honestly,” Heitkamp said. “We’ll send him a letter and wish him well.”
Heitkamp said she is still taking meetings with North Dakotans and working to get more accomplished in the final weeks of her term. She hopes a Farm Bill will be approved before the end of the year. On Friday, the Senate unanimously approved Heitkamp's Savanna's Act, which aims to collect data on missing and murdered Native American women.
“As long as there’s still an opportunity to get some things done here at the end, I’m going to be working to try and get those things done," she said.
Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Heitkamp’s term in office has been “enormously consequential,” largely due to her willingness to compromise.
“In a Congress where not very many people seem to be willing to work together across the political aisle, she’s been a refreshing exception to that in a very positive way," Dorgan said.
(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)