BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Senate's Democratic leader said Monday he won't run for his fifth term in the job, almost two weeks after Democrats took a drubbing in state legislative elections.
Sen. David O'Connell, D-Lansford, said family reasons, and not post-election recriminations, played the biggest role in his decision. His wife, Ann, has been having difficulties with internal bleeding and anemia, and needs surgery next month, he said.
"I've allowed this leadership to become 24/7 ... I think it's time to turn the reins over to a younger group," the 70-year-old O'Connell told The Associated Press on Monday. "They're looking at a different style of leadership anyway, and this would be the time for them to probably do it."
O'Connell's announcement leaves Sen. Ryan Taylor, D-Towner, as the Democrats' likely new floor leader. Taylor, 40, had announced he intended to oppose O'Connell before he said he was stepping down. A rancher and newspaper columnist, Taylor is being touted as a possible Democratic candidate for governor in 2012.
The Democrats' assistant floor leader, Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo, has already said she is not seeking re-election to her position. Grand Forks Sen. Mac Schneider, 31, is the only declared candidate among Senate Democrats to succeed Nelson, who is 73.
Republicans and Democrats in both the North Dakota House and Senate are electing their floor leaders this week to prepare for the 2011 Legislature, which begins Jan. 4. Senate Democrats are choosing their floor leader, assistant floor leader and caucus chairman at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Democrats lost nine North Dakota Senate seats and 11 House seats in this month's elections, giving Republicans two-thirds control in both chambers. Of the 10 Republican Senate incumbents who ran for re-election, six were unopposed and a seventh easily trounced a late-filing independent candidate.
O'Connell and the Republican Senate majority leader, Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, are close, and O'Connell has favored a collegial leadership style in the Senate, which he believes is the most effective method of accomplishing Democratic goals. He has resisted pressure from some Senate Democrats to become more confrontational, which was a factor in Taylor's decision to run against him.
O'Connell praised Stenehjem in an interview Monday, calling him "one heck of a friend."
"I don't always win but we've always been able to compromise," O'Connell said. "We're in each other's offices five or six times a day. We respect each other and we've gotten a lot done ... I think that's the way it's supposed to be. You can do anything you want if you don't care who gets the credit for it."
O'Connell has been the Senate Democratic minority leader since 2003. In his last two leadership elections, he has defeated Fargo Sen. Tim Mathern, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2008, and Bismarck Sen. Tracy Potter, who ran for the U.S. Senate this year. Both men lost to Republican John Hoeven, who got better than 70 percent of the vote in both elections.
O'Connell, who is a farmer, was first elected to the Legislature in 1982, winning a seat in the state House. After three terms there, O'Connell was elected to the Senate in 1988; he has served there continously since. He represents Bottineau and Renville counties and part of Ward County in north-central North Dakota.
The Senate's floor leaders normally do not serve on committees. O'Connell said he would request an assignment to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The committee now has an 8-6 Republican-Democratic split, but the number of Democratic seats is likely to shrink because of the party's Senate losses. Four Democratic Appropriations Committee incumbents — Mathern and Sens. Elroy Lindaas, D-Mayville; Larry Robinson, D-Valley City; and John Warner, D-Ryder — are returning to the Senate.
Majority Senate Republicans will decide the makeup of the Appropriations Committee, and Stenehjem said no decisions had been made about how many slots would be assigned to Democrats.