Local governments are farm clubs for serving in North Dakota Legislature
BISMARCK - When Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford was elected to the Watford City Council in 2006, his home town was a “typical, small-town North Dakota community,” with a shrinking population. Then in 2010, when Sanford was elected mayor, the Bakken oil boom hit.
“We had to come down to Bismarck and visit with the governor, his staff and legislators to work through this challenge,” Sanford said. Among these challenges were infrastructure, education funding and sky-high housing prices.
Having experience helping lead Watford City into the oil boom greatly prepared Sanford for his current role as lieutenant governor, he said.
“It was a great background for me having 10 years as an elected official in Watford City,” Sanford said. “There was no way for me to be ready for this position without it, frankly.” From school boards to park boards, mayors to county commissioners, many of North Dakota’s current lawmakers began their political careers in local government. “
As a state legislator, I have respect for local government and I appreciate the work they do,” Rep. Alisa Mitskog, D-Wahpeton, said.
Mitskog served on the Wahpeton City Council for 12 years. She said her experience there taught her how to create consensus and build relationships with others. One aspect of state government Mitskog wasn’t prepared for, however, was the role that political parties play.
“I was not prepared for how partisan it is” at the state level, she said. Political differences at the local level “stayed outside” of city council chambers. “You may disagree, but you come to some understanding on a decision for the good of the people you serve.”
One state representative has plenty of experience serving others. Rep. Bert Anderson, R-Crosby, got his start in government as a 21-year-old member of the Crosby City Council. After 12 years on the council, he was elected mayor, a position he holds today. When his term as mayor is up in two-and-a-half years, Anderson will have served the city of Crosby for a total of 40 years.
“I jokingly tell people, ‘I must be the slowest person there because everybody else has come and gone.’ The whole council has changed and I’m still there,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the city council runs Crosby smoothly while he’s away at the Capitol. Now on his third legislative session, Anderson described his first days in state government: “To start, it’s like taking a drink of water from a firehose.”
Sen. Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston, has handled the leap to state politics well. He served eight years on the Williston Park Board and currently serves on the Williston City Commission. Bekkedahl phones into his city commission meetings while in session and stays accessible through phone and email.
“You couldn’t manage it in any other way if we didn’t have the technology to do that,” Bekkedahl said.
He’s had to give up his hobbies of golfing and hunting because of his multiple roles as a senator and city commissioner, as well as his day job as a dentist, but he said he finds the work “very rewarding.”
Another legislator who keeps busy is Rep. Jeff Magrum, R-Hazelton. In addition to his elected position, Magrum is a master plumber, rancher and campground owner/operator. Magrum is a former mayor of Hazelton and a former Emmons County commissioner, and he said his time at the city and county level inspired him to run for state representative.
“That’s one of the reasons I thought I’d try and get to the state level: working on the bottom and having the state tell you what to do,” Magrum said.
Magrum said one of the biggest differences is that city and county positions are “ongoing” through the year. “Here, we hit it hard for four months, and yes, we are involved in the interim, but it isn’t as intense as the daily management of it,” he said.
Although he misses having direct contact with constituents like he did at the city and county level, Magrum said he can effect more change as a state representative.
Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, agrees. He’s a former city council member. “I miss the closeness I had with the citizens of Jamestown and the ability to directly impact for the better their lives,” Grabinger said. “But I represent them down here and I try to do the same thing but on a much bigger level.”
And although representing citizens at the state capitol is a big stage, they all have to start somewhere.
For Rep. Jake Blum, R-Grand Forks, his start came in student government. He served as government affairs commissioner for the student body at the University of North Dakota, in which position he lobbied the legislature on behalf of UND students. Blum said the experience was “essential” to prepare him for being on the other side of the table.
“It showed me what to expect when I got here,” Blum said. “It was a very effective means of getting me prepared for this job.”
Regardless of where they began their political careers, North Dakota lawmakers say there may be a learning curve, making the jump from local to state government, but the basic objective remains: to serve others.